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Smoke on the Euphrates (Part 2: The Life and Crimes of Abu Khawla)

Updated: Apr 5

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series of articles. Please read Part 1 beforehand if you haven’t already for some necessary context.



Deir ez-Zor’s uprising last year and ongoing tensions are inextricably linked to a career criminal who took advantage of the chaos in Syria to become a US-backed warlord and turned half of the governorate into his personal fiefdom. 


Competing factions have made contradictory claims about Abu Khawla’s involvement in the 2023 insurrection, with some commentators putting too much emphasis on him while others strenuously deny that it had anything to do with him. The following is an attempt to set the record straight about his contentious relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local tribes.


The man known today as “Abu Khawla al-Deiri” or “Rashid Abu Khawla” was born with the name Ahmed Hamid al-Khubail, one of several sons in a “humble” family from the al-Bukeyir tribe in the village of al-Rubaydah. Most of Abu Khawla’s early life remains a mystery for researchers and analysts, even the year of his birth remains unconfirmed. 


Sparse accounts of his activities prior to 2011 all describe him as a career criminal, starting a gang with his brothers and their friends that became notorious for burglaries and extortion as well as stealing cars and motorcycles. He was arrested multiple times but somehow managed to avoid a long prison sentence and even evaded Syria’s mandatory military service. Dodging incarceration and the draft helped give rise to rumors that one of Abu Khawla’s brothers was an informant for the Assad regime, though this allegation remains unproven.


This accusation, if true, would match a broader trend of the mukhabarat turning organized crime into a deniable arm of the state, granting impunity to those who helped them subjugate the population. The Shabiha are a prominent example of this practice, smugglers and street thugs who served as henchmen on retainer for a corrupt dictatorship.


Abu Khawla has never publicly commented on most of the allegations against him, other than his vehement denial of ever collaborating with the Assad regime. He could not be reached for comment at the time of this article's writing after being arrested by the SDF in late 2023.


Peacetime gangsters became wartime bandits


A majority of Deir ez-Zor residents lived in poverty long before the Syrian Revolution, neglected for decades by an Alawi-dominated dictatorship in Damascus who distrusted the eastern region’s traditional, independent-minded Sunni Arab tribes. Many eastern clans had extended family living across the border in Iraq, which was then ruled by the Assad regime’s Ba’athist archrival Saddam Hussein.


Economic distress in Deir ez-Zor was exacerbated by the droughts that afflicted Syria prior to 2011, which were especially severe in regions dependent on agriculture such as this one as well as the neighboring al-Hasakah and Raqqa governorates. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food at that time said, “1.3 million people [have] been affected by the four-year drought, 800,000 of whom… had their livelihoods devastated.” Lack of opportunities, close proximity to porous borders, and increasingly desperate circumstances prompted some people to become smugglers before and during the war—their black-market commodities range from canned food and medicine to fuel and narcotics.

 

Criminals across Syria thrived during a period of complete and total lawlessness while rebels seized territory at the cost of high casualties and the regime responded by targeting civilian neighborhoods with artillery, barrel bombs, and Scud missiles. Peacetime thugs became wartime bandits, going on an unprecedented crime spree while their factions were too busy fighting each other to investigate, arrest, and prosecute outlaws. Gangs evolved into militias who feigned affiliation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) while looting abandoned homes and setting up checkpoints specifically to extract bribes from fleeing civilians.


Those who refused to pay would be forced out of their vehicles at gunpoint and have their belongings stolen, or worse. 


Abu Khawla’s gang face accusations of kidnapping, sexual violence, and murder dating back to at least 2013. Abductions for ransom became a common occurrence all over the country, perpetrated by a variety of factions and organized crime outfits who capitalized on this breakdown of society. The overall lack of accountability in war-torn Syria emboldened many criminals to gradually escalate their predatory behavior. 


The Euphrates Post reports one such example, when, “Abu Khawla, along with two of his relatives, kidnapped [a young woman],” who was, “raped before her death,” in 2013. Her corpse was found days later and locals immediately suspected Abu Khawla, who was already acting as a small-time warlord in their area, but there was nothing they could do to hold him and his marauders to account.


Opportunistic criminals, including gangs formed long before the Syrian Revolution, joined every faction in the country—oftentimes more than one, switching sides whenever it suited their interests. They could be found among the pro-Assad militias, the FSA, the multitude of Islamist armed groups, and later the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Some were even accused of making simultaneous deals with opposing sides, using treachery as a means of eliminating rivals or war profiteering.



