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Regional powers jockey for influence in Deir ez-Zor protests

Recent protests in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor, split between pro-regime and SDF forces, have raised questions about who will eventually exert control over the region, as heavily restricted access for independent journalists means information coming out of the area is scarce and narratives diverge.

HASAKAH, Syria — As protests continue in the Deir ez-Zor region, observers are questioning to what extent the various forces in power will be affected and what this means for Syria’s fragmented, easternmost region.

Tensions rose between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian government and allied forces in Arab-majority Deir ez-Zor in the last two weeks of September, especially in the area of Salihiyah.

Some protesters were reportedly shot and killed by government forces on Sept. 20.

This came shortly after a Sept. 15 letter from Syria’s Foreign Ministry to the UN secretary-general vowing to liberate the SDF-held territory from the “separatist terrorist militias” and earlier inflammatory statements against the Kurdish forces by the head of a pro-regime militia group called the Baqir Brigade.

The SDF has, for the most part, avoided open conflict with the regime, and at times, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the largest component of the Kurdish-led forces — has collaborated with Syrian government forces such as in the fight for Afrin against Turkish and allied opposition forces in early 2018.

In SDF-held Qamishli, the face of Bashar al-Assad can be seen on enormous posters near a regime checkpoint. The government still holds the airport in the city, which is used by many to reach Damascus when need be.

Elsewhere in the region, Euphrates River crossings reportedly formerly controlled by Syrian businessman Hossam al-Katerji — who is very close to Assad and believed to have been engaged in smuggling oil from SDF-held areas including in Shuhail, where this correspondent reported from in late May — have meanwhile been taken over by Iran-linked militias.

Deir ez-Zor is a notoriously difficult province to access for journalists.

Most of the eastern bank is under SDF control, which exercises tight control over media and has banned media outlets for “false” or unfavorable reporting.

It unofficially requires “SDF observers” (government minders/SDF-linked fixers) at all times with journalists, allegedly for “their own safety.”

This Al-Monitor correspondent was one of the few to visit the area in recent months without an “observer” but was denied independent access on the most recent trip in late September.

Meanwhile, Deir ez-Zor natives who have moved to northern areas under the Kurdish-led SDF — as well as those who have been displaced from villages now under regime-allied, pro-Iranian militias — are required to have a “sponsor” from the city, leaving them in fear of being forced out at any time, residents of Hasakah told Al-Monitor.

Most of the western bank of the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zor and the regional capital of the same name is controlled by the Syrian government and allied militias. Syria under the Assad regime has long been seen as one of the world’s worst places for journalists.

The regime also stands accused of killing Western journalists.

Ahmad al-Sawadi, founder of the news website Euphrates Post, which focuses on eastern Syria, told Al-Monitor that many members of the 6th Regiment of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council had been arrested by the SDF on Sept. 28 and 29.

He added that the regiment in question had previously been under Abu Ishaq al-Ahwazi — a Deir ez-Zor native from the town of al-Busayrah who was killed in an attack allegedly by the Islamic State (IS) in SDF territory earlier this year and was supportive of the demonstrations.

Sawadi claimed he had information pointing to an agreement between the head of the Deir ez-Zor military council and Iran-linked individuals to forcibly end the protests in exchange for money.

This author communicated online with Sawadi on Sept. 29 and has been in regular contact with him for years — even publishing an interview with him in 2015 when he was using the moniker “Abu Mujahed” for security reasons. He was more recently profiled by The Wall Street Journal.

Another Deir ez-Zor native close to the civil council told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the news of the arrest was “false.”

He said protests for better services had been held in several areas, but the ones to oust Iranian-backed, pro-regime militias specifically had occurred only in a few places, including Salihiyah.

Another Deir ez-Zor inhabitant who has fought alongside the SDF said men from the regiment had been stopped by the “military police because they did not have papers authorizing them to go on leave,” but they had been released a few hours later.

The men who spoke on condition of anonymity were both contacted via WhatsApp. One has been a regular source for information for a major US-based media outlet for several years, according to the reporter who first provided his contact to Al-Monitor some months ago but has never met him.

Omar Abu Layla, from the news website DeirezZor 24, instead told Al-Monitor he had not heard about the arrests, but the demonstrations taking place in recent days were demanding “the expulsion of Iranian militias from Deir ez-Zor. This is important for the demonstrators because most of them are residents of those villages and towns occupied by Iranian and Assad regime militias. Negotiations are continuing for the exit of these militias from the east bank of the Euphrates River, and the Russians are a key player in these negotiations.”

Abu Layla, who this correspondent has personally met with in previous years, added, “We believe that at some point the Russians will probably abandon any kind of support for these militias.”

Both Abu Layla and Sawadi were instrumental in conveying information on IS-held areas prior to their liberation and now rely on a network of long-standing sources throughout the region.

Tensions between Iran and Russia — both vying for influence in Syria while also both backing regime forces — may play a key role in what comes next in Deir ez-Zor.

Russia is said to be strong in the regional capital, but Iranian-backed forces hold Abu Kamal along the Iraqi border and much of the rest of the area along the Euphrates River on the regime side.

Scarce access makes getting verifiable information exceedingly difficult. However, what seems clear is that Deir ez-Zor residents continue to be willing to engage in protests against those they see as “occupying forces.”

Competing powers in the area may see this as an opportunity to gain the upper hand in an area whose inhabitants feel disenfranchised and forced to rely, at least for the time being, on the most acceptable “occupier.”

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