The conflict that kicked off in mid-2019 between international and regional powers to win over the tribes of northeastern Syria intensified in recent days after the assassination of a senior figure in the Al-Uqaydat tribe, one of the largest in the Deir Ezzour province.
A look at the past
Backed by the US-led international coalition, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated the town of Baghouz, in Deir Ezzour, from ISIS in March 2019. Weeks later, protests erupted in the region east of the Euphrates, demanding an improvement in services and a halt to the “export” of oil to regions held by the Damascus regime. The SDF controls about 185 square kilometers, or nearly a third of Syria, 90 percent of the country’s oilfields, half of its gas fields, its three largest dams and most agricultural territories.
The majority of influential players in Syria have tried to win these tribes over to their side. These efforts have led to the tribes striking alliances with various forces: One alliance was struck with the SDF, another with Ankara and the third with Damascus. Tehran, meanwhile, attempted to offer “attractive packages” to Syrian youths to recruit them to its militias.
The Arab Council in Al Jazeera and Al Furat, which was formed in 2017, supported the Deir Ezzour protests that erupted against SDF. Ankara, meanwhile, supported the establishment of the Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans in December 2018. These clans and tribes voiced their support for the Turkish operations against the SDF.
On the other end, figures close to Damascus, including Hussam Qaterji, sponsored a conference for the Deir Ezzour tribes. The event was held in the Aleppo countryside and vowed to provide 5,000 fighters at a time when Iran was present militarily in Deir Ezzour. The al-Baqir brigade announced the formation of “resistance tribal units” aimed at expelling foreign forces from Syria.
A number of major and minor developments had taken place in recent months, which shifted attention to northeastern Syria. The first was US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he will keep a number of American forces in the region east of the Euphrates River after he had initially announced that he was pulling out the troops from the country. The second was the continuation of Israeli raids against “Iranian positions” in the Deir Ezzour and Albukamal regions. The third was Russia testing just how committed Washington was to maintaining its forces by its repeated attempts to reach the Iraqi border.
On the internal scene, and after months of secret American and French-sponsored negotiations, the two most prominent Kurdish parties in northeastern Syria succeeded in reaching preliminary agreements that guarantee the commitment to the Hewler (Erbil) pact. Deep differences between the Kurdish National Council and Democratic Union alliance had thwarted the implementation of the pact.
Another development was the declaration by Syria's Tomorrow Movement, headed by Ahmed al-Jarba, of the formation of the new Peace and Freedom Front. The front includes the Arab Council in Al Jazeera and Al Furat, Assyrian Democratic Organization and Kurdish National Council. Leaders of the front said it includes Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian forces on the ground in order to underscore the ties and cooperation between them. They acknowledged the role of the SDF, but said that it alone cannot rule the region.
A delegation from the Peace and Freedom Front recently met with American officials in the region east of the Euphrates. One of its leaders told Asharq Al-Awsat that the delegation received positive responses from the US, which was keen on establishing a partnership that the Syrian people deserve.
Commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, had on his end held a number of meetings with tribal leaders from Deir Ezzour to listen to their demands.
Another significant development was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Lindsey Graham’s announcement of a partnership deal between the US Delta Crescent Energy company and SDF to invest in oil in the region east of the Euphrates with the possibility of exporting it. Observers interpreted the move as American recognition of the Kurdish autonomous administration, significantly since the agreement, which deals with national Syrian resources, does not involve Damascus.
Amid all of these developments, Sheikh Muttshar al-Hifl, a senior Al-Uqaydat tribe member, was assassinated in Deir Ezzour in early August.
The autonomous administration and SDF did not comment on the oil deal, but Ankara, Damascus, Tehran and Moscow were quick to denounce it as a “violation of Syria’s sovereignty” and “theft” of its resources. The deal and Hifl’s assassination have added fuel to the raging conflict between local, regional and international forces over the Deir Ezzour tribes.
The SDF denied its involvement in the murder and instead implied that the regime was involved. It has arrested a number of suspects and investigations are ongoing with them, said a Kurdish official. “The tribes are politically disorganized and the region was liberated from ISIS only a year ago,” he added. “We are tasked with providing security to hold elections and help the tribes organize themselves.”
Meanwhile, the “Al-Uqaydat Zubaid” tribe announced on Monday the formation of a military council aimed at “liberating the region.” It hailed the “heroics of the Syrian Arab Army” and saluted “the friends of Syria and their support of the war against terrorism led by president Bashar Assad.” Another group, called the “Al-Uqaydat tribe” issued a statement “thanking the Turkish command, government and army for what it has offered to the Syrian people.” It thanked them for meeting a series of demands, including having the US cease its support to the SDF, handing over the region to its people and rejecting demographic change.
The Arab Council in Al Jazeera and Al Furat was quick to condemn Hifl’s assassination. But the most significant reaction to the murder came from Ibrahim al-Hifl, Sheikh of the Al-Uqaydat Zubaid tribe, who was wounded in the attack. In a statement on Tuesday, he held the international coalition “fully” responsible for the developments in the region, demanding that it turn it over to the people and that the Arabs play their role “in full” in the area. He gave the coalition a month to meet the demands and hand over the perpetrators.