Arab-Kurdish Tension East of the Euphrates: Causes and Outcomes

EPC | 01 Sep 2020

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

Direct causes

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.

Indirect causes

  • The oil agreement between the QSD and the US oil company Delta Crescent Energy to develop and exploit the oil fields under the QSD control has provoked angry reactions on the part of the Arab clans and regional and international actors. The clans object to the domination by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration over the wealth of the Eastern Euphrates areas and depriving them of their rights therein. Clan sources stated that the assassination of the Sheikhs of the Baggara and Aqeedat tribes is linked to their reservations on this agreement.[1]
  • The intra-Kurdish dialogue sponsored by the US and France between the Kurdish National Council (KNC, ENKS) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) constituted a driver for escalating the Arab movement. The external sponsors had wanted to strengthen the Kurdish position in the final negotiations for the solution in Syria and increase the share and influence of the Kurds in the High Negotiations Committee and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. This was considered by the clans as marginalization of their role and a prelude to the Kurdish monopolisation of the rule of the Eastern Euphrates region.[2]
  • Clans in the Eastern Euphrates accuse the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of practising political and economic discrimination against the Arab component, where the PYD monopolises the wealth, senior positions and privileges. While Arabs are appointed in leading military and civilian positions in areas with an Arab majority, their roles are largely formal, as the Kurdish cadres are the ones who take the decisions.[3] The Arab regions complain about the deterioration of living conditions and the lack of services even as they are constantly accused by QSD of harbouring and covering up for Daesh. The Kurdish administration has also imposed educational curricula that do not comply with the region’s conservative nature and do not respect its Arab belonging. The Kurdish Administration seeks to attract the Sheikhs and work with them instead of activists and professionals who reject the deals policy and playing the role of legitimiser for Kurdish policies in the Arab areas.[4]
  • The desire of the clans to play a role that is commensurate with their size and capabilities,[5] and their awareness of their importance and of the regional and international competition around them, especially that the Arab clans in the Eastern Euphrates areas have become more stable after the defeat of Daesh.
  • The sharp competition between the players to polarize the clans, given the strategic importance of the Eastern Euphrates areas. This has reflected on the relationship of the Arab and Kurdish components. The Kurds believe that allowing regional and international influence to enter the clan areas will undermine their control and may turn into a security threat if the external actors manage to link the clans to their agenda for the region, especially Turkey, Iran and Russia. On the other hand, the Arabs consider that they now have other options, which may help in strengthening their cards in re-arranging the affairs of the region and obtaining shares that are commensurate with their status and position.

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.[6] 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.[7] 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:

  • The bulk of the members of Aqeedat reside in the areas controlled by the QSD. Those residing in the regime areas do not exceed 5 percent of the tribe’s total.
  • The regime relies in its actions on dignitaries of the second and third degrees. These have no social value in the clan milieu.
  • The majority of clan youth and intellectuals reject the return of and dealing with the regime under any circumstances.
  • A portion of the clansmen accuse the regime, through its security cells, of being behind the assassinations with the aim of setting the region on fire and driving the Arab component to demand the restoration of the regime’s control.

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[8] 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".[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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:

  • Some of the tribesmen in the areas of Eastern Euphrates support the Kurdish Autonomous Administration authority and are involved in the QSD forces, the Deir Ezzor Military Council and many local and civil councils that form part of the Autonomous Administration structure in the Eastern Euphrates areas, in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hasaka. These reject the return of the regime forces and demand investigations that reveal those responsible for the assassinations.
  • Some of the Syrian opposition tribesmen support and join the opposition Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans. These are mostly refugees, and some of them are involved in the opposition factions supported by Turkey. They accuse the Autonomous Administration of carrying out demographic cleansing operations against the Arabs.
  • Some of the tribesmen support the Assad regime and Iran and demand the return of the regime’s authority to the areas east of the Euphrates and the exit of US and Turkish forces. These are organised within in the Iran-backed National Council of Arab Clans and Tribes and the Council of Syrian Clans and Tribes.
  • On 23 June 2020, hundreds of political and social figures from the Jazira and Euphrates areas, in addition to Syrian opponents, launched the Arab Democratic Alliance in the Jazira and the Euphrates. This development raised reservations by the Kurdish political powers that considered it directed against the US-sponsored intra-Kurdish dialogue.[16] This alliance brings together many intellectuals and elites from residents of those regions who reject the authority of the Kurds and reject the return of the Assad regime to the region.
  • The Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, led by Ahmad al-Jarba, the Arab Council in the Jazira and the Euphrates, the Assyrian Organization, and the Kurdish National Council announced the formation of an alliance called the Peace and Freedom Front as an opposition political framework that supports decentralization in Syria.
  • Clans bring accusations against one another, which focus on two issues: first, each party considers itself to be the main clan component, that its sheikhs are the authentic, and that the other party is inauthentic and marginal, belonging to the clan's periphery. This phenomenon is widespread among the Aqeedat, Baggara, Jabour, Shammar and Tayy clans. Second, each party accuses the other parties of adopting opportunistic positions, aiming at pleasing the supporter. Those positions mostly arise as a result of pressure by this supporter.
  • The parties competing to win over the clans use similar tools, based on the financial and political support of the tribal sheikhs and considering them as local mediators with their communities. This had negative consequences for the structure of the clan, reducing its cohesion and creating more than one head and reference for the same clan.[17]

