The Syrian Democratic Forces’ Arab Coalition is Crumbling, Creating Opportunities for ISIS, Iran, and Turkey
The Syrian Democratic Forces’ Arab Coalition is Crumbling, Creating Opportunities for ISIS, Iran, and Turkey
Authors: Brian Carter and Ashka Jhaveri
The coalition between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Arab tribes in Deir ez Zor is fracturing amid clashes over long-standing grievances. The SDF’s response to the clashes very likely will undermine its ability to maintain control in the province for at least the next several months. The SDF and the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC) began fighting after the SDF arrested the DMC commander on August 27. The conflict rapidly expanded after August 30, as other tribes joined the fighting driven by long-running grievances against the SDF. These grievances included limited reconstruction in the Arab areas, repeated SDF abuses of the local populations, and a lack of representative Arab leadership. The tribes captured the southern areas of SDF-administered Deir ez Zor province by September 2. The SDF recaptured the territory on September 10 by force and through actions that local media portrayed as abuses. Anti-SDF tribal fighters began conducting hit-and-run insurgent attacks on September 6, meaning anti-SDF forces are contesting the SDF’s control of the population in Deir ez Zor. CTP defines control as “uncontested physical or psychological pressure to ensure that individuals or groups respond as directed.” The SDF has not taken steps to address the tribes’ grievances as of September 14.
- The SDF arrested DMC commander Abu Khawla, who attempted to create an independent Deir ez Zor region that he would control. Local Arab media reported that the SDF executed wounded fighters, arbitrarily detained civilians, and fired indiscriminately into civilian areas during the initial fighting. This prompted tribal forces unaligned with the DMC commander to capture most of the SDF-administered southern Deir ez Zor province in an effort to assert independence from the SDF. The SDF employed similarly abusive measures in recapturing the areas, which enflamed grievances further.
- The tribes said on September 2 they would negotiate only with the US-led coalition and demanded the withdrawal of the SDF through an official US-led coalition decision on September 6. They called for the establishment of a tribal administration, including a police force and judiciary independent of the SDF and elected by the tribes in cooperation with the coalition. The tribes also demanded that the SDF hold its forces accountable for their crimes and that the victims have the right to a speedy and fair trial for detainees. Syrian media reported that tribal leaders met with US officials on September 8 and presented similar demands.
- SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi announced he would negotiate with the tribes, discuss leadership changes and economic improvement in Deir ez Zor, and grant a general amnesty for tribal fighters on September 8. SDF forces have not honored the general amnesty, however, and instead continue to arrest pro-tribal activists and locals. Abdi also refused to grant the tribes’ top demand, which is greater autonomy in Deir ez Zor. Failure to remove the reasons for the fighting means the tribes will continue to resist the SDF’s rule, thus requiring greater SDF investment to maintain control.
Figure 1. SDF and Anti-SDF Tribes Clash over SDF Rule
Source: Brian Carter and Ashka Jhaveri.
The failure to reach a resolution risk breaking the coalition in the long term, which almost certainly would degrade the SDF’s ability to support the US-led counter-ISIS mission in Syria. The differences between the SDF and the tribes are increasingly intractable as the core tribal demand for independence from the SDF with coalition support has grown in importance. The SDF is only offering economic improvement and opaque promises of leadership change in Deir ez Zor. A tribal insurgency has also begun in Deir Ez Zor, which draws the SDF’s attention away from the counter-ISIS mission and threatens the stability of the SDF’s Arab forces. The US counter-ISIS mission relies on the SDF as the leading counter-ISIS partner force in Syria.
- Local Arab tribal fighters conducted 14 hit-and-run attacks on the SDF between September 6 and 11. The SDF’s approach to the ongoing ISIS insurgency in Deir ez Zor, which is defined by arbitrary detention, abuse of locals, and flawed counterinsurgency practices, suggests that the SDF’s response to the tribal insurgency will inflame rather than solve the grievances. Arab forces have already defected from the SDF, which reduces the number of SDF forces available to combat ISIS.
- SDF abuses of the population could undermine the SDF’s intelligence collection efforts and ability to recruit locals and maintain the legitimacy required to govern. The loss of intelligence sources and forces would reduce the SDF’s capacity to combat ISIS. The loss of legitimacy would require the SDF to devote more resources to control Deir ez Zor, forcing the SDF to choose between controlling Deir ez Zor and protecting itself from other threats. The SDF frequently prioritizes other threats over the counter-ISIS mission.
The conflict between the Arab tribes and the SDF will likely allow ISIS to accelerate the recruitment of fighters to strengthen its forces before a US withdrawal. CTP continues to assess that ISIS aims to reimpose its control over territory in Syria and that it has the capability to do so, should the opportunity arise. A key component of ISIS’s strategy in Iraq and Syria is undermining the local security forces and social networks to better present itself as a viable alternative. The regime’s policies before 2011 and ISIS’s behavior during the 2010s have already weakened Arab tribal leadership in Deir ez Zor. The emerging anti-SDF tribal insurgency will benefit ISIS by stretching the SDF’s bandwidth and limiting its cohesion. ISIS is attempting to present itself as a viable third option between the SDF and Arab tribes in Deir ez Zor to subvert both parties and recruit hard-liners from the Arab tribes with promises of greater autonomy. CTP continues to assess that ISIS aims to reimpose its control over territory in Syria and it has the capability to do so, should the opportunity arise.
