If the SDF cannot build trust with important clans in the region, it will fall victim to ISIS sleeper cells that are well-prepared to engage in guerrilla warfare.
Following months of hit-and-run skirmishes, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have launched a military assault to take the last bastions held by ISIS in eastern Syria. The battlefield covers mainly the Hajin area and its periphery, including al-Susah town and al-Shafa village – all located in the vital countryside of the oil-rich Deir Ezzor governate.
These 350 kilometres are the last vestige of ISIS’s so-called caliphate and losing it means erasing its territorial holdings completely. Unlike previous battles like Raqqa and Manbij, this one has no retreat or escape option – they will know they must fight out to the desert or die.
ISIS digs in
Therefore, ISIS seems to be prepared for a long resistance. It has for weeks been placing explosive devices on roads leading into its last slip of land and digging tunnels in the area. The general commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, told us he expects clashes to be fierce and the fight to last for approximately two months.
The SDF acknowledges the difficulties associated with pushing ISIS out of its last territory and fighting jihadists stuck in a small area like Hajin. Hence, the Kurdish-led group had been amassing fighters and equipment for weeks ahead of the assault. They also expect to rely heavily on airstrikes and artillery from both the international anti-ISIS coalition and Iraqi forces.
The early days of the assault have already proven to be fierce. Hours after the assault began, reports of SDF causalities started to pop up in ISIS media outlets. The group announced that it had killed six SDF fighters and arrested one as it repelled an SDF attack on Al-Baghouz village near al-Susah town. SDF media on the other side announced the killing of 41 ISIS fighters in the first couple of days.
No matter how long the fight lasts, ISIS has no capacity to win in military terms. However, even after victory, the SDF and coalition forces will be threatened by ISIS sleeper cells that are already operating across Deir Ezzor.
Recently, a sleeper cell pasted signs in SDF-controlled Al-Riz village warning of any attack against the oilfields located in ISIS territories. Days before this incident, ISIS sleeper cells attacked SDF-held al-Omar oilfield and multiple locations controlled by the regime forces in Deir Ezzor.
Tactics such as explosives (mainly roadside IEDs), ambushes, standoff attacks (snipers and RPGs) and assassinations will be a part of a long war of attrition adopted by ISIS in its lost territories. Just over the last month, ISIS claimed responsibility for assassinating four SDF commanders.
Building trust with clans
The demise of ISIS in the countryside of Deir Ezzor raises many challenges in relation to power sharing and governance. One key element in this is the clan culture in this particular area of the Euphrates region.
Among the key clans that are estimated to represent the local population are the Akidat, Shaitat, Juboor and Shummar. These clans and others took responsibility for administering the geographic areas and natural resources under their influence before they were taken over by ISIS.
So far, it seems that the SDF has been unable to build trust with most of the clan elders or influential figures, who have continued to refuse governance proposals matching the models adopted by the SDF in other locations.
‘Forming local councils to administer the countryside of Deir Ezzor will be a priority for us as well, but we do not want to be subordinate to the Kurds’ influence. We want to be the backbone of any future governing bodies. We need the same support received by the councils in Qamishli, but this should not be contingent to the leading role of the SDF,’ said a clan figure.
The SDF acknowledges the need to secure a compromise with clans as it will be difficult to run the area amid the prevailing mistrust. It organized a large conference which hosted most of the clan elders on 8 August to set a clear vision on both security and governance. The proposed model as stated by SDF commanders stressed the participation of all clans and the establishment of civic organizations.
The conference, however, was not reassuring enough for the clans, as it lacked practical steps and excluded the details of power-sharing. It also excluded prominent clan figures who had fled the area to escape ISIS. An SDF commander acknowledged the difficulty of engaging with leaders who see the SDF presence as temporary, and who want to return to their governing arrangement from before the ISIS takeover.
Another obstacle facing the SDF is that many of the key families in Deir Ezzor have divided their loyalties among multiple sides, including the SDF and the Syrian regime, in an attempt to hedge against the future and secure influence no matter who the next ruler is.
The families of the Shaitat clan, who fiercely fought against ISIS, are one example – the clan was split between groups fighting for the regime and others fighting for the SDF. Many locals told the authors that those affiliated with regime forces are trying to convince their relatives under the command of the SDF that Assad will ultimately prevail, straining the relationship with the SDF further.
Failure to secure the trust of clans will make it easier for ISIS to continue to operate in Deir Ezzor, and embolden it to carry out bolder operations. Only with working local administration in place can such an insurgency be tackled. Ultimately, the SDF cannot achieve military victory without skilled governance.
Amer Mohamad is a Syrian researcher and security analyst based in London. He holds a BSc in Economics, MSc in Banking and Finance, and an MA in Conflict Resolution and Security Studies at Bradford University, UK.
Abdullah Al-Ghadhawi is a Syrian journalist at the Saudi newspaper Okaz where he focuses on Syrian affairs, with special focus on governance and non-state actors.