Abu Khawla and his gang similarly stand accused of prioritizing profit over victory during the early battles for Deir ez-Zor. This was possible because the Free Syrian Army was never a unified entity with a clear chain of command–FSA was essentially an umbrella term for the diverse array of rebels who made up Syria’s armed opposition. This coalition saw a multitude of different nationalist and Islamist groups join forces with people who wanted to protect their neighborhoods and take revenge against the Assad regime. 


The FSA’s decentralized nature allowed bad actors to proclaim their support for Free Syria while taking advantage of the war to engage in corrupt enterprises or impose their fringe ideologies on ordinary civilians who live in their territory. 


The only confirmed instance of Abu Khawla’s gang fighting the Assad regime was when they assisted other rebels in encircling the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 113 brigade while besieging the city of Deir ez-Zor. But this was marred by allegations that Abu Khawla also smuggled supplies to the SAA brigade and sold tactical information about the rebels, even helping some soldiers escape from the siege.


It is worth mentioning here that some opposition supporters accused the regime of creating pro-Assad militias which posed FSA groups when intra-rebel infighting became more frequent during and after 2013. The Soviet Union is known to have done this during counter-insurgency wars in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, using “puppet” rebel groups to infiltrate and undermine their guerilla opposition. Abu Khawla and his gang would fit the profile if this approach was copied in Syria. The regime may well have drawn upon their alleged relationship with his informant brother to sabotage the opposition war effort in Deir ez-Zor.


The only situation where Abu Khawla failed to profit from all parties involved was the rise of ISIS. Unconfirmed reports describe his gang operating checkpoints across the region, which threatened to cut off supply lines for ISIS as the group was starting to seize swaths of Syria in 2014. This was more likely an attempt to extort Daeshis for safe passage through their territory than meaningful resistance, but the extremists still responded by attacking in force and killing most of Abu Khawla’s men.


Multiple clans from the al-Bukeyir tribe then pledged allegiance to ISIS out of fear of being massacred. Abu Khawla was among the local tribesmen conscripted into the so-called caliphate’s so-called army—one of his brothers, Hafez al-Khubail, was reportedly promoted to a leadership role within the organization. But only a few months passed until Abu Khawla fled north to Hasakeh and eventually made his way to Turkey after the extremists executed at least one of his siblings.


There are differing accounts of why and how ISIS killed his brother, or even which one they targeted—which means they likely murdered more than one of them. Deir ez-Zor 24 describes how one brother, Mohammed Rahab al-Khubail—the one accused of being a regime collaborator, was killed when ISIS stormed the gang’s highway checkpoint. Another one, Ata Allah al-Khubail, was reportedly “caught posing as a Daesh fighter and looting civilian properties,” to which prompted the extremists to “[execute] him in the Balu’m roundabout.”


The Emir of al-Bukeyir


It is not yet clear at the time of this writing what Abu Khawla was doing during the two years he lived among millions of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey or how he ended up becoming an SDF-affiliated warlord by 2016. He was a largely unknown figure until being interviewed that February by the Hawar News Agency, a pro-SDF Arabic language media outlet, where he announced the formation of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC). He described a plan to recruit Deiri fighters into the DMC to assist the SDF’s war against ISIS and claimed to already have a thousand militiamen under his command.


Multiple incidents during Abu Khawla’s tenure as commander of the DMC demonstrate his close relationship with the United States military. Instances of misconduct committed by his fighters, along with his inability or unwillingness to discipline them, prompted the SDF to arrest him or at least threaten to do so, only for the US-led coalition to intervene on his behalf each time.


Abu Khawla was at one point detained and interrogated for four days in February 2017, but he was released without charge and went right back to serving as the DMC’s commander. Another time, during the Battle of Baghuz, the SDF threatened to dismiss him from his position—which would have likely preceded his arrest and imprisonment—but the coalition prevented this from happening. They clearly viewed him as vital to the anti-ISIS campaign, despite his horrendous reputation and constant troublemaking.


There is a strong possibility that Abu Khawla was recruited as an intelligence asset by the US government during the years he lived in Turkey. The coalition was desperately searching for locals willing to prioritize the war against ISIS at the expense of fighting the Assad regime during that time. They were particularly keen on finding people displaced from majority-Arab areas under ISIS control who could either provide valuable information, convince the tribes to side against the extremists, or both. It would not have been out of character for Abu Khawla to accept offers of payment from intelligence officers or to exaggerate his exploits during the war and his social clout among the tribes of Deir ez-Zor. 


