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Arabs in Syrian Kurdish-controlled region on edge following assassinations

Shelly Kittleson

Shelly Kittleson

Al-Monitor conducted a rare reporting trip to Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor region to discuss the situation with the chief of the part of the Arab-majority governorate under Kurdish-led SDF control in the oil-rich and insurgent-prone area.

Arab fighters of the US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take part in a training exercise near the Omar oil field in the eastern Syrian Deir ez-Zor province on Feb. 17, 2019.  Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

ABU KHASHAB, Syria — As assassinations of local officials continued in parts of Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor under the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the civil council chief of the Arab-majority governorate called for greater unity among the Arab population and urged that imbalances between the region and its mixed and Kurdish counterparts further north be addressed.

On Dec. 22, one local official was killed by a bomb in his car; another was shot and killed in his home in the governorate less than a week later on Dec. 28. Both major and minor tribal figures have also been targeted.

In an extended interview on Dec. 16 with Al-Monitor in Abu Khashab, a town in eastern Deir ez-Zor administratively part of the Al-Kasrah district, Deir ez-Zor civil council chief Ghassan al-Youssef stressed that “we have seen a large number of local officials killed in Deir ez-Zor in recent months.”

A local official in Al-Tayyana, “a lawyer by profession,” Youssef said, had been killed three months before. Khaled Khalif al-Hamadi, head of the oil authority of the civil council, was assassinated by men who opened fire on his car in late October.

Abu Khashab is along a dusty desert road south of Hasakah and north of the governorate’s major oil and gas fields. Deir ez-Zor, unlike Hasakah and other areas with a mixed Kurdish and Arab population further north, is almost entirely Arab and characterized by tribe-based networks.

When asked by Al-Monitor at a petrol station for directions to “Dr. Ghassan’s place,” a young man with a traditional turban and loose flowing attire on one of the ubiquitous motorbikes in the area tensed up and became suspicious.

After some details were given and he was reassured that Al-Monitor was not a threat, he said he was one of several men tasked with watching out for the civil council chief’s security. There is, he claimed, a constant threat to his life.

This journalist had previously interviewed Youssef twice: in November 2019 and February 2020 in Erbil, Iraq. In those interviews, he had noted that Arabs continued to be sidelined by the Kurdish-led SDF and refused any real participation in decision-making processes.

“I have worked alongside the SDF for three years, since the liberation of Deir ez-Zor started in Abu Khashab,” Youssef told Al-Monitor during the December 2020 interview. “The agreement from the very beginning was that we are partners in battle and also in politics.”

Alongside “our allies, the coalition and the men from this area, the battle was started together and continued through the Baghouz operation and the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in March 2019,” he added.

“My nephew was killed during the Baghouz operation,” he noted.

Youssef said he is attempting to act as a bridge between the SDF, the international coalition and local Arab inhabitants. He noted that there were, however, some in the SDF “that know nothing about the area” of Deir ez-Zor, and that this is a problem.”

Protests have been held repeatedly by inhabitants for over a year in the governorate — some for better services but many against the SDF. A lack of independent access to the area has long distorted the information reaching beyond the governorate’s borders.

Local inhabitants of areas south of Abu Khashab asked Youssef in the presence of Al-Monitor for help in securing the release of some arrested in recent days and “disappeared” by the SDF, allegedly for organizing protests.

Youssef said this sort of request was common and that he tried to do what he could to secure the release of Deiri Arabs who had done nothing wrong. He stressed, however, that Arabs in the area needed to work together in a more unified manner.

SDF-controlled eastern Deir ez-Zor, he said, “is roughly one and a half times the size of Lebanon, measuring about 16,000 square kilometers” compared with Lebanon’s just over 10,000 square kilometers.

And yet it is often seen only as the place where IS made its last territorial stand in the country and a hotbed for jihadists, or as simply a place to exploit due to its relative wealth of oil and gas resources, which he said local inhabitants are not benefiting from.

“There are over 1.6 million inhabitants between the Jazira and the Baghouz,” east of the parts of the region under the Syrian government and its Russian and Iran-linked militia allies, he said, as well as thousands of internally displaced people from parts of the governorate under the control of Damascus who cannot go back out of fear of arrest and persecution.

Youssef claimed that security is relatively good in the governorate, with the exception of the area “in the middle” of it “from Khsham and near the Conoco gas field where there is an American base, to Dhiban and Al-Tayyana. Most of the attacks and assassinations occur in that area.”

“There is a gap in security there and we have raised this issue repeatedly with the SDF,” but there are still serious problems, he said.

Deir ez-Zor military council commander Ahmad Abu Khawla, who arrived during the interview for a meeting with both Youssef and other Deiri military and civil officials, told Al-Monitor that Arab fighters in the region’s military council had had “direct relations with the international coalition since around the end of 2015.” He noted that the military council has 15,000 men in its ranks from the Deir ez-Zor governorate and neighboring, Arab-majority al-Shaddadi in southern Hasakah governorate.

He denied there had ever been a female co-chair of the Deir ez-Zor military council, despite a report published by the DC-based Wilson Center in September 2020 making this claim. The woman interviewed, he said, had been a spokesperson in previous years and now works in the Defense Ministry.

As youths scrambled to find heating fuel to warm the room and noted that even local dignitaries suffered from a lack of essential supplies, the men huddled on thin mattresses along the walls, a few weapons near the door to be ready in case of an attack, as they discussed how to bring about some sort of Arab unity in the governorate.

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