Following parallel offensives against ISIS, eastern Syria’s Deir Ez-Zor province has been split between the Syrian regime, which controls large swathes of the province mainly south of the Euphrates river, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are moving to impose their control over the area east of the river.
These two authorities are following different policies: the regime is relying on local forces, in particular local tribes, to strengthen its power, while the SDF is trying to fragment those forces to strip them of any transitional or future role in the area, seeing them as rivals for power.
The regime: appealing to tribes to strengthen its rule
The regime is well aware that, given the wide area it has captured, it needs armed forces capable of enforcing security and preventing the emergence of a security vacuum that could allow for rebellion against it to re-emerge.
Therefore, the regime has decided to support tribal groups and the National Defence Forces (NDF) militia which fought alongside it, with the aim of handing them control of areas seized from ISIS. Once in place, these militias would represent the Syrian state and, in effect, become part of the state’s military apparatus.
The forces that the regime is creating are intended to be distributed on the basis of tribe and district. Damascus aims to recruit men from each area, provide them with sufficient weapons then charge them with protecting that area. The regime will assign the task of protecting the western Deir Ez-Zor countryside to men from the local al-Busaraya tribe, who currently belong to the NDF or tribal militias. A similar arrangement will apply to the eastern Deir Ez-Zor villages lying south of the Euphrates river, while the city of Deir Ez-Zor itself will be jointly patrolled by local NDF fighters and regime forces.
Efforts to create a tribal force to control the areas seized by regime forces coincide with the arrival of prominent tribal figures in the al-Joura and al-Qusur districts of Deir Ez-Zor city, including the head of the al-Baqarah tribe, Nawaf al-Bashir, and the head of the al-Busaraya, Muhanna al-Fayyad, as well as representatives of the al-Uqaydat and al-Shuaytat tribes and other tribal leaders from the city.
The task of these figures, in coordination with the Syrian and Russian governments, is not only to create and command protective forces, but also to attempt to reach ‘reconciliation deals’ in areas seized by the regime, which could house people wanted in connection with the revolution, in exchange for guarantees that there will be no opposition to the government and that people overdue for military service will be forcibly conscripted.
These attempts by the Syrian regime and Russia to re-stabilize and revive areas they have seized in Deir Ez-Zor face major obstacles, including the fact that the majority of residents oppose rule by the regime and these militias, fearing revenge attacks. Meanwhile life under the SDF, which controls the eastern bank of the Euphrates, is seen by many residents as a better option.
The SDF and PYD: monopolizing power
Nonetheless, despite the SDF’s slogans of liberation and partnership with local forces, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which form the backbone of the force – are seeking to monopolize power by fragmenting the Arab forces fighting alongside them. They fear that, unless they seize it beforehand, the US will give those forces the task of protecting and administering these areas in the future. This fear has been increased by those forces’ ability to make territorial advances and attract local fighters from areas seized from ISIS.
The PYG and the YPG are working to break up the Deir Ez-Zor military council, which operates under the SDF umbrella and is the only force made up of local fighters who took part in the ‘Jazira Storm’ offensive that ousted ISIS from the area east of the Euphrates. They are making efforts to spread discord among different factions, especially between its commander Ahmad al-Khabil and Yasser Dahleh, chief of the council’s al-Baqarah Brigade, which fights under the council’s auspices.
In early October, the SDF military police released Dahleh after detaining him for several days on accusations that he had ignored or failed to respond to the council’s orders. The SDF’s reasons for detaining Dahleh were unconvincing, and the dispute between him and the council’s commander appears to have been simply a pretext for the YPG to rein in his growing power after he fought in the battle against ISIS in the northern Badia region of Deir Ez-Zor province, the al-Maamil district, the industrial zone and the base of the 113th Brigade, as well as villages in both the east and west of the province.
This strategy is not new. The SDF and YPG have previously made similar efforts to fragment Arab forces in Raqqa, notably the Raqqa Revolutionaries’ Brigade, in order to keep them away from the battle against ISIS. It adopted a similar policy against the ‘Elite Force’ and local Deir Ez-Zor factions, insisting that they should play no role in the battle unless they agreed to be integrated into and commanded by the SDF. The PYD rejects the emergence of any cohesive Arab force and is working to ensure that if an Arab force must emerge then it should be fragmented and dominated by the SDF in every aspect.