Following the defeat of ISIS, Deir Ezzor governate, one of the most dangerous of areas that had embraced the organization, is the site of a new battle: over the influence of Iran.
International concern remains focused on preventing the return of ISIS to the areas east of the Euphrates, but there is a disparity between the priorities for countries operating in the region, particularly the US and France. France is devoting a great deal of attention to eliminating the ideological and financial sources of ISIS, while the US is equally concerned by the presence of Iran. Saudi Arabia is also involved, recently intervening in Deir Ezzor to firm up the international coalition and protect against a return of ISIS or Iran.
In meetings between US officials William Roebuck and James Jeffrey and prominent figures in Deir Ezzor, the American side emphasizes that Iran cannot be allowed to return east of the Euphrates. The level of eagerness to confront Iran has increased with the visit of Saudi minister Thamer Al-Sabhan to Deir Ezzor and his meeting with senior tribal sheikhs at the Al-Omar oil field, just kilometres from the Iranian militia headquarters on the west bank of the Euphrates.
Al-Sabhan’s visit to Deir Ezzor demonstrated regional policy inconsistencies, specifically with Saudi and Emirati interests in Yemen and Syria. In Yemen, UAE forces have withdrawn and Saudi Arabia has remained, while in Syria a new conflict has appeared, with the UAE going against Saudi policy. While the UAE leans towards supporting the Syrian regime, Al-Sabhan requested in his meeting with the tribes that they not cooperate with the Syrian regime in exchange for a package of urgent financial aid, since Saudi Arabia believes it is impossible to separate the regime from Iran.
Iran’s reaction to the visit was swift. Within two weeks, the Revolutionary Guards had summoned a military convoy from Iraq, raising the security threat level following the beginning of coalition operations to observe Iranian positions in Al-Bukamal.
Saudi Arabia tried to expel Iran from Syria years ago when then-Saudi minister of defence Mohammad Bin Salman met in Jeddah with the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, Ali Mamluk. However, the leadership in Damascus did not respond to Saudi requests. It is noteworthy that today the US and Saudi Arabia agree on the point of no longer dealing with the Syrian regime; indeed, Washington always demands that that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which encompasses Deir Ezzor, not make oil deals with the Syrian government.
Al-Sabhan’s visit added a new element in the confrontation with Iran east of the Euphrates. While the UAE has good relations with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it has minimal relations with the tribes. This pushed Saudi Arabia to send Al-Sabhan, one of the architects of Saudi relations with Syrian and Iraqi tribes, to form a Sunni tribal deterrence force to counter Iranian influence.
Tribal forces have clearly stated that they are among the parties most negatively affected by the presence of Iran. According to the latest meeting between the tribes and Al-Sabhan, there was a clear convergence of objectives and a clear willingness on the part of the tribes to be a shield against the Iranian militias.
The Kurds’ dilemma
However, the more important question is the Kurds and to what extent they are able to be a US-Saudi cornerstone in countering Iranian influence.
Those who demand the return of the Kurdish combat doctrine, specifically the People’s Protection Units established at the beginning of 2014, consider them defence forces – formed to protect their regions from, at the time, ISIS. However, the confrontation with Iran – which is naturally taking place outside their territory – is forcing them into an embarrassing ideological position.
On the one hand, they are not interested in fighting Iranian militias that have not once clashed with them in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. On the other hand, the interests of the coalition demand opposing Iran, not to mention the Syrian regime, opening up new fronts for the Kurds and the SDF that may extend to border zones in Hasakah, Qamishli, Tel Rifaat, and Shahba in the Aleppo countryside. This is a confrontation they can do without.