This might explain why the US-led coalition shielded Abu Khawla from accountability each time the SDF leadership decided he had gone too far and become a liability.


The DMC has also proven utterly incompetent as a counterinsurgency force, evidenced by the steady rate of ISIS attacks in their territory since 2019. The extremists’ defeat at Baghuz prompted surviving remnants of the so-called caliphate—those who weren’t killed by or surrendered to the SDF, that is—to gather in sparsely-populated regions and organize guerilla warfare against their enemies. The DMC’s area of responsibility became the most dangerous territory held by the SDF, where insurgents regularly carry out assassinations and bombings while also threatening residents and extorting them to pay the “zakat” tax.


The Battle of Khasham—during which a contingent of US special operations soldiers and SDF fighters guarding an oil field were attacked by Syrian tanks, pro-Assad militias, and Russian mercenaries in February 2018—also fits the DMC’s track record as a combat unit. An ad hoc quick reaction force of Americans and their militia partner force took off from a nearby base to provide reinforcements for the heavily outnumbered defenders.


However, “the SDF truck leading the Special Forces convoy stopped short of the compound as artillery shells rained down,” according to Kevin Maurer. “SDF [fighters] in the unarmored truck leading the convoy took one look, turned around, and took off.” 


The battle was ultimately decided by the US military bombing the attacking force for hours on end until hundreds of pro-Assad fighters were dead and the survivors were finally ordered to retreat. The Deir ez-Zor Military Council has never been explicitly named as the militia who drove to the oil field and fled at the last moment, but the town from which the battle takes its name and the oil field where it occurred were all areas under DMC control.


Analysts, journalists, and pundits commenting on the August and September 2023 clashes sometimes cited cultural conflict as a reason for fighting between the SDF and local tribes, especially with regard to women’s rights. This is likely overblown given that the DMC, essentially the face of SDF abuse of power in the area, is also made up of locals from the same cultural context.


The multiple accusations of rape against men from this militia, including its senior leadership, stand in sharp contrast with the YPG’s heavily publicized inclusion of women as fighters and commanders. Controversial changes to school curriculums seen in other areas controlled by the SDF have also yet to be implemented in Deir ez-Zor, due to an overall lack of government services.


The increasingly frequent and open defiance shown by Deiris toward the SDF is not simply a show of anti-Kurdish animus or sympathy for ISIS, even if some individuals within the protests harbor such views. Necessary security measures during a counterinsurgency war inevitably open the door to corruption and abuse of power, the brunt of which is suffered by predominantly Arab civilians at the hands of SDF militiamen. Looting, extortion, wrongfully arresting people or providing false information to the coalition to settle old scores, as well as torture, murder, and sexual violence have all occurred on the SDF’s watch. 


Both the threat of ISIS attacks and the need for counterinsurgency measures are real, but the instances of misconduct enabled by the current security situation cannot go ignored. Many who live under this system have accused the SDF of imposing an authoritarian system that enables racist Kurds to subjugate Arabs, revenge for decades of anti-Kurdish discrimination perpetrated by the Arab nationalist Assad regime. SDF supporters are quick to deny these allegations, reflexively citing the fact that Arabs now outnumber Kurds within the alliance of militias. But there are still multiple documented instances of SDF fighters engaging in exclusionary behavior toward civilians in their territory.


One noteworthy example occurred in February 2018, when US Marines supporting the anti-ISIS coalition quarreled with SDF fighters in Deir ez-Zor after the latter allegedly attempted to refuse medical aid to a group of wounded civilians. The Americans shoved the SDF fighters out of the way to bring the injured people onto their base, to which the militia responded by threatening to expel them. Hours of mediation appeared to settle the matter, until an SDF fighter turned his gun on the two Marines who spotted the civilians.


Sergeant Cameron Halkovich was shot twice in his left leg, but Corporal Kane Downey managed to quickly kill their assailant and save both of their lives. 