Conclusions

  • The overall developments in the areas of Eastern Euphrates indicate the possibility of further escalation in the next phase, given the insistence by both the Arab and Kurdish sides on their positions. The Kurdish Autonomous Administration refuses to give up its monopoly on political power and share with the Arabs. It considers that the liberation of those areas from the control of Daesh took place primarily through Kurdish sacrifices. It also considers that the majority of the areas east of the Euphrates are Kurdish territories and that the Arabs residing there came within the framework of the Syrian regime's policy of " Arabisation of the region” or the transfer of some of the Arabs from the areas flooded by the Euphrates Dam (Arab al-Ghamr or the Arabs affected by flooding).
  • The developments reveal the awareness of the Arabs of the Eastern Euphrates areas of their importance, their rejection of their continued marginalization by the Autonomous Administration, and their insistence on demanding equal rights with the Kurds in power and wealth, especially that the region is considered the richest in Syria in terms of oil and agriculture.
  • The Kurdish Autonomous Administration, with the support of the Americans, is more likely to seek to contain the Arab rebellion and play on "the already existing" clan divisions to weaken the Arab position and force the clans to accept the de facto situation.
  • However, the intensive external intervention threatens with difficulties that may be faced by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration coalition and the Americans. The other players have strategies to sabotage the stability of this alliance, mobilize resources and capabilities for it, and possess the tools, which suggests that the situation in the Eastern Euphrates areas could possibly explode.
  • The civil war is considered one of the possible scenarios in those areas, considering the deep intra-divisions, be they among the Kurds themselves, between the Arabs and Kurds, or among the Arab clans. There are no indications of suitable solutions to the current crisis. Despite the efforts made by the Americans, their bias towards the Kurdish Autonomous Administration weakens their position in managing the crisis and finding appropriate solutions to it.

Endnotes

[1] Sabra Douh, “Arab Kurdish sedition in eastern Syria fueled by invisible hands”, London-based alarab, 10 August 2020.

[2] Ayham Marei, “Clans escalate in the face of US occupation: we are ready for overall resistance”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 9 July 2020.

[3] Elizabeth Tsurkov and Esam al-Hassan, “Kurdish Arab Power Struggle in Northeastern Syria”, 24, July 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ayham Marei, “The clans grant QSD a grace period: no retreat from the demands”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 8 August 2020.

[6] Khaled al-Khatib, “The Aqeedat tribe: between the regime’s incitement and the QSD discrimination”, almodon, 11 August 2020.

[7] “A military council for clans sponsored by Damascus: launching comprehensive resistance against the Americans”, Lebanese al-akhbar newspaper, 10 August 2020.

[8] Alaa Abdel Rahman, “Is Iran trying to penetrate the Syrian Jazira through the clans?”, arabi21, 12 August 2020.

[9] Raed Jaber and Kamal Sheikho, “Russia Accuses US of Sowing Chaos East of Euphrates”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 8 August 2020.

[10] Kamal Sheikho, “The US military undertakes to investigate the assassination of clan leaders east of the Euphrates”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 7 August 2020.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] “Arab Kurdish sedition…”, op. cit.

[14] “Russia Accuses US…”, op. cit.

[15] Arab Kurdish sedition…”, op. cit.

[16] “Al-Jazira’s Arabs: the QSD is leading us to an earthquake”, almodon website, 7 August 2020.

[17] “Implications of the rivalry in Eastern Euphrates for the local actors and the Syrian crisis”, op. cit.

 

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