Updated: 6 days ago
Tribes that predate Syria as a modern nation-state, many of whom extend across today’s borders into neighbouring nations, have long played a prominent role in the country’s sociopolitical affairs—especially in the sparsely populated eastern desert. The Assad regime spent decades buying the loyalty of some sheikhs and propping up the more pliable rivals of others, which “created strife within some tribes, sometimes even within the same clan,” Haian Dukhan writes for the Syria Studies online journal. Each tribe is a multifaceted entity divided into multiple clans, which are further divided into lineages, and finally extended families. The Jazira: A Microcosm of Syrian struggle
Smaller tribes often group together into confederations, exemplified by the al-Agaidat, al-Baggara, and al-Shammar.
It would be a mistake to assume an entire tribe will share their sheikh’s opinion—elders will sometimes switch sides or claim neutrality for fear of losing their social standing when younger masses spontaneously revolt against one too many injustices. A noteworthy example of this is Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir from the al-Baggara confederation, who announced his support for the Syrian opposition in 2012 and then defected back to the regime in 2017. Tribesmen will also inevitably retaliate for outrages perpetrated against their kin with or without their sheikh’s approval.
Many tribes joined the protests in 2011 when pictures and videos of their clans across the country being beaten and shot by security forces circulated across social media. Sheikhs were often brought in to negotiate with high-ranking regime officials and attempted to “prevent their tribesmen from participating in protests and clashing with the security forces,” according to Haian Dukhan. But their efforts ultimately failed as the regime increasingly killed more protestors in the streets and arrested dissidents through a network of state-operated torture chambers. Daily humiliations and human rights abuses prompted more and more tribes, and eventually their sheikhs, to openly support the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime.
Deir ez-Zor was fought over between the Assad regime and rebel factions for years, culminating in the latter seizing two-thirds of the province and most of its eponymous capital city by 2014. This was when ISIS—known as “Daesh” among Arabic speakers—took advantage of the fighting to start conquering territory and subjugating everyone who had the misfortune of living there.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria opportunistically attacked whichever side was weaker at any given moment, going from pretending to ally with the rebels to double-crossing them. The exhausted Syrian opposition held their ground for months until ISIS withdrew its fighters from Latakia and Idlib to reinforce a three-pronged offensive into Deir ez-Zor. This finally overwhelmed the rebels, enabling Daesh to capture the countryside and most of the city. Questions remain to this day over possible collusion between ISIS and the Assad regime, who would spend the next three years fighting over the city in a protracted siege.
Syrian rebels, depleted by years of non-stop combat and lack of external support, fell prey to the Daeshi invasion and Syrians living in areas held by ISIS soon faced a terrible choice—join or die, a fate that many Iraqis would endure in subsequent months.
The massacre of the al-Shaitaat tribe in Deir ez-Zor was just one example of this, when ISIS murdered somewhere between 700 and 1,500 people over a period of three days in August 2014 after months of resistance from the tribe. Daeshi death squads filmed themselves beheading victims in Abu Humam and surrounding villages, “laughing and mocking the victims by mimicking goats [facing slaughter],” according to Al-Jazeera. Other tribes got the message and either fled to territory outside of ISIS’s control or submitted to the new tyrants in town.
Opportunistic conquest by ISIS also brought them into conflict with the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG) or People’s Defense Units, a militia affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This is a controversial outlier in the Syrian conflict, purporting to advance the rights of marginalized groups—ethnic and religious minorities, as well as women—within an autonomous region rather than supporting the immediate overthrow of Assad’s totalitarian government. But they quickly gained a bad reputation among the opposition for violently suppressing demonstrations held in their territory.
The regime’s sudden withdrawal from Kurdish-majority cities in the north to concentrate on fighting armed opposition groups and their immediate replacement by YPG units solidified the relationship between Damascus and the PYD.
There is also undeniable overlap between PYD and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who are designated as a terrorist organization by multiple governments, including the United States, due to their history of targeting civilians during their decades-long guerilla war in Turkey. The PYD is openly affiliated with the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), a political body dominated by PKK veterans. The PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), have long been documented cooperating closely with YPG fighters in both Syria and Iraq. These are inconvenient facts for those who have an interest in downplaying the YPG’s links to the PKK, such as the US-led international coalition against ISIS.
The years of 2013 to 2014 witnessed a sea change in Syria as the Daesh flag spread from Raqqa across a third of the country—including the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor governorate, culminating in their siege of Ayn al-Arab, also known as Kobani.
The YPG incorporated a few battered FSA groups while preparing for the Daesh onslaught. Among the defenders were Jaysh al-Qisas or the Army of Retribution, a small militia made up of Sunni Arabs from Deir ez-Zor. They were part of the diaspora of Deiri opposition fighters whose families were displaced and forced to flee across Syria due to the rise of ISIS—at least three men from Jaysh al-Qisas were killed during the fighting in Kobani.
