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Protesters demand to return home to Syria's Deir ez-Zor

Displaced Syrians are calling for regime forces and Iranian-backed fighters to withdraw from Deir ez-Zor province, while the anti-regime Syrian Democratic Forces fear such protests could spiral out of control and turn against them.

ALEPPO, Syria — Friday protests continued Oct. 4 as civilians took to the streets in Deir ez-Zor province on the east bank of the Euphrates River.

Protesters in areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) demand to be given back the towns and land from which they were displaced in recent years by battles pitting regime forces and Iranian-backed fighters against the Islamic State (IS).

A similar protest was staged Sept. 27 in the SDF-controlled al-Maamel area, held in support of demonstrators who died in Sept. 20 protests near Salhiya crossing. That crossing connects SDF-controlled areas to those controlled by the regime. During the Sept. 20 protests, clashes broke out between demonstrators and regime forces as protesters burned pictures of President Bashar al-Assad.

Since Sept. 20, protests have taken place every Friday across the province.

“The peaceful protesters’ main demand is for the regime forces and their allied Iranian militias that control a number of villages and towns east of the Euphrates to leave. The people of this area are tired of displacement, as [some of them] have been away from their lands for over three years," Ahmad al-Ramadan, director of the Euphrates Post news website, told Al-Monitor.

He continued, “Regime forces confronted protesters with live bullets Sept. 20. They had gathered near al-Saker gas station, which the regime forces turned into a military post. Protesters called on the Iranian militias to leave their towns.”

According to Ramadan, regime forces fired at peaceful demonstrators. Two protesters were killed and about 20 were wounded. The clashes at al-Saker pushed other protesters to break into regime forces checkpoints at Salhiya crossing on the same day.

Suhaib al-Jaber, a journalist from Deir ez-Zor province, told Al-Monitor, “The protesters demanded the departure of the regime forces and Iranian militias from the towns of Hatlah Fokaani, Hatlah Tahtani, Salhiya, Mazloum, Marrat, Khsham and Tabia. But the regime forces [so far] refuse to meet their demands.”

He continued, “The Iranian militias had established a number of hussainia [worship places] in these towns, along with advocacy centers for Shiites.”

Jaber pointed out, “The Iranian-backed Baqir Brigade is the most densely deployed east of the Euphrates. Most of its members are from the Arab Bakara tribe. These militias have seized many of the properties and agricultural lands whose residents have been displaced.”

The protests were triggered in part by statements made by Baqir Brigade leader Fadi al-Afais. In a video that went viral Sept. 13, he threatened to invade SDF-controlled villages and towns, vowing to remove the international coalition from Deir ez-Zor province.

Afais was a senior IS leader and a member of its security office when the group controlled the area. He later formalized his status with regime forces with the mediation of pro-Iranian Baqir Brigade leaders.

Also, Bakara tribe Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir called in a Sept. 20 Facebook post for arresting and killing the protesters, further fueling their anger. Bashir was previously known for his opposition to the Syrian regime before he returned to Damascus in January 2017 to ask the regime to forgive him. He then headed to Deir ez-Zor, where he took a leadership position in the Baqir Brigade.

Feras Allawi, a journalist from Deir ez-Zor, told Al-Monitor, “There is a dispute between the tribes in Deir ez-Zor province. Some support the regime forces and their allies, while others are pro-SDF.”

However, Allawi explained, “These tribes are already divided and have no role in the current protests. The protests are led by a group of activists against the Iranian presence and the regime forces in their towns. Protesters will not stop until they get their demands.”

A local source from Salhiya told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about moves by Russia and the international coalition to find a solution to the objections of the former residents of the regime-controlled towns and end the protests.

“The coalition forces are trying to contain the situation in the towns east of the Euphrates, without resorting to a military solution with the Iranian militias," the source said. "The coalition — which directly supports the protesters and their demands — seeks to place these towns under the supervision of the Deir ez-Zor military council affiliated with the SDF.”

But Allawi confirmed that regime forces rejected a Russian call to negotiate the protesters’ demands.

Meanwhile, the SDF seems to be trying to prevent further protests, for fear that demonstrators will turn against it, amid poor security and living conditions.

Mohammad Hadid, a displaced person from Salhiya, told Al-Monitor, “The SDF-affiliated Deir ez-Zor military council prevented us from raising the Syrian revolution flag during the protests. SDF members raised the SDF banners at these protests to exploit them in their favor.”

Commercial activity is ongoing between the Deir ez-Zor military council and regime forces through Salhiya crossing, which opened in August 2018 following an agreement between the regime and SDF, under Russian auspices.

Meanwhile, the Deir ez-Zor military council continues to make promises to the protesters and hold meetings between representatives from both parties to contain the situation, without finding a solution that brings the displaced townspeople back home.

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