The Tribal Uprising Against the Syrian Democratic Forces in Dayr al-Zur: Interview
While the ongoing protests in Syria’s southern province of al-Suwayda’ against the Syrian government and its policies are noteworthy, the tribal uprising in the eastern countryside of the eastern province of Dayr al-Zur against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is arguably of greater significance, as it amounts to an actual armed revolt that has posed a serious challenge to the SDF’s authority over the area- an authority that was only established because of the American-led campaign against the Islamic State. In turn the revolt raises very serious issues about U.S. policy in the region and the supposed ongoing American mission to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State.
The revolt itself comes in the wake of the SDF’s arrest of the head of the Dayr al-Zur Military Council that has worked under the SDF’s authority, but the arrest itself cannot be considered the underlying cause of the revolt. Rather, the revolt reflects a notable degree of long-standing local opposition to SDF rule over the east Dayr al-Zur countryside, driven by a variety of grievances, such as the perception that the SDF is profiting from the area’s natural resources (in particular oil) with little or no dividends for locals, complaints about arbitrary arrests by the SDF, and wider resentment of the SDF as an alien political regime dominated by Kurdish cadres linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and at odds with local political preferences, whether for the Syrian government or the original uprising against the government. With regards to support for the original uprising/revolution/rebellion, the SDF in contrast is often seen as a force that does not represent it, or even as an enemy of it.
Unfortunately, there has been relatively little major media reporting on the dynamics of this local opposition to the SDF prior to these events, the reporting of Shelly Kittleson for al-Monitor being perhaps the most notable exception. It is understandable why. Indefinite support for the SDF is a policy orthodoxy in Washington now (even among those who were originally skeptical of the SDF and were rather advocates of the anti-government insurgent factions on implausible ‘counter-terrorism’ grounds). The SDF itself generally does not grant access for free and independent journalism and research in the Dayr al-Zur area: partly out of security concerns for journalists and researchers, but also because the SDF wants to convey a positive image of being a representative multi-ethnic model for Syria, and thus wants journalists and researchers to conduct work and interview under its auspices and approval. Moreover, in so far as policy analysis has paid attention to the issue of local opposition to the SDF, it has generally been through the lens of obsessively viewing such opposition as somehow ‘malign’ behaviour engineered by the Syrian government and its allies. Such focus is simplistic and also obscures the more complex reality of local sentiment in opposition to the SDF, and one can see even how the SDF media portray the current events in similar simplistic terms while also trying to tie the unrest to the Islamic State.
The revolt in turn raises important issues about the nature of the U.S. mission in Syria. The mission is often portrayed as being a relatively light and easy security and counter-terrorism job to ensure the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State, with a sustainable status quo simply requiring U.S. troops to be kept in Syria and the costs of withdrawal far outweighing the benefits. In reality, the mission entails far more than a simple security job against the Islamic State: it also commits the U.S. to engagement with the SDF and its system of rule in northern and eastern Syria: a system entailing the hegemony of a single political faction (the Democratic Union Party, together with its military wing the People’s Protection Units/YPG) linked to the PKK. It is very understandable why the U.S. chose to work with the SDF in its counter-Islamic State mission rather than the disorganised, ineffectual and divided insurgent factions that were problematically entangled with jihadists from the outset, but the SDF also brings its own problems that cannot just be overlooked or kicked down the road by the Americans if their intention is to stay indefinitely in Syria, whether in relation to Turkey’s perception of the SDF as a threat or in relation to distrust and opposition to the SDF in areas beyond its original core in the primarily Kurdish areas of the north and northeast of the country.
There should also be serious debate about the vague mission goal of the “enduring defeat”of the Islamic State. What does this mean exactly, and how is it achieved? Does it mean ensuring the Islamic State can never reclaim control over an inch of territory in Syria and Iraq, or that the Islamic State can never reclaim any substantial territory in Syria and Iraq, or that the Islamic State cannot operate as an insurgent force in these countries anymore? If “enduring defeat” means the third goal, then this seems completely unrealistic. If it is the second goal, then it seems apparent that this goal has already been achieved. Even with the tribal revolt against the SDF, it is notable how the Islamic State has not been able to exploit the vacuum to seize control of any substantial territory. In turn we should be asking whether the threat of the Islamic State in the area has been exaggerated, perhaps being inflated by the SDF in order to ensure continuing American support.