ISIS managed to take over half of the city during the first twelve days of the siege. However, airstrikes against ISIS during the Siege of Kobani turned the tide of the battle and marked the beginning of the YPG’s cooperation with the US-led coalition, still ongoing at the time of this writing. But it was clear from the beginning that the majority Kurdish militia, even with air and later artillery support provided by the coalition, would be necessary but not sufficient by itself for the task of defeating Daesh. This would entail seizing territory where most of the population were Arabs, which necessitated recruiting as many people as possible from the areas taken by ISIS over to their side.
The coming battles for Hasakeh, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor prompted the coalition to organize the YPG along with Arab, Syriac, and Turkmen militias willing to work with them into an alliance dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late 2015. Several of the non-YPG groups had once been affiliated with the FSA while others such as the al-Shammar tribal confederation were previously neutral.
Some tribes or confederations picked a side early in the war, sometimes there was conflict between clans over which faction to support. But others, such as the al-Shammar, prioritised tribal interests over supporting the Assad regime or anti-Assad rebel groups and sided with whoever presented them with the best offer.
The fall of the so-called caliphate’s capital city was followed shortly by the SDF’s campaign into Deir ez-Zor, an endeavour they pursued with great reluctance at the behest of the US-led coalition. YPG kadros were hesitant to risk direct conflict with the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia over an oil-rich province where the population was ninety percent Arab and Kurds were nowhere to be found. They also had no preexisting relationship to draw upon with the Deiri tribes, unlike the centuries-old history of cooperation against common enemies between the al-Shammar Arabs and Kurdish tribes in the north. But sheikhs who once pledged allegiance to ISIS under the threat of having their tribe exterminated would either switch sides or at least choose neutrality when the time was right.
Militias from the al-Bukeyir tribe and al-Baggara confederation were eventually incorporated into the SDF once the extremists were too weak to credibly threaten large-scale massacres. This was an attempt to put a local face on the SDF presence in the region, but it ended up backfiring in multiple ways. Longtime rivals of the al-Bukeyir and al-Baggara viewed this as a show of favouritism by the SDF and some of the militiamen are known for their animosity towards tribes such as the al-Shaitaat and al-Bu Jamel. Many of the locals recruited into the SDF were former ISIS fighters, some of whom had participated in massacres and other atrocities against civilians in Deir ez-Zor.
Some of these bandits and oppressors were later recognized by their surviving victims when SDF patrols drove through their towns and villages, which solidified distrust among civilians already suspicious of outsiders venturing onto their land.
The last remnant of ISIS-held territory was sandwiched between the SDF and pro-Assad forces at al-Baghuz Fawqani, on the border between Deir ez-Zor and Iraq’s Anbar Province, in February 2019 until their eventual defeat the following March. More than two hundred civilians were killed, along with a similar number of ISIS fighters, during the Battle of Baghuz—at least sixty-four of whom perished in a single airstrike according to The New York Times, one of the largest incidents of “collateral damage” caused by US military operations in Syria. The death of noncombatants and widespread destruction would be among the first of many grievances the inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor now have with the SDF. The mirage of democratic confederalism
Media outlets sympathetic to the YPG and SDF tout their claimed democratic confederalism, a libertarian and anarchist-inspired ideology centred around creating self-governing autonomous zones within a centralized nation-state. These ideas replaced the PKK’s esoteric blending of Kurdish nationalism with Marxist-Leninist and Maoist ideas after the 1997 Adana Agreement and the capture of their leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.
Direct democracy, discussing local issues and voting on how to handle them, is a far cry from what civilians in Deir ez-Zor have experienced since 2019. Token mediators do not equate to representation in the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s purported legislative body within its Autonomous Administration, and the beliefs or interests of the civilian population have long gone ignored. This trend can be observed in the region’s lack of economic opportunities and burdensome taxation of impoverished communities. Even locals who were happy to see ISIS routed grew more and more dissatisfied with their new occupiers, especially as civilian suffering continued and even increased during the following counterinsurgency.
Northeast Syria has been stuck in the middle of a proverbial “shadow war” since the Battle of Baghuz, between not only the SDF and the US-led coalition versus surviving ISIS cells but also featuring covert intervention by the Assad regime, Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
Intelligence officers keep a close eye on tribal affairs and look out for prominent individuals, such as a local sheikh or militia leader, who could be enticed to provide information or switch sides for the right price. Meanwhile special operations units from the coalition—such as the US Army’s Delta Force, the British SAS, and French special forces—have been conducting night raids and calling in air strikes since 2014, sometimes on a daily basis. They have also trained SDF anti-terrorism units, such as the YPG’s Yekinyen Anti Teror (YAT) commandos, to conduct operations alongside them with a shared set of tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Residents of Deir ez-Zor have spent years living with the risk of being harmed by a terrorist attack or a counterterrorism operation at all hours of the day and night. ISIS have claimed responsibility for suicide bombings while more mysterious bombings, which do not involve a perpetrator’s death, are attributed to the Assad regime and Turkish intelligence. Coalition troops and SDF militias counter this multifaceted insurgency with a “find, fix, and finish,” methodology developed during the Iraq War. This is a cycle where intelligence-gathering teams locate targets for direct action elements, who conduct “kill or capture” operations and relay what they find back to the intelligence specialists to help them locate more targets.
