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Distrust of SDF, unclear future divide Syrian tribal massacre area

Al-Monitor traveled to the Shaitat area of Deir ez-Zor, scene of a 2014 massacre in which up to 1,000 mostly men and boys were killed within a few weeks after the tribe rose up against the Islamic State, to understand how the people there are dealing with the Kurdish-led SDF.

ABU HAMAM, Syria — Along the Euphrates nearby, regime soldiers can be seen walking calmly on the other side. Fishing boats leave from this “opposition-held” bank and no one shoots.

Tall grass abounds along both sides as well as on the small islands in the middle, used in August 2014 by some to hide amid a massacre of as many as 1,000 mostly men and boys after their tribe, the Shaitat, rose up against the Islamic State (IS).

Deir ez-Zor province is geopolitically important, wedged between the Iraqi border to the east, pro-Iranian armed groups to the south, the Syrian regime to the west and US-backed, Kurdish-dominated areas to the north.

The province’s Shaitat area is near al-Omar oil field, previously a major source of revenue for IS. The oil field, Syria’s largest, is where key IS financier Abu Sayyaf was killed in mid-2015 and where international coalition troops are now based.

The area east of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border is now officially under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but few signs of their presence can be seen here.

The Shaitat tribe was little known before the massacre. After they rose up against IS, an ID showing they were from the area often meant a death sentence at checkpoints. Thousands are said to still be missing, some likely in mass graves nearby.

IS graffiti in Arabic and Russian still appears on walls. Residents are quick to point out where the Libyan Battar Brigade was, where remnants of a weapons factory can be found and where the severed heads of Shaitat “rebels” had been placed on a wall to act as a warning.

With IS gone, however, complaints center on a dire lack of electricity, water and fuel, as well as arbitrary arrests.

In all three Shaitat towns — Abu Hamam, Kishkiya and Garanij — vehicles line up from early morning at empty gas stations amid suffocating heat.

Many infants end up in the Abu Hamam hospital, where the staff complains of the lack of oxygen and other medical supplies. A nurse at the hospital, Mohamed Hosni Abd al-Salah, told Al-Monitor, “Many children die because of minor ailments — due to a lack of doctors and services.”

Residents allege that IS fighters are treated better in both SDF-run camps and prisons than the Arabs that fought against IS. Many also say former IS leaders responsible for many deaths are now collaborating with the SDF.

An SDF press official had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Sheikh Nasser Othman al-Sabah from the Shaitat tribe — who said his close relatives were among the first to be beheaded during the 2014 massacre — told Al-Monitor that he distrusts the Kurdish-led administration.

In August 2014, he recalled, a group of 101 people were caught by IS between the Shaitat area and Shafa, “where IS cut off the heads of two men. One was my brother and another was my cousin. They then took us to Iraq. Only 27 of the 101 made it out alive. We have no idea what happened to the others.”

Othman al-Sabah said, “The SDF is working with IS. Go to al-Hawl camp,” which the SDF has allowed many international journalists to access, “and you will see how they are working together.”

He added, "[Arabs in Deir ez-Zor] are afraid of everyone. We are more afraid of IS, as IS [fighters] can get out of SDF prisons through bribes. Or they are released after 10 or 15 days.”

“IS used to kill us in the streets. Every 10 or 15 days there would be beheadings,” he noted, adding that even though IS was worse, the SDF “kidnap Arabs and we don’t know where they are. They have secret prisons.”

Othman al-Sabah said that the tribe had spoken to US officials at al-Omar oil field and given the names of the men who were kidnapped by the SDF, but has not yet received a response.

“Some have been missing for over a year,” he noted. “The SDF tells us to wait but this isn’t right. IS fighters — maybe they pay bribes, I don’t know — are out after 10 days or so."

One of the men accompanying him said that he had been given a 20-year sentence — the maximum in SDF areas, which do not have the death penalty even for IS leaders — by the SDF for being part of a patrol that killed an alleged IS fighter.

The 20-year-old, who goes by the name of Abu Omar, said that he had escaped when being moved from one prison to another. He claims that he can move around in the tribal area but would be arrested elsewhere.

Many in the tribe joined anti-regime opposition groups during the 2011 uprising and then fought against IS.

Some later went to the regime’s side — such as Abu Jabr, now in the SDF — while others eventually joined IS, such as Mohammed al-Qadeer, better known as Abu Seif al-Shaiti, now in detention in Iraq after a major intelligence operation in 2018.

“Some of his relatives are here but they will not speak to you,” a local resident told Al-Monitor about Abu Seif, whom this reporter had met in late 2012 when he was a Free Syrian Army commander.

Al-Monitor visited his neighborhood in Kishkiya, where the homes had been “built with money sent by relatives who went to work in the Gulf,” Al-Monitor was told by a resident. The man brought Al-Monitor to where Abu Seif’s brother, who also joined IS, had been killed in a targeted strike by the international coalition.

Al-Monitor contacted one of the men many claim had worked with IS and is now working with the SDF, but could not verify the claim. 

The man, whose WhatsApp number was provided by the SDF’s Abu Jabr, denied working with IS. He claims to have been imprisoned by IS, but said he was released through bribes and previous close relations to IS leaders Abu Seif and Abu Suhaib al-Iraqi.

He also said that he is now simply a farmer moving between Raqqa and the Shaitat area.

Several others who knew him even before 2014 adamantly claim that he was, instead, a key IS leader in the area.

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