ERBIL — “We read in articles that there are sleeper cells. These are not sleeper cells. They are active on a daily basis,” Ghassan al-Youssef told Al-Monitor about the Islamic State's presence in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor region.
Youssef, the civil council chief of the part of the governorate officially under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), noted in the Feb. 16 interview that recent attacks have been “against the SDF, against civilians and against officials.”
Deir ez-Zor has suffered an uptick in attacks in recent months, presumably from IS fighters. A few days before, Youssef said a school for some 600 students had been destroyed in eastern Deir ez-Zor.
Youssef spoke to Al-Monitor two days before he met with US special representative for Syria James Jeffrey alongside other local military and civilian leaders.
“Deir ez-Zor is one of the most strategic areas” in the country and there is “a great deal of focus there from Iran and Russia as well as the US-led international coalition,” Youssef noted.
In an earlier, previously unpublished interview with Al-Monitor in November 2019, Youssef had said he had several problems with the SDF. When asked in February whether these issues were still unresolved, he said, “We have a simple demand: for Arabs to be given a real role in the leadership of the area,” adding, “We have seen improvement. We hope to see more.”
Deir ez-Zor residents have repeatedly claimed to Al-Monitor that corruption is widespread within the SDF ranks and that this is a major reason IS is able to continue operating in the area.
Others also blame the Kurdish-led group for fostering grievances between tribes and clans, such as the recently rising tensions between the Shaitat tribal area and al-Shuhail, most of whose residents are from another part of the same Oegaidat tribal confederation.
As head of the civil council, Youssef bears the burden of moderating between the SDF and locals that often do not trust the Kurdish-led group, which many continue to refer to as “PKK” (the Kurdistan Workers Party separatist group) and claim that the leadership is “from Qandil,” “occupiers” of Arab land that operate on the basis of ideology and loyalty to a foreign leader imprisoned on charges of terrorism in Turkey instead of local interests.
Youssef stressed he does “not depend on any external body or country. Not the US, not Russia, not anyone else,” adding that in speaking to the SDF “every time I have said I am not an employee of the SDF. We are partners. We have the same interests: We want to fight IS.”
“I am willing to speak to everyone in the interests of the Syrian people. To achieve security for them,” he said.
In his view, releasing those from the al-Hol camp in eastern Hasakah province for whom there is no evidence of bearing arms for IS helps toward this end.
Youssef noted, “Our council is in charge of an area covering territory about the size of Lebanon,” and “Deir ez-Zor is an Arab region. There were never any Kurds there. Never.”
He noted that he, too, had been arrested and interrogated by the SDF for about a week when he fled IS-held territory after staying for years in the province under IS control. He said the SDF had found it suspicious that he was an academic who preferred to stay.
Now, however, Youssef treats his staying as a badge of honor and says it's why many in the area trust him.
“I never left Deir ez-Zor. I know a lot of people, friends, who went to Europe or the US. I stayed.”
Reaching for his phone and scrolling through Whatsapp messages during the November interview, Youssef pointed at one and said, “This is one of the sheikhs in the Baghouz: ‘We are unhappy about the agreements between the SDF and the regime. This is dangerous. The collaboration, the handing over of people wanted by the regime. We are looking for solutions and we think that the best solution is coalition forces without the SDF.’ The man went on, ‘What we want from you is to pay attention to the arrests [of Arab locals] in the area because this is very dangerous.’”
“These tribal leaders have a political vision,” Youssef noted. “Here is another one: ‘Our people here want to demonstrate to support the people in the camps, to get them out of the camps, and we are afraid that the situation will get out of hand. These demonstrations are unhelpful now, we do not want these demonstrations to be used for other ends.’”
Youssef noted that the complexity of the situation and the widespread destruction after nine years of war meant prospects for Syrians to determine their own future were few.
“The Constitutional Committee is not working and the regime is advancing with Russian support in Idlib,” while “west of the Euphrates there are Iranian militias — in Abu Kamal, al-Mayadeen and the city of Deir ez-Zor.”
The SDF, he said, “wants to hold on to the structures created in these years,” and “Russia is putting pressure on all sides to engage in negotiations” but “the security situation is not good.” Many people in eastern Deir ez-Zor — “including thousands who fled their homes in the western part of the province to our areas” — are concerned about what will happen if the Russian-backed Syrian government were to reenter eastern Deir ez-Zor.
Many are afraid they will be arrested or simply “disappeared.”
It is also unclear for how long the United States and other international coalition partners will remain in the area.
In a Feb. 20 Whatsapp exchange with anti-IS coalition spokesman Col. Myles Caggins III, the US official told Al-Monitor simply that the coalition partners with the SDF “specifically for two missions: defeating [IS] remnants and protecting critical infrastructure” and that “coalition troops live on SDF bases in Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor provinces,” implying that the facilities on the ground are in fact under SDF and not coalition control.