On Sept. 8, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were able to enter the villages and towns of Deir ez-Zor's eastern countryside, stretching from al-Tayyanah to al-Baghouz, regaining control of all of the areas that had witnessed an uprising against their forces beginning on Aug. 27. The entry of the SDF came following negotiations with tribal elders, talks that began after the SDF took control of the town of Dhiban, the stronghold of the sheikh of the Akidat tribe, Ibrahim al-Hafel, on Sept. 7.
What sparked the fighting?
The clashes were triggered by the SDF’s arrest of Ahmed al-Khubayl (“Abu Khawla”), commander of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DZMC), along with several Council leaders in Hasakah.
Over the past few months, Abu Khawla had been reluctant to visit Hasakah, especially after his last insurgency and the military confrontations that took place in Deir ez-Zor between the DZMC and the SDF. Instead, he had chosen to remain in Deir ez-Zor, protected by his military forces and his tribal support base.
At the end of August, however, Abu Khawla received an invitation for a meeting in Hasakah to resolve the continuing issues between the DZMC and the SDF. At first, he did not respond, fearing that it could be a plot to arrest him. But, after contacting U.S. forces in al-Omar military base, he obtained guarantees and assurances from the U.S. that he would not be arrested, and therefore agreed to attend the meeting.
On Aug. 27, Abu Khawla headed to Hasakah with his entourage and leaders from the DZMC. Upon their arrival, Abu Khawla was separated from the other Council leaders and his military escort. He was transported to the Istirahat al-Wazir base in the region of al-Humma in Hasakah, near the West Dam, where he was arrested and detained.
In parallel with Abu Khawla’s arrest, in al-Nashwa neighborhood in Hasakah, SDF military forces besieged the remainder of the DZMC delegation and the armed escort accompanying them. The delegation included Jalal al-Khubayl, Abu Khawla’s brother, as well as the Council leaders in charge of the Hajin axis, Abu Jabr al-Shayti and Abu Hareth al-Shayti. SDF forces arrested them after an hours-long siege of the neighborhood. Jalal al-Khubayl nevertheless managed to send a distress call, urging the Arab tribes of Deir ez-Zor and the DZMC to expel the SDF from the region and rise up against them until the Council leaders were released.
The SDF’s operation was well thought out and did not limit itself to targeting the commander of the DZMC and his delegation. As the operation at Istirahat al-Wazir took place, SDF leadership stationed at al-Omar military base summoned Khalil al-Wahsh, deputy commander of the DZMC, to the base, where he was arrested and detained. In so doing, the SDF had now arrested and detained most senior leaders of the Council.
The SDF had tried to gain a military advantage in Deir ez-Zor to pre-empt any possible insurgency in the region following the arrest of the DZMC leaders. It launched a “Security Enhancement Operation” in Deir ez-Zor and said in an official statement that “the operation targets ISIS cells and seeks to pursue criminal elements, enforce the law, and track down smugglers.” The SDF had thus already established a strong military presence in the region in anticipation of the eruption and aggravation of a potential insurgency.
Military confrontation and turning point
As news of the arrest of Abu Khawla and other Council leaders reached Deir ez-Zor, DZMC and tribal fighters began to strike SDF posts and checkpoints in the region. Most of the clashes took place in Deir ez-Zor’s northern countryside, in addition to sporadic attacks in the governorate’s eastern and western countryside.
On the first day of the clashes (Aug. 27), DZMC and tribal fighters took control of Deir ez-Zor’s northern countryside, from al-Busayrah to al-Suwar, after the SDF evacuated its small military posts there. These advances were no surprise, given that the area is the main stronghold of Abu Khawla, the DZMC, and the Bakir tribe.
Also on Aug. 27, after expelling SDF forces, DZMC and tribal fighters took control of the villages of al-Jia’a and al-Muayshiyah, in addition to a town in Deir ez-Zor’s western countryside. At the same time, SDF military forces from Raqqa began arriving in Deir ez-Zor’s western countryside and besieging DZMC command posts in al-Kubar, al-Kasrah, and Hawayej Boumasaa. On the first day of fighting nearly 10 DZMC and tribal forces and 10 SDF fighters were killed and approximately 20 DZMC and tribal forces were wounded, along with several SDF fighters.
On the second day (Aug. 28), SDF reinforcements from Raqqa and Hasakah began reaching Deir ez-Zor. They took control of the entire western countryside and from there began to advance toward the governorate’s northern countryside. Reinforcements from Hasakah also took part in the fighting in al-Suwar and in the vicinity of al-Busayrah in northern Deir ez-Zor, while SDF forces controlled parts of al-Rubaydah, Abu Khawla’s hometown, occupied his house, and set up checkpoints in the town. Meanwhile, clashes continued in al-Uzbah, Muaizileh, al-Suwar, al-Rubaydah, and al-Sabha.
Still on the second day of fighting, in Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside, DZMC fighters attacked the al-Sannour checkpoint in the region of the Shaytat clan, and following the attack several SDF members surrendered. At that time, Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside was the least involved in the insurgency.
On the third day (Aug. 29), clashes continued in Deir ez-Zor’s northern countryside and the SDF failed to make any significant progress. Abu Khawla’s Bakir clan issued a statement, in which it also spoke on behalf of the Akidat tribal confederation, giving the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) a 12-hour ultimatum to release the DZMC leaders and allow them to return to the region. It also called upon the international coalition to intervene to resolve the issue, threatening to declare a general mobilization against the SDF if these demands were not met.
In the city of al-Shuhayl, inhabited by the Boujamel tribe, several tribal fighters issued a statement declaring their support for the DZMC and the Bakir tribesmen. The statement also gave a 24-hour ultimatum to release the detainees. The fighters threatened to join the military operations against the SDF and to target any military vehicle passing through the town connecting Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside to its northern and western countryside if their demand was not met.
As for the Baggara tribe, it called for a meeting to discuss the ongoing events, which was attended by the head of the tribe, Sheikh Hajem al-Bashir, as well as several activists and prominent tribal figures. A statement was issued at the end of the meeting calling for a ceasefire and for negotiations with the international coalition and the SDF to resolve the crisis. However, the statement was rejected by some of the tribesmen, especially those affiliated with the DZMC, who demanded that the tribe take a firm stance and join the fight against the SDF.
On the fourth day (Aug. 30), the clashes between the two sides escalated and reached new areas, including al-Bahra, al-Tayyanah, and Dhiban. The fighting also continued in Deir ez-Zor’s northern countryside, with the SDF still trying to take control of al-Hariji, al-Uzbah, and al-Rubaydah, as well as the villages along the Khabour River. The death toll doubled on both sides, and several civilians were killed due to the clashes and mutual shelling.
On the fifth day (Aug. 31), events took a completely different course as all the Arab tribes of Deir ez-Zor stood united under one banner. On the evening of Aug. 30, Sheikh Hafel of the Akidat issued a statement declaring that the tribe stood united against the SDF and calling upon the international coalition to intervene to ensure Arab tribes’ demands were met. Similarly, on the morning of Aug. 31, Sheikh Bashir of the Baggara tribe issued a statement endorsing the Akidat’s demands and announcing his full support of its efforts.
In military terms, DZMC and tribal fighters took control of most villages in Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside and large areas of the governorate’s northern countryside, with the exception of al-Busayrah mountain and some of the SDF’s main checkpoints. There were more than 75 casualties on both sides, including several civilians.
Some photos and videos have circulated showing adults and children who, according to activists from the area, were executed by the SDF and whose bodies were burned in the village of al-Uzbah, which fell under SDF control four days after the fighting began.
On Sept. 1, after bringing in a large number of reinforcements, the SDF was able to seize the town of al-Sabha. It then began a battle for al-Busayrah, the largest city in the Deir ez-Zor countryside; on Sept. 3, it was able to enter the city and take control.
On the 10th day of fighting, Sept. 5, the SDF was able to occupy the town of al-Shuhayl, followed the next day by al-Hawaij, adjacent to the town of Dhiban.
On Sept. 6, after its forces entered the western outskirts of al-Tayyanah, the SDF began to besiege Dhiban, shifting operations to the east to cut the town off from the rest of the areas under the control of tribal fighters. The battle for Dhiban was considered the most violent during the recent rebellion, as tribal fighters were able to destroy a number of SDF military vehicles and kill many of its forces before they entered the town.
On Sept. 7, the SDF gained control of Dhiban, bringing an end to the fighting, and its forces entered the remaining areas under tribal control after negotiations with local notables. Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the disappearance of Sheikh Hafel of the Akidat tribe. Some reports suggest that he entered areas west of the Euphrates River, which are controlled by the Syrian government, while others claim that he is still hiding in the eastern Euphrates areas. This was mentioned by Sheikh Hafel himself in an audio recording that circulated after the fall of Dhiban, confirming his presence in the eastern Euphrates and emphasizing that the battles continued.
As the events continued to unfold rapidly, the clans shifted their positions. In the first few days after the incident, the Bakir clan took a clear stance, opting for direct confrontation with the SDF in support of the DZMC. Meanwhile, the positions of the Baggara tribe and the Boujamel, Shaytat, and Qaraan clans were more ambiguous; unlike the Bakir clan, they did not fully support the insurgency.