This incident was later described by American witnesses as Kurds attempting to turn away wounded civilians “because they were not Kurdish.” But it is also possible, indeed quite likely given the location where this took place, that the militiamen involved in this matter were local Arab tribesmen recruited into the SDF. An article written by Paul Szoldra for Task & Purpose describes, “screaming from both sides in English and Arabic,” during the fight over treating the wounded civilians, but not once is anyone mentioned speaking Kurdish. Documented animosity between Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zor, such that of the al-Bukeyir and al-Shaitat, could have been the motive for SDF fighters to deprive wounded civilians of medical treatment.   


The shooting of Sergeant Cameron Halkovich by an SDF fighter, most likely a member of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, occurred just two weeks after the Battle of Khasham.

Abu Khawla was protected by foreign powers while he consolidated power over his militia and eventually the al-Bukeyir tribe. This began with the arrest of Yasser al-Dahla, commander of an al-Baggara unit within the DMC, in September 2017 on charges of corruption, looting, and failure to participate in SDF offensives. The accusations may have been true, but al-Dahla’s supporters, “accused [the] Deir ez-Zor Military Council and Military Police of ‘fabricating malicious charges against [him].” 


The DMC was always a multi-tribal entity, but it slowly came to be dominated by men from the al-Bukeyir tribe and their allies such as the ad-Dulaym and al-Bu Khabur, as well as friendly al-Baggara clans. Tribes who had a poor relationship with the al-Bukeyir found themselves sidelined by the DMC, which helped inflame local discontent with the SDF.


Abu Khawla’s dominance within the militia was cemented by a spate of mysterious assassinations in early 2019, coinciding with the Battle of Baghuz. The targeted individuals were all DMC commanders with pre-war military backgrounds and solid reputations earned during their time fighting the Assad regime. One of them was a young former SAA lieutenant who defected to the armed opposition in 2011 and became revered in Deir ez-Zor for fighting ISIS, according to a New Lines Magazine profile written by Shelly Kittleson. A pro-opposition activist interviewed by Kittleson accused Abu Khawla of systematically eliminating DMC commanders with military training and experience as well as popularity among the local population. These people outshone Abu Khawla in almost every conceivable way and would have made it impossible for him to make himself the unofficial ruler of SDF-held Deir ez-Zor.


Taking over the DMC enabled Abu Khawla to sideline the sheik and noble families of his al-Bukeyir tribe in 2019 through a bloodless but still hostile takeover, extracting pledges of allegiance from al-Bukeyir clans as the only tribal leader with military forces at his disposal.


There was no precedent for someone from a commoner family to just take over the tribe this way and Abu Khawla got around that fact by taking another unprecedented step—declaring himself the first Emir of the al-Bukeyir, a position that had not previously existed within his tribe. He would go on to receive, by hook or by crook, pledges of allegiance from multiple Arab tribes in Syria and other countries.


Felix LeGrand, an independent researcher who has spent years conducting field work in Deir ez-Zor, argues this is part of a broader trend of “fragmentation of tribes and a weakening of traditional hierarchies” in an article for CAREP Paris. He describes how “the multiplication of armed actors and succession of forces who control [Eastern Syria]… have multiplied the number of self-proclaimed sheiks, competing among themselves for access to power.” An upstart sheik declaring himself an emir is described by LeGrand as, “an innovation in tribal custom by taking advantage of the crisis of traditional hierarchical structures.”


Abu Khawla’s rise to power has not been accepted by other tribes within the al-Agaidat confederation or even universally within his own al-Bukeyir tribe, although LeGrand notes that “a majority of al-Bukeyir notables” approved of it. This briefly included the al-Bukeyir’s recognized Sheik Abdel Aziz Suleiman al-Hamada, who has been exiled to Turkey for nearly a decade, until he rescinded the endorsement. One could speculate that al-Hamada was angling for a deal where he would be allowed to return to his homeland in exchange for delegating his traditional authority to Abu Khawla.


It should also be noted that the two men have been in a public feud since at least 2020, when Abu Khawla created the “al-Bukeyir Tribal Council” specifically to undercut Sheik al-Hamada, who responded with an angry denunciation.

   

LeGrand points to this conflict—along with the rivalry between Abu Khawla’s clan and the al-Hefel family, traditional rulers of the al- al-Agaidat confederation—as examples of how tribal hierarchy and loyalties in Eastern Syria have been shattered by a decade of war. He also notes that most hostilities between tribes in Deir ez-Zor consists of al-Agaidat infighting, impoverished communities competing for territory and scarce resources. More recently the distribution of humanitarian aid and fuel has been, “a source of tensions, sometimes violent, between tribes,” which has caused problems for the SDF and the US-led coalition against ISIS.


Some analysts and commentators have used the word “megalomaniac,” to describe the warlord’s fixation on power and tribal prestige in recent years. But this could also be a means to his lifelong end—monetary gain.


Deir ez-Zor sits on a crossroads of local and international trafficking routes used by a variety of armed state and non-state actors to fund their activities, which sometimes results in smugglers affiliated with one faction doing business with smugglers affiliated with their enemy. This includes not only Abu Khawla and the SDF but also the Assad regime and Iran-backed militias as well as ISIS insurgents hiding out in the desert and civilians suffering from travel restrictions. Necessities, luxury goods, and narcotics flow in and out of the region either to or from elsewhere in Syria and across the border to Iraq.


Examples range from fuel extracted from oil fields in SDF territory, captagon produced in regime-controlled drug labs, and hashish cultivated in Lebanon or southern Syria by Hezbollah to black market weapons, stolen vehicles, medicine, food, and livestock. Smuggling in and out of Deir ez-Zor is accomplished by crossing the Euphrates River, driving through checkpoints controlled by militias involved in trafficking, floating containers across the river, and makeshift pipelines.


Civilians also make use of these illicit trade routes to overcome travel restrictions from one faction’s territory to that of another, a significant hardship for innocent people who need to travel for cancer treatments, higher education, job opportunities, or to escape conscription. These desperate people are the exact opposite of militia traffickers who engage in smuggling for profit or fugitive ISIS cells who utilize the area’s remoteness to move around undetected.


Accumulating personal power as commander of the DMC and self-proclaimed Emir of the al-Bukeyir tribe put Abu Khawla in a position to dominate the flow of smuggled goods in and out of his territory. This under-the-table revenue enabled his family to purchase most of the land, residential properties, and commercial enterprises in SDF-held Deir ez-Zor, no doubt at an unfairly low price to locals impoverished by years of war. They enriched themselves by exploiting the area they were entrusted to protect, turning it into a robber baron’s personal fiefdom.  


Abu Khawla responded to several mounting criticisms in a 2019 interview with The Daily Beast, stating, “Everyone in Deir ez-Zor wants self-rule. They don’t want an external force to come and rule them. They want to have a self-administration…” Volunteering to serve the SDF enabled him to achieve power and return to his homeland, but he also attempted to utilize public anger against the SDF to gain a degree of legitimacy among aggrieved locals.


His penchant for prioritizing personal gain and past allegations of collaborating with the Assad regime have led some to accuse him of plotting to eventually expel the SDF from his territory and reconcile with the regime. And yet he has ironically accused his critics of taking bribes from the Assad regime and Iran in that same 2019 interview.


He also bizarrely accused Assad and Iran of hiring ISIS and HTS cells to conduct bombings in his territory, criticized the US-led coalition’s heavy-handed approach to securing the region, and singled out the “the British forces,” for causing civilian casualties during night raids.


It is unclear why Abu Khawla specifically singled out British soldiers, especially given recent allegations that an American special operations “strike cell” disregarded the coalition’s rules of engagement and killed dozens if not hundreds of Syrian civilians in air and artillery strikes. He could have been covering for his American benefactors while innocent people continued to be killed as the full-scale ground war against ISIS evolved into a counterinsurgency.


But it is also possible that British special forces, who are known to have been active in Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere around Northern Syria on behalf of the coalition, harmed civilians during night raids targeting ISIS-linked individuals. Their kill or capture list included British citizens who had joined as foreign fighters, some of whom were accused of attempting to coordinate terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. All of this happened just a few years after SAS soldiers allegedly killed civilians and detainees in Afghanistan, “even when they did not pose a threat,” according to recent reports by BBC News and The Guardian. One team was specifically accused of unnecessarily killing at least fifty-four people during a single six-month deployment to Helmand Province from late 2010 to mid-2011.


The lack of accountability British special forces faced for civilian deaths in Afghanistan could have contributed to similar incidents in Syria during Operation Inherent Resolve.


A Heinous Last Straw


Abu Khawla’s loyalties were first and foremost to himself while the highest bidder at any given moment came in second.


