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Pentagon says Damascus, Moscow exploit discontent in Kurdish-controlled Syria

A US military report accuses Russia and the Syrian regime of using Arab discontent in eastern Syria to undermine the Kurdish-led administration.
A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands on the back of a pick-up truck, with a weapon installed on it, in Qamishli, Syria March 30, 2019. Picture taken March 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho - RC1961AA5550

The US military accused Russia and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad of attempting to leverage discontent among Arab populations in eastern Syria to undermine Kurdish-led authorities affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces.

A Pentagon Inspector General report released on Wednesday cited CENTCOM as saying that unspecified “state actors in the region” were pressuring civilian populations “to realign and renounce support for the SDF.”

CENTCOM spokesperson US Army Maj. John Rigsbee later responded to Al-Monitor’s request for clarification via email, writing that “the Syrian regime and Russia are the most active in attempting to influence local populations to sever ties with the SDF.”

Wednesday’s report also said the “existential threat” the Kurdish-led forces now face is “no longer [the Islamic State] but Turkey.” IS was territorially defeated in March 2019. The Turkish government then launched a military incursion against the SDF in October, drawing fighters away from operations against IS.

The US military reported in March that there was no immediate indication Turkey was preparing a renewed attack on the SDF.

Though CENTCOM said a majority of northeast Syria’s Arab population tacitly support the SDF, Wednesday’s report characterized local grievances, particularly in Deir ez-Zor, as a potential security risk.

“The relationships are strained further by ethnic rivalry, poor security conditions, particularly in [Deir ez-Zor], perceptions of neglect, and accusations against the SDF of heavy-handed security actions,” the inspector general report reads. Conscription has also been a point of contention between the SDF and local populations.

Deir ez-Zor has seen protests against the both the SDF and the Assad regime, which control opposite sides of the Euphrates River in the province. Since the Barack Obama administration, US officials have been wary about the potential for discontent among Arab populations with the Kurdish-led administration.

Though the Assad regime has vowed to retake the country’s northeast by force, it remains unable to do so as long as sufficient US forces remain in Syria alongside the SDF. But that has not stopped Damascus and its allies from attempting to make inroads with local populations under SDF control.

“The Assad regime, Russia and Iran all have efforts to try to influence some of the Arab tribes on the SDF side of the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zor,” said Nicholas Heras, head of the Middle East Security Program at the Institute for the Study of War. Key to this effort are Damascus-based councils of sheikhs loyal to the regime, Heras explained.

“In particular, the regime has tried to work on branches of the Baggara tribe, which is on both sides of the river,” Heras told Al-Monitor. Baggara members also make up a significant part of the SDF’s Deir ez-Zor Military Council.

In 2018, members of Liwa al-Baqir, an Iran-linked pro-regime militia that consists largely of Baggara tribesmen, were reportedly killed by US airstrikes alongside Russian mercenaries and other pro-regime forces while attempting to seize the Conoco natural gas field in Deir ez-Zor from the SDF and US military.

US officials have long pushed the Kurdish-led authorities toward greater ethnic inclusivity in decision-making. But CENTCOM and the US Defense Intelligence Agency gave conflicting accounts in Wednesday’s report on just how politically open the SDF and autonomous administration have actually been in recent months.

CENTCOM said the SDF and Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) have made “great strides” toward including both Arab and Syriac Christian civilian and military leaders in positions of authority. In contrast, the Defense Intelligence Agency told the inspector general that Kurds still control the positions of influence in northeast Syria. The agency also said the SDF and the SDC continue to show “unwillingness to share power with Arabs, even in the Arab-majority regions of the northeast where Arab fighters probably represent a majority of the SDF’s front line forces” such as Deir ez-Zor.

A spokesperson for the SDC did not immediately return a request for comment.

The United States says the light infantry SDF is increasingly able to stand on its own as a counter-terror force. However, the autonomous administration is unlikely to endure in the long term absent a negotiated political settlement with its neighbors.

The SDF is no closer to an agreement with the Assad regime, according to Wednesday’s report, in part because the United States has sought to disincentivize the Kurdish-led body from making any deal with Damascus that would relinquish control of the lucrative oilfields of Deir ez-Zor, a prize the US military has continued to help to defend. Washington aims to keep Syria’s natural resource wealth out of the Syrian government’s hands as leverage toward a favