The arrest by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of the head of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, Rashid al-Khwala, has triggered clashes throughout northern city with Arab tribes

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The leader of Syria’s largest Arab tribe, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl, has reportedly agreed to join US-brokered talks to end clashes between tribes and the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The head of the Akeidat tribe, al-Hifl declined to participate in the discussions convened by the Americans last weekend, following the deaths of scores of people in the fighting in north and northeast Syria.

The Sheikh and his delegation reportedly received guarantees of US protection for their travel to the al-Omar base.

In a long interview with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, published on Tuesday, al-Hifl said tribes were rising in Deir ez-Zor province to “restore the rights of the people of the governate that were robbed by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces”.

He referred to the catalyst of the SDF’s detention of Rashid Abu Khawla, the head of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, as the “arrest and besieging of the women and children of the leaders” of the Council in an attempt to dominate it.

This, al-Hifl said, was in addition to the previous abuses and “racist practices” of the SDF. He claimed the Forces were “fabricating charges and creating scarecrows” about the presence of terrorist organizations among the Arab tribes as “a pretext to implement their agendas”.

Claiming the “right of self-defense”, the Sheikh said the “ultimate goal” of the movement is to secure the “rights of the inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor” and to return security and stability to the region.

ORIGINAL ENTRY, SEPT 3: Almost 12 1/2 years after the start of the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime, there is another front of conflict in the fractured country.

Long-standing tension in Deir ez-Zor Province in northeast Syria between Arab tribes US-backed Kurdish groups — the ruling authority in much of the area since the defeat of the Islamic State from 2015 to 2019 — has turned violent, with the reported deaths of scores of people.

The catalyst for the clashes was last Sunday’s arrest by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of the head of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council.

Ahmed al-Khbeil, better known as Rashid Abu Khawla, and four of his lieutenants were seized on allegations of drug trafficking, nepotism, and mismanaging security.

The SDF said it also carried out raids for Islamic State sleeper cells, “criminal elements”, and smugglers. An official claimed, “Some of those criminal elements, drug traffickers and those extorting people were elements of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council.”

Initially, skirmishes were limited as the Arab community split over the arrests. Abu Khawla’s relatives and other loyalists, based in the areas of Suwwar and Busayrah, called for a rising. However, leaders of the Akeidat and Baggara tribes issued statements for calm and neutrality.

By Wednesday, the fighting had spread with casualties among civilian. SDF checkpoints in the Euphrates River valley were -attacked. Claims circulated that an SDF counter-terror unit killed four members of a family during a raid in Daman.

On Thursday, the leader of the Akeidat tribe, Ibrahim al-Hifl, called for a joint stand against the SDF operations. He accused the forces of killing women and children, and said they should release detainees.

Al-Hifl is seeking the formation of an independent military council, led and manned by tribesmen rather than Kurdish officials, in direct contact with US commanders. Baggara leader Hashim Bashir issued a similar statement for a shura council.

On Friday, tribal fighters declared control of the towns of Dhiban and Hajin, near the last villages held by the Islamic State in 2019. The SDF declared a 48-hour curfew through Deir ez-Zor province from Saturday morning.

About 200 miles to the west, Turkish-backed anti-Assad factions seized villages near the SDF-held city of Manbij in Aleppo Province. They were driven back by Russian airstrikes which allegedly killed civilians, including five children.

Turkey’s Erdoğan Government is dedicated to removing the Syrian Kurdish authority, believing it to be allied to the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. In October 2019, a Turkish cross-border operation seized a 30-km (19-mile) deep corridor in northeast Syria.

Years of Local Tensions

Kurdish officials tried to shift focus to the Assad regime and Iran. Ilham Ehmed, co-chair of the executive committee of the autonomous administration in northeast, said, “[They] want to depict this unrest as a result of an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds and to distract the Syrians from the protest movements in [the] south of Syria.”

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Ehmed continued, “Trying to drive American troops out of Syria is one potential goal. They may be attempting to win international pity and support for this cause by presenting the situation as being driven by Arab tribes.”

But some analysts point to long-standing complaints by Arab groups of discrimination and displacement by the Kurdish authorities.

The detention of Abu Khawla, they say, was a trigger rather than a cause of conflict. Having briefly joined the Islamic State before fleeing to Turkey in 2015, he was not liked by many in the region. The arrest and death of one of his brothers,a fugitive wanted on allegations of rape, during last week’s raids was celebrated in Shuhayl by residents distributing candy in the streets.

Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Newlines Institute, notes, “A significant part of his influence relied on support from the US through the SDF. He is not really an iconic figure to inspire a multi-tribal insurgency.”

The Akaidat tribe, the largest along the Iraq-Syria border, and its Baqqara counterpart could play a leading role in developments. In August 2020, the Akaidat’s al-Hifl gave American authorities a 30-day ultimatum for the transfer of administrative control. At the same time, the tribe recognized the ongoing presence of the military arrangements with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

No transfer of power was made, and the situation was left unresolved.

On Sunday, the US Embassy in Syria said the commander of the American-led coalition, Maj. Gen. Joel Vowell, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ethan Goldrich met tribal leaders and representatives from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The US statement declared agreement on “the importance of addressing the grievances of residents of Deir El-Zour, the dangers of outsiders interfering in Deir El-Zour, the need to avoid civilian deaths and casualties, and the need for de-escalation of violence as soon as possible”. Goldrich and Vowell reaffirmed the “strong US partnership” with the SDF in ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.

However, the statement was soon undercut by Sheikh al-Hifl. He denied any ceasefire had been reached between the tribes and the SDF, and emphasized that neither he nor any of his representatives were at the US-led meeting.

The Baggara tribe’s leader Hashim Bashir reportedly was involved in the discussions.