- ISIS aims to undermine the local forces and social groups in both Iraq and Syria to increase recruitment among these groups and control over them. This strategy was a key component of its rise to prominence after its defeat at the hands of the Iraqi Sunni Awakening and US forces in the late 2000s. Tribal leaders lack sufficient authority to forbid engagement with ISIS, and ISIS has recruited elements of individual tribes in the past. ISIS has greater opportunities to recruit local youth because the regime, ISIS, and the SDF have undermined traditional tribal leaders by circumscribing and undermining their authority and elevating leaders loyal to themselves, which supports ISIS efforts to recruit because leaders with limited traditional authority lack the leverage to fully control some youth.
- Recent ISIS propaganda indicates the group aims to recruit locals in Deir ez Zor amid the fighting to prepare for the US withdrawal. ISIS released propaganda on August 31 that said it viewed both the Arab tribes and the SDF as “ignorant,” and called on ISIS fighters and supporters to avoid the fighting to prevent “blood from being shed” to protect “blasphemous projects.” ISIS said that instead Muslims should “rally around their mujahideen brothers, support them, and increase their numbers.” It added that the safety and security ISIS provided had been “lost” by local communities, and it can only be obtained again by siding with ISIS.
The SDF prevented Arab units from defecting en masse but individual Arab fighters successfully defected in the dozens during the fighting, indicating a lack of cohesion and low morale among the SDF’s Arab formations. This will provide ISIS opportunities to bribe the already underpaid SDF guards at detention facilities and help create greater freedom of movement by decreasing the willingness of the SDF forces to conduct aggressive operations. The SDF is also using special operations units usually focused on combating ISIS to suppress the Arabs, meaning that these forces will have limited bandwidth to address ISIS cells.
Figure 2. Turkish-Backed Opposition and SDF Clashes
Source: Ashka Jhaveri.
Turkey is fueling the expansion of clashes between the Arab tribes and the SDF, possibly to create a fifth column against the SDF in a future ground incursion. Turkey has threatened a military incursion into northeastern Syria targeting Tal Rifaat and Manbij in Aleppo Province, Syria, since May 2022. Turkey has launched four military operations in the region using its coalition of Syrian armed groups—the Syrian National Army (SNA)—to attack the SDF-held positions in northeastern Syria in 2016, 2018, and 2020. The SDF–Arab tribe clashes present Turkey with an opportunity to degrade the SDF’s capabilities and build relationships with the Arab tribes that help other Turkish military operations in Syria. The SNA attacks in Manbij forced the SDF to confront multiple security threats in two provinces.
- The SNA began attacking the SDF near Manbij and Tell Tamar on September 1. The SNA killed the head of the Manbij Military Council in an improvised explosive device attack on September 6. The Manbij Military Council is an entity under the SDF and the primary security force for the area. The Turkish ultraright paramilitary force “The Grey Wolves” deployed to Manbij on September 6 under the SNA’s command. The Turkish military also conducted multiple drone strikes on SDF positions in Aleppo and Raqqa provinces in Syria.
- The SNA opened border crossings between the Turkish-held and SDF-held areas in Manbij and Al Bab to local tribal members willing to join their fight against the SDF on September 1. Tribes from Turkish-held areas have launched multiple attacks on SDF positions in Manbij.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan affirmed his support for the Arab tribes in a comment to reporters on September 4. He said the tribes are the real owners of the contested territories and accused the United States of providing weapons to the SDF. The Turkish Foreign Minister called on the United States to stop suppressing the Arab communities in Syria that are under the SDF’s control. Turkish media consistently frames the United States as a threat to local Syrians.
Figure 3. Pro-Regime Forces Take Advantage of the SDF-Tribal Clashes
Source: Ashkha Jhaveri and Brian Carter.
Forces loyal to the Assad regime are taking advantage of a hostile environment toward the SDF, which likely will facilitate their efforts to establish a grassroots resistance for the purpose of expelling the United States from Syria. Pro-regime forces launched attacks and conducted sabotage in SDF-controlled territory in late August and early September. They also directed tribal leaders to attack the US-led international coalition. These actions are consistent with the coordinated campaign that Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime began forming in November 2022 to expel the United States from Syria. Cultivating an anti-US grassroots resistance movement that conducts attacks on US forces is one component of Iran’s campaign.
- Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders met with local commanders in Deir ez zor City on September 13 to form a militia with tribal character. The IRGC appointed a former Syrian regime major general with strong ties to the tribal sheikhs to recruit tribesmen from the regime- and SDF-controlled territory, according to a report on September 10. Iran began recruiting to establish “sleeper cells” in June 2023 operating in the SDF-controlled territory to attack US forces.
- Pro-regime forces attempted to take advantage of a hostile environment in June and August 2023 amid fictitious rumors of international coalition attacks into Syrian regime territory. Iranian and Russian information campaigns amplified the rumors as pro-regime forces deployed to lines of control with the SDF. The United States denied the rumors, and pro-regime forces did not attack US positions or fracture the US position in Syria. The US is reliant on the SDF for counter-ISIS operations. The Iranian attempt to exploit tribal grievances to undermine the SDF is therefore more effective in destabilizing the United States in Syria.
- Iran forms pro-Iranian militia groups to pursue foreign policy objectives. The IRGC Quds Force helped exiled Iraqis in the 1980s create powerful armed groups such as the Badr Organization. Iran continues to use these groups to exert influence over the Iraqi political establishment and Iraq’s armed forces.
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