To talk more about current events in Dayr al-Zur, I interviewed today Ibrahim Alhussien, who directs the al-Sharqiya Post network and is from Dayr al-Zur. While I may not necessarily agree with all his views, it is important to highlight the issue of local opposition to the SDF that has been around for a while and has now had a spark to bring it out into the open.
Q: This uprising broke out after the circulation of news of the arrest of Abu Khawla, the leader of the Dayr al-Zur Military Council. But does that represent the cause of the uprising, or can it be said that his arrest was only the spark and in truth the grievances were present for a long time? If there have been grievances for a long time, what are these grievances exactly?
A: The arrest of Abu Khawla was not connected with the uprising. The uprising arose after the SDF sent reinforcements to Dayr al-Zur to break apart the Arab forces that they wish to be under the hegemony of the Qandil cadres. The grievances have been present in Dayr al-Zur since the SDF took hold of the area in 2017 as they have been stealing the resources of the area while the area is marginalised. The grievances are stealing the resources of Dayr al-Zur and marginalising the people of Dayr al-Zur.
Q: In summary what is the situation on the ground currently? For example which areas are controlled by the Dayr al-Zur Military Council and the sons of the tribes? Has the SDF regained control of any localities?
A: Currently the Dayr al-Zur Military Council is out of the picture. Those fighting are the sons of the tribes, there is no banner present except that of the sons of the tribes: they are the ones fighting. The areas they have hold of stretch from Dhiban to Baghuz, at the edge of east Dayr al-Zur countryside on the Syria-Iraq borders.
Q: What is the position of the sons of east Dayr al-Zur countryside and its tribes on the SDF in general? Can it be said that most support revolutionary thought and consider the SDF a force hostile to the revolution? Are there suspicions about the SDF’s links with the PKK?
A: Of course, all those who bear revolutionary thought in Dayr al-Zur, especially in the eastern countryside, also consider the SDF as an enemy of the revolution. This is in the eyes of the people of eastern Dayr al-Zur countryside and Dayr al-Zur in general. Of course, today, all know that the SDF has a big link with the PKK. Those who run the SDF are the Qandil cadres/the PKK.
Q: Do you welcome an American role in mediating between the tribes and the SDF? Or is the American role rejected?
A: Of course, we welcome the American role: we hope that the international coalition plays a role in expelling the SDF from this area and meets with the Arab tribes for negotiations to meet the demands of the tribes and to abandon the SDF definitively in Dayr al-Zur.
Q: What is the solution for the area’s future? For example should the area become autonomous without any administrative interference from the SDF and under American protection?
A: Today the tribes’ demand is clear and frank, and all know: that Dayr al-Zur should be under the rule or administration of its sons and under the administration of the Arab component without any guardianship at all from the SDF cadres or the PKK cadres, or as we call them, the Qandil cadres.
Q: The American side fears the possibility of the Da‘esh [Islamic State] resurgence, but can it be said that the Da‘esh threat is exaggerated? Can the tribes fight and suppress this threat by themselves without the intervention or participation of the SDF in the matter?
A: SDF are the ones who convey the message to the coalition that they are fighting Da‘esh. These words are false and devoid of truth. Those present on the ground and who are fighting are the sons of Dayr al-Zur, the owners of the land, the people of Dayr al-Zur. They are the ones fighting the SDF occupation, let me call it the SDF occupation. From the outset, since 2018, there has not been Da‘esh in Dayr al-Zur. If there is Da‘esh, it is fabricated by the SDF. Today Da‘esh has no territorial control on the ground in Dayr al-Zur. The sons and tribes of Dayr al-Zur, as all know, are the first to have fought the Da‘esh organisation, and the first to have fought the Syrian regime. In 2014, Da‘esh butchered the sons of Dayr al-Zur in the sight of the world, and all know these words. Among the Sha‘itat tribe in east Dayr al-Zur countryside, in the localities of Abu Hamam, al-Koshkih and Gharanij, we lost more than 1200 martyrs killed by Da‘esh, who cut their heads off with knives. All know of this matter. But the SDF tell the international coalition they are fighting the Da‘esh organisation. We can refute this falsehood of theirs with videos and photos from the ground, with live broadcasting from the ground. Of course, the tribes today can repel Da‘esh’s attacks if Da‘esh is present at all. The tribes can protect their areas.