Pro-opposition media spent years denouncing him and criticizing the SDF for appointing a blatantly corrupt commander with a documented criminal history as their local proxy. He tried to get ahead of this by reaching out to journalists and granting a series of interviews from 2017 to 2019, which led to his infamous admission of coordinating with the Russian military in operations against ISIS. There are few acts more discrediting in the eyes of the Syrian opposition than collaborating with Putin, whose intervention in 2015 helped turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. Russian air and artillery enabled the regime to escalate a nationwide bombing campaign against civilians, civilian infrastructure, schools, and hospitals.


But Abu Khawla continued to vehemently deny accusations of collaborating with the Assad regime or Iran in the same interview where he admitted to coordinating with the Russians. He sharply criticized the Iranians for attempting to convert the inhabitants of Assad-held Syria to Shia Islam, something which angers many of the country’s Sunni majority. His rhetoric on this issue at times crossed the line into sectarianism—an ironic contradiction of the SDF’s public commitment to secularism and inclusivity. Their inability or unwillingness to discipline the DMC emboldened Abu Khawla and his men to escalate their crimes.


Residents of Deir ez-Zor have oscillated from fear of the DMC’s wrath to public rage about their crimes since 2019. Kidnapping civilians, including children as young as ten years old, and holding them for ransom has been reported multiple times in recent years in addition to continued instances of looting. This was a step beyond the typical wrongful arrest by SDF forces, a purely for-profit abuse of power rather than misplaced suspicion or a cynical attempt at meeting a quota. This all set the stage for a series of sadistic acts committed by Abu Khawla and his men in December 2022. 


A young man from the al-Baggara confederation named Jihad al-Munir was kidnapped and tortured by the DMC after he was accused of having an illicit relationship with Abu Khawla’s sister—his brother Jalal al-Khubail, also known as Abu Haidar, allegedly led the abduction and interrogation of al-Munir. They brutalized him for the better part of a day while demanding he confess to the indiscretion, but he continued to deny the charge even after having both of his ears cut off and apparently convinced his captors to release him.


But Abu Khawla and his brothers kept the young man’s phone, which led to them discovering pictures sent by their sister. DMC militiamen hunted down the young man’s family and kidnapped four of his relatives, two men and two women. Jihad al-Munir was still their main target, but the mutilated young man had reportedly fled across the Euphrates River to regime-controlled territory at that point.


The men were tortured but soon released, while the women were held captive for much longer and suffered far worse. They were beaten and raped repeatedly while al-Baggara sheiks unsuccessfully attempted to meet with Abu Khawla and plead for their release. The two women were both eventually shot in the head and their naked corpses were unceremoniously dumped near their hometown as an added insult to their bereaved families.  


Locals who had feared the DMC for years were now enraged enough to openly protest Abu Khawla, his brothers, and everyone else involved in their non-stop corruption and depravity. Most of the demonstrators came from the al-Baggara confederation, although some al-Agaidat tribes such as the al-Mashahda revolted against an institution they perceived as being dominated by al-Bukeyir tribesmen.


Demonstrators called for the DMC to be disbanded and for the SDF to permanently withdraw from their land while years of pent-up fury over Abu Khawla’s many crimes manifested into the largest protests Deir ez-Zor had seen in many years. Decentralized resistance among communities who refused to be ruled either by outsiders or each other made its inevitable return after this heinous last straw.


It was an affront to human decency as well as ample grounds for a blood feud in a region where one murder or other grievous crime can prompt a cycle of revenge killings between clans that go one for years, sometimes decades. The al-Baggara tribes only held back from going to war with Abu Khawla and the DMC to avoid conflict with the entire SDF and, by extension, the United States military. But locals continued to protest throughout early 2023, denouncing Abu Khawla’s abuses and calling for the creation of their own military council independent from the DMC.


The tribes of Deir ez-Zor rose up with the rest of the country demanding freedom and dignity in 2011, but they also want to be left alone and allowed to handle their own affairs rather than subordinate themselves to outsiders. Abu Khawla’s slow drip of constant cruelty backfired in the long-run, with fear giving way to outraged belligerence at both the DMC and SDF after one too many grave abuses. This led some analysts to suggest that Abu Khawla’s arrest and prosecution would go a long way toward calming tensions, an assumption that ultimately proved inaccurate.


 

Part 3 of “Smoke on the Euphrates” will examine Abu Khawla’s downfall in mid-2023 and why some people in Deir ez-Zor viewed this as the SDF removing their last vestige of local autonomy, prompting both allies and enemies of the DMC to rise up in open rebellion.


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