A raid on one house and immediate interrogation of people detained inside can sometimes prompt more raids elsewhere throughout the night.
Night raids conducted by special operations soldiers come at grave risk to civilians, especially when they are based on inaccurate information. Counterterrorism units are trained to immediately neutralize anyone identified as a threat by shooting them in the head, to reduce the risk of hostages being executed or a suicide bomb being detonated. Every combat-aged male seen fleeing from the raid is assumed to be hostile and will usually be shot dead while running. Any mistake or negligent move by the assaulting force can result in death for civilians who happen to be caught in the middle.
A 2019 report by the United Nations outlines multiple incidents where civilians were harmed by aerial bombardment, artillery shelling, and night raids conducted by the SDF and coalition forces in Deir ez-Zor from December 2018 to the following August. These include cases when locations densely packed with noncombatants, typically women and children, were targeted for air strikes when ISIS fighters may or may not have been present. Night raids also saw civilians wounded or killed, with at least one instance of detainees being killed in custody. Locals often interpreted these actions as attacks targeting their tribe and were particularly outraged when children suffered injury or death.
The UN report also notes how, “[Deir ez-Zor] residents have protested against widespread corruption, extortion, the lack of services and security, and the abuse of power by SDF commanders and fighters.” It describes a humanitarian disaster, “which is further aggravated by the continued presence of [ISIS],” and “has left the civilian population… with limited access to health, education, and basic [government] services.” These grievances have been repeated and gone unaddressed in the years leading up to the time of this writing in late 2023.
Residents of Deir ez-Zor have also been incensed by what they describe as arbitrary arrests of teenagers and grown men, who are usually released without criminal charges after weeks or months in captivity or conscripted for at least a year. Torture, medical neglect, and other mistreatment are common in SDF jails—detainees are known to have died in such conditions, some as young as fourteen years old. Families who can afford it will often pay bribes to the militia who detained their loved ones, either for their release or at least their well-being in detention.
The entities most often linked to arbitrary arrests and abuses in detention within the SDF are the Asayish or the Internal Security Forces, particularly their Hezen Anti Teror (HAT) tactical teams, who serve as the militarized wing of SDF law enforcement. Their duties range from assisting in arrests to serving as a quick reaction force responding to ISIS attacks and the occasional shootout with pro-Assad militias. HAT teams are often the ones who impose curfews and conduct night raids in Deir ez-Zor, to which angered locals have increasingly responded with protests. This can range from demonstrations where marchers carry picket signs to roadblocks where piles of car tires are set on fire, creating wide plumes of black smoke.
It was during this time that an SDF-affiliated militia made up predominately of al-Bukeyir and al-Baggara tribesmen, many of whom had once pledged allegiance to ISIS, ruled their territory east of the Euphrates with an avaricious iron fist. The Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) was created in late 2016 as part of a US-led effort to give the Syrian Democratic Forces a local face in majority-Arab areas. Saudi Arabia also assisted by leveraging cross-border tribal links to drum up local support for the new militia and counter Iranian influence.
The DMC’s reputation among civilians and the SDF alike quickly soured amid repeated accusations of corruption and human rights abuses, as well as unreliability during combat operations.
The DMC quickly became as hated by the local population as the Asayish and HAT, if not even more so. Bribes at checkpoints escalated into unadulterated extortion and activists in the area reported field executions occurring after night raids. They quickly got involved in organized crime rackets from smuggling wheat, oil, narcotics, and weapons to kidnapping people for ransom while also committing torture, rape, and murder.
The militia’s horrendous behaviour has frequently sparked protests by furious civilians, leading to an incident in 2020 when live ammunition was fired to disperse a demonstration. The perpetrators accused the protestors of being pro-Assad agents fomenting chaos.
Worsening poverty is another factor ratcheting up tensions, with the locals receiving little to none of the revenue generated by the region’s oil fields. The SDF instead sells crude oil by the barrel to both the Assad regime and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq–using the proceeds to fund its continued existence instead of social programs or job opportunities in Deir ez-Zor. This is yet another industry in the region that the DMC has fully hijacked and converted into a monopoly. The revenue generated by the oil trade and other forms of criminal activity have enabled their commander and his family to purchase, or steal, multiple properties, businesses, and vast tracks of land—turning the region into their personal fiefdom.
Part 2 of “Smoke on the Euphrates” will examine how a crime boss turned warlord became the self-proclaimed emir of Deir ez-Zor, outraging the population with daily abuses and eventually sparking an uprising against the Syrian Democratic Forces.