The Bakir clan’s direct involvement in the conflict and in spearheading the insurgency is due to many factors, not least of which is the fact that Abu Khawla is a member of the Bakir and was appointed its emir over a year ago by the clan’s notables in Deir ez-Zor.
An additional factor is that the DZMC and its senior leaders are primarily stationed in the areas inhabited by the Bakir clan, not to mention the economic and political privileges that the clan enjoys, as many of its members are high-ranking officials in the Council.
The tribal position took a significant turn on Aug. 29, when the clans intensified their meetings to agree on a response to the events. That same day the residents of the town of al-Shuhayl, which is inhabited by the Boujamel clan, issued a statement declaring that they would join the fight alongside the DZMC and the Bakir clan. Activists and fighters from the Shaytat clan and the Baggara tribe also renewed their call to support the Council and the Bakir clan.
At the beginning of September, the tribal position became clear, with most of the clans of the Akidat tribe joining the conflict either through military participation or as a form of political solidarity. The Baggara tribe adopted a supportive stance toward the demands of the Akidat tribe, but did not engage in military operations. Instead, through its leader, Sheikh Bashir, it tried to play the role of mediator between the Akidat and the SDF, to reach an understanding and end the conflict.
Support for Abu Khawla is not the primary motivation for tribes to join the insurgency. Many tribes and clans disagree with him due to his corruption and crimes committed against civilians from those tribes. Rather, the tribes’ willingness to join the insurgency stems from their belief that the objective of the AANES is to eliminate the DZMC, which has for years protected the region and its tribes from being subdued by the Kurdish forces behind the SDF.
For many years, Deir ez-Zor’s tribes and clans believed that relative autonomy in the governorate was advantageous, in contrast with the situation in Hasakah and Raqqa. They see the SDF’s current activity as a first step in a scheme to eliminate this relative autonomy and to subdue and dominate the region, as the SDF has done in other areas that it controls in northeastern Syria. The second step of this scheme would be to try to dissolve the DZMC and strip its leaders of control.
Al-Khubayl accused of treason
In its statement announcing the “Security Enhancement Operation,” the SDF stressed that it intends to target ISIS cells in Deir ez-Zor, enforce the law, and fight corruption. It made no mention, however, of dissolving the DZMC or suspending its operations, nor did it allude to the involvement of Council leaders, primarily Abu Khawla, in such activities.
During his term as commander of the DZMC, from its establishment until his recent arrest, Abu Khawla exercised absolute power in the region. He is accused of financial embezzlement, murder and torture of civilians, and smuggling wheat, oil, and drugs between areas east of the Euphrates and regime-held areas.
However, the SDF’s arrest of Abu Khawla was not due to these accusations, as he had been engaged in those activities for many years. According to sources in the DZMC and al-Omar military base, the “SDF made the arrest according to directives it received from the international coalition due to evidence pointing to communication channels between al-Khubayl and the Iranian militias present to the west of the Euphrates, in addition to his direct involvement in the smuggling of drugs between areas controlled by the Military Council and regime-held areas.”
“Through their communication and coordination with Iranian militias, al-Khubayl and other Military Council leaders helped groups of fighters and cells affiliated with Iran stationed in SDF-controlled areas move between the two regions. […] These groups were instructed to prepare for carrying out operations targeting U.S. forces at al-Omar base and the Conoco gas plant base in Deir ez-Zor’s eastern countryside,” the source added.
To substantiate these claims, the source said that “several media reports stated that the reinforcements that arrived in Deir ez-Zor in the last few months were in preparation for attacks targeting the positions of Iranian militias east of the Euphrates. However, these forces were in fact deployed along the Euphrates only because it was discovered that al-Khubayl and other Military Council members were facilitating the movement of fighters affiliated with Iranian militias between regime-controlled areas and areas east of the Euphrates. The objective of these militias was to target U.S. bases in Deir ez-Zor on the eve of Eid al-Adha, but the plot was uncovered and new military forces were deployed to seal off the river crossings connecting the region to regime-held areas, preventing the militias from moving forward with the plan.”
“The SDF and the international coalition remain silent about the coordination between al-Khubayl and some of his close associates, on the one hand, and Iranian militias on the other, especially since they supported him and helped catapult him to power over the past years despite the presence of far more competent and qualified leaders within the Military Council. In fact, the latter acted as a safeguard protecting the region against the ambitions of the regime, Iranian militias, and ISIS.”
The purpose of the demonization campaigns
SDF official media and supporters are attempting to portray the situation in Deir ez-Zor as a conflict between the SDF and armed groups affiliated with ISIS and Iranian militias. As for the civilians involved, the SDF claims that they have been deceived by foreign actors to destabilize the region, refusing to acknowledge that it made a miscalculation that has resulted in a bloodbath.
The objective of the AANES and its military wing, the SDF, is not limited to arresting the leaders of the DZMC and restoring its military structure in the region. Rather, the AANES has much broader objectives, which would explain its insistence on carrying out the military operation despite having arrested the DZMC leaders.
The SDF’s first objective is to completely disarm and dissolve the Council. This was confirmed by Abu Layth Khasham, appointed as the DZMC’s interim commander. Khasham said that the SDF’s military command demanded that all military units surrender their weapons and that the Council be dissolved, in order to stop its operation and to participate in negotiations for the release of the detained DZMC leaders.
The AANES’ attempt to dissolve the DZMC is part of a new scheme to centralize all miliary forces in northeastern Syria under its command and strip them of autonomy. The Council poses an impediment to this scheme as it is financially independent, receives direct material support from the international coalition forces stationed at al-Omar oil field, and has relative military and administrative independence.
The second step in the AANES’ scheme, after the dissolution of the DZMC, is the dissolution of the civilian administration and the declaration of northeastern Syria as one region split into eight local administrative divisions. These would be delineated not along the geographic boundaries of the three governorates, but in such a way as to have each local administrative division overlap with the current borders; for example, a given local administrative division would include areas from both Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
Situation favorable for Iran and ISIS
The conflict in the areas east of the Euphrates, and especially in Deir ez-Zor, presents a valuable opportunity for Iranian militias and ISIS alike to reinforce their cells and penetrate deeper into the area to carry out criminal activities, enabling them to exploit the chaos and the dispersal of the SDF and local forces.
There is preliminary information that Iran has taken advantage of the instability over the past few days to have its militias infiltrate areas east of the Euphrates and secure a foothold near the military bases at al-Omar oil field and the Conoco gas plant, in preparation for striking those bases with missiles and making the tribal forces engaged in the conflict against the SDF appear responsible.
The regime and Iran are also facilitating the movement of tribal fighters, especially those belonging to the Akidat and Baggara tribes, from regime-held areas to participate in the military operations alongside tribal forces. There are reports that the regime and Iran are facilitating the transport of weapons and ammunition via local traffickers to areas east of the Euphrates to prolong the crisis, in the hope that the ensuing danger and instability would drive U.S. forces out of the region. The regime and Iran could then swoop in and take control.
ISIS has also benefited from the current conflict as there is now less pressure on its cells in the region, which were constantly being pursued by the SDF and the DZMC. Now that these two parties are fighting each other, ISIS has the chance to catch its breath and close ranks.
Failure to resolve the conflict, coupled with the AANES’ insistence on imposing its will on the local community, will no doubt impact the activities of ISIS and Iran’s militias in the region. In fact, this situation will enable them to recruit new followers from among those affected by the military operations or those who might be pursued by security forces for taking part in the insurgency.
The outbreak of fighting in Deir ez-Zor underscores the widespread local dissatisfaction with the SDF’s policies in the region. Therefore, it is imperative that both sides take steps to overcome this crisis and ensure it doesn’t reoccur, as instability in the region benefits neither the local community nor the SDF authorities.
The first of these steps is to resolve the current crisis and deal with its security and military implications by finding a formula that guarantees that those involved in the military operations from the tribal side will not be prosecuted and the detainees will be released. This seems feasible, especially after the statements from Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, in which he confirmed that they are ready to negotiate with Sheikh Hafel and grant amnesty to all participants in the uprising.
The second step is to form a joint committee between the two parties to document the human and material losses resulting from the recent events and determine the appropriate compensation to be provided to those affected. Subsequently, this committee would work toward achieving civil and societal peace regarding the recent events to ensure their resolution.
The third step is to find a formula that is satisfactory for the people of the region regarding the civil and military administration of their areas within the general framework of the SDF. This would involve continuing to grant them autonomy and independence within the AANES.
The fourth step is to increase financial allocations from the AANES to the Deir ez-Zor Civil Council to enhance economic and social development in the region and provide additional job opportunities for residents suffering from poor economic conditions.
If these steps are taken, it would go a long way toward ending the repercussions of the crisis or minimizing its effects. However, ignoring or failing to implement them would likely lead to a new phase of conflict in the region, one that would not be limited to the local community and its members on one side and the SDF on the other. Rather, such a conflict would be open to other parties that would doubtless try to exploit it both politically and militarily.
Mohammed Hassan is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Syria Program and a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Journalism in Paris. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies.
Photo by Bekir Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.