Fighting in Northeast Syria
- updated: September 25, 2023
On the twenty-seventh of last August, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) arrested Ahmad Al-Khabil, the leader of the Deir Al-Zour Military Council, even though the council itself is affiliated with the SDF. Despite Al-Khabil, who was not highly popular in the region, neither among tribal leaders nor among the population, he became a point of tension between the SDF and the Military Council. This was after the SDF refused to backtrack on the arrest decision despite calls from the council’s leadership, which gave them a deadline for his release. As a result, clashes erupted between the two parties. Local tribes quickly joined the battle in support of the Deir Al-Zour Military Council, highlighting the importance of tribal dynamics in the local context. In addition to this, there were internal tensions within the SDF itself, stemming from a lack of consensus on local and strategic issues, further complicating the situation and exacerbating existing crises.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused the tribes of facilitating the entry of Syrian regime forces across the Euphrates River, which separates their areas of control from the regime’s control in the province. However, the Arab tribes vehemently denied these allegations, and no evidence was presented to support this accusation. On the other hand, the political leadership of the SDF attempted to accuse Iran of being behind these clashes.
However, these clashes were not only a result of the conflict over Al-Khabil alone but also an expression of deeper protests against the SDF’s administration of the region. The tribes were addressing issues such as neglect, corruption, weak services, and disparities in the exploitation of local resources. Furthermore, the locals pointed out the lack of responsiveness of the self-administration of the SDF to their repeated calls to stop violations and discrimination in the region’s administration. They called for greater participation in governance as a solution to these explosive issues. While the arrest of Ahmad Al-Khabil was the direct cause of the outbreak of the clashes, he was not the underlying factor that ignited these events.
The Syrian regime attempted to exploit these battles, presenting them as a tribal uprising against American presence in the region. However, the reality was quite different, as the tribes did not approach American forces in the region, whether in the base within the Al-Omar oil field or in other areas. On the contrary, all statements issued by tribal leaders affirmed that they were seeking support from the coalition and the United States. Therefore, the attempts of the regime and Iran to intervene in these battles and muddy the waters in the region were unsuccessful.
The Syrian regime can also exploit the complicated situation in northeast Syria in its favor in several ways. It can present itself as a solution for stability or use the challenges to strengthen its position on both the regional and international stages. It has benefited and continues to benefit from the stability, as the regime has relationships and arrangements with the forces controlling the ground reality that contribute to advancing its interests and those of its Iranian allies.
On the other hand, the SDF accused Turkey of supporting the tribes in these battles, based on clashes near Manbij, where tribal groups of displaced persons from Deir Al-Zour in northern Aleppo attacked military points belonging to the Manbij Military Council, which is affiliated with the SDF. These clashes seemed to be an attempt to support the tribes in the Jazeera region in their battle against what they perceive as neglect and injustices by the SDF.
A week after the start of the clashes, a meeting sponsored by the United States was held at the US Embassy in Beirut, bringing together the SDF and the Arab tribes. Then, the US Embassy in Beirut issued a statement confirming that the attendees had agreed to address the grievances of the people of Deir Al-Zour, external intervention in the region, and the need to avoid casualties among civilians and to halt the escalation of violence.
The recent battles resulted in the deaths of more than 90 individuals from both sides, and there is a risk of an increase in casualties if the conflict continues. These battles also affected the humanitarian situation, as villages on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the Deir Al-Zour province witnessed a wave of displacement, in addition to the damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Furthermore, we note the absence of women’s perspectives, and that reports and analyses have not taken into account the experiences of women as displaced or victims of violence. On the other hand, women’s participation in the region is subject to the management, direction, and ideology of the SDF, and it is not as effective as portrayed by the media, but rather falls short of the required level. In the tribal context, women are absent from the decision-making level. This absence is due to traditional social systems that favor males, as well as gender discrimination in areas such as education and work, and limited access to platforms for women to express their opinions.
We in the Syrian Women’s Political Movement find that achieving a comprehensive political solution to the Syrian crisis is the fundamental step to overcome these deep-seated issues within a comprehensive national framework. Until that is achieved, the international community must exert pressure on the forces controlling the ground reality and deal seriously with solving the core problems that have exacerbated the situation in the region. Efforts should be made to manage the region in a way that enables both male and female citizens to participate more in governance, improve services, and benefit from local resources. Failing to address these issues effectively will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the region in the future. Additionally, efforts should be made to enhance women’s participation at all levels of public and private life, including decision-making processes, media, and education. Research and reports should also be directed to include the experiences and perspectives of women in parallel.
The Political Committee of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement