The Eastern Euphrates region has been witnessing tensions between the Arab and Kurdish components that warn of the possibility of collapse of the fragile implicit rapprochement that was built against the backdrop of the defeat of Daesh (the Islamic State, IS), amid Arab demands to strike a balance in the relationship and interests between the two sides and the competition between regional and international actors to gain influence in an extremely important region at the geopolitical level in the Syrian file.
This paper sheds light on the events taking place in the Eastern Euphrates region and the interests and goals of regional and international actors.
Causes and drivers of the tension
The assassination of the Sheikh of the Aqeedat (Akidat) tribe Mutashhar Hamoud al-Hafl on 2 August 2020, and the assassination two days earlier of Sheikh Ali Salman al-Weis of the al-Baggara (al-Bakara) clan by gunmen on motorcycles, sparked a wave of violent protests by the Arab clan component in the areas east of the Euphrates, which are under the control of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and its military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD), with the support of US forces.
Over the following days, demonstrations erupted in the areas adjacent to the oil well belt in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. Clansmen took control of QSD headquarters and checkpoints. The Aqeedat and Baggara clans, the largest clans east of the Euphrates and in Syria as a whole, accuse the QSD of being behind the series of assassinations that, according to them, aim at subjugating the Arab component in the eastern region and subject it to the de facto Kurdish authority. The QSD responded with a massive security campaign and arrested many clansmen whom it described as "terrorists". The Arab clans in the areas east of the Euphrates issued statements of support and solidarity with the Aqeedat clan.
The Syrian regime: a chance to regain control
The Syrian regime has kept pace with developments in the Eastern Euphrates by intensifying the meetings of its security agencies in the areas under its control in Deir Ezzor with clan leaders in the region, to push the situation in the QSD areas towards further escalation. The Syrian regime was quick to take practical steps to seize what it sees as an opportunity to "launch popular resistance" against the US presence by pushing its supportive clans, especially the Aqeedat, to announce the formation of military units and political councils to restore their presence and role in the oil region belt in Deir Ezzor. The regime sought to expand the scope of tension between the clans and the QSD by pushing the major clans in southern Raqqa to issue a joint statement in which they affirmed their support for any military move against the QSD. However, the regime’s actions appear to be more mediatic than operational for many reasons, mainly:
Iran: Getting rid of US monitoring
The Eastern Euphrates region occupies an important place in the list of Iran's interests and priorities. Iran concentrates an important part of its resources and capabilities in Syria on the periphery of this region and looks forward to controlling it, given its geographical and strategic importance to Iran's project in the East. The area is considered a bridge between Iranian spheres of influence in the Arabian East and because a portion of its population tends to support the Iranian project, based on their connection with the “Ahl al-Bayt” (the Household of the Prophet Muhammad).
The calls by the sheikh of the Syrian Baggara tribe Nawaf al-Bashir in the areas of Eastern Euphrates River to form tribal forces and a tribal political body equipped with weapons to confront the QSD forces and the US mark an indication of the extent of Iran's enthusiasm to take advantage of the tense situation in the region and turn it in its favour, and get rid of its US existence in Syria that keeps a close eye on Iranian activity.
Iran seeks to infiltrate the Jazira region and export the idea of the existence a popular resistance to create pressure on the US presence in the east of the Euphrates, taking advantage of the difficult economic conditions to attract the young to work with its militias, and to exploit Arab fury at the QSD discriminatory practices against them.
Russia: Weakening the US position
Russia seeks to impose its control over the regions east of the Euphrates, given their wealth that would contribute to solving part of the economic problems of its allied Assad regime, and the possibility that Russian companies would benefit from investment in oil and gas, as well as strengthening its cards in confronting Turkey and Iran in the Syrian file. Russia seeks to utilise the events to weaken the US position and drive US forces to withdraw from the region. Russia is prompted to this by its failure to change the conditions in its favour in any other way.
The Russian Ministry of Defence issued a statement indicating that "the situation in areas outside the control of the Syrian state in Deir Ezzor is worsening day after day". The Ministry expressed "readiness by Syria and Russia to take all necessary measures to settle the situation in the Syrian al-Jazira areas”. Russia accused the US of fueling the situation in the Eastern Euphrates region. A statement issued by the Russian Hmeimim base in Syria pointed out that "the US military presence in this region has become a fundamental element of instability and blocking any efforts to reach a political settlement in Syria".
Russian newspapers had previously launched an attack on the US oil agreement with the Kurdish Autonomous Administration, accusing the Americans of usurping the Syrian oil wealth. The Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta considered that Russia has lost to the US in the undeclared competition to achieve its geopolitical and economic goals in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular, in light of the US control over most of the country's resources and more than a third of its area.
The US: managing the balances in the Eastern Euphrates
The US rushed to contain the situation and defuse the tension in the Eastern Euphrates due to its awareness of the danger of the explosion of the situation for its forces and its entire project in that region, as well as its knowledge of the intentions and ambitions of its opponents and rivals. Besides, the US has previous experience in clan insurgency in Iraq, where the environment of the Syrian clans is similar to its counterpart in Iraq. furthermore, any organized insurgency by the clans and the failure by the US to control the situation would render US bases and patrols a target for clansmen who had previously accused the Americans of standing by the side of the QSD against them.
The US State Department condemned the assassinations that took place, pledging to hold the perpetrators accountable. US military officials met with clan leaders at the al-Omar oil field, where they confirmed their keenness to continue investigations and uncover the perpetrators of the assassinations. According to clan sources, "the clans received US promises to ease the power of the Kurds over decision-making in Deir Ezzor and grant military and civil powers to clansmen". The Americans also promised the execution of development projects that would help improve the economic and living conditions.
The US considers that the Arab clans, as a local community, constitute a safety valve to establish stability in their regions and prevent the return of the Islamic State Organisation (Daesh, IS) whose cells continue to be active in the region. For their part, Arab clans in eastern Syria believe that the Kurds' incursion into their areas of control would not have taken place without the US cover, and that there is a process of deliberately marginalizing them by Washington.
Some circles believe that the US would not succeed in defusing the tension this time, especially in view of the rise of the demand by the clans, namely to "form an Arab political local administration that would supervise the administration of the Deir Ezzor Countryside, Raqqa and Hasaka, and the formation of an army of Arab tribes to be entrusted with maintaining security and fighting corruption and the corrupt. This makes Washington's options limited; it would either have to change its policies in dealing with the people of the eastern region, or go for the security approach option, which would be extremely costly.
Turkey: mixing the cards for the Americans
Turkey is one of the main beneficiaries of what is happening in eastern Syria. It would benefit from undermining the relationship between the Arabs and the Kurds whom it considers a threat to its national security. Turkey supported the establishment of the opposition Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans. Turkey hides behind the Syrian opposition, especially the Supreme Council of Tribes which brings together an elite of the Aqeedat clan, to incite against the Kurds. During a press conference held on 14 August 2020 in the city of Şanlıurfa in southern Turkey, the Council condemned the practices of the QSD, explicitly accusing the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) of being behind the series of assassinations and changing the demographic structure in the region. The Council demanded the withdrawal of US forces and that the management of the oil fields be handed over the local Arab population, in addition to the departure of the QSD. The statement called for the intervention of Turkish forces to expel the QSD from the eastern region.
The QSD accuses Turkey of being behind the assassinations to mix the cards in the region, embarrass the US administration and undermine its arrangements in the Eastern Euphrates areas, especially after the emergence of intentions to recognize the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. Those intentions emerged through the oil agreement between the two sides.
The reality of the Arab clans
Theoretically, the Arab tribes in the Eastern Euphrates region possess important cards that would allow them to achieve their goals and ensure their interests. The Arab clans constitute a large percentage of the population of the Eastern Euphrates areas. They are supported by large numbers in the nearby areas in Western Euphrates and the Aleppo Countryside. This numerical weight qualifies them to turn the equations of control in their favour.
In addition, the rivalry between regional and international powers to win over the clans gives the clans wide options and supports their demands to have a significant role in managing the region’s affairs and its future arrangements, as well as obtaining an appropriate share of the distributed resources. However, it would be difficult to convert those facts into political results due to the division that characterizes the clans. Despite their numerical superiority, the clans are sharply divided between more than one side. This division strikes the clan itself that has become distributed among more than one party. The map of clan divisions can be illustrated through the following points:
 Sabra Douh, “Arab Kurdish sedition in eastern Syria fueled by invisible hands”, London-based alarab, 10 August 2020.
 Ayham Marei, “Clans escalate in the face of US occupation: we are ready for overall resistance”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 9 July 2020.
 Elizabeth Tsurkov and Esam al-Hassan, “Kurdish Arab Power Struggle in Northeastern Syria”, 24, July 2019.
 Ayham Marei, “The clans grant QSD a grace period: no retreat from the demands”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 8 August 2020.
 Khaled al-Khatib, “The Aqeedat tribe: between the regime’s incitement and the QSD discrimination”, almodon, 11 August 2020.
 “A military council for clans sponsored by Damascus: launching comprehensive resistance against the Americans”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 10 August 2020.
 Alaa Abdel Rahman, “Is Iran trying to penetrate the Syrian Jazira through the clans?”, arabi21, 12 August 2020.
 Raed Jaber and Kamal Sheikho, “Russia Accuses US of Sowing Chaos East of Euphrates”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 8 August 2020.
 Kamal Sheikho, “The US military undertakes to investigate the assassination of clan leaders east of the Euphrates”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 7 August 2020.
 Ayham Marei, “American moves to appease the people: the clans explode their anger in the face of QSD”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 6 August 2020.
 Sokrat al-Alou, “Implications of the rivalry in Eastern Euphrates for the local actors and the Syrian crisis”, Al Jazeera Center for Studies, 3 June 2020.
 “Arab Kurdish sedition…”, op. cit.
 “Russia Accuses US…”, op. cit.
 Arab Kurdish sedition…”, op. cit.
 “Al-Jazira’s Arabs: the QSD is leading us to an earthquake”, almodon website, 7 August 2020.
 “Implications of the rivalry in Eastern Euphrates for the local actors and the Syrian crisis”, op. cit.
Ahmed Nadhif | 13 Feb 2021
EPC | 11 Feb 2021
Ahmed Nadhif | 07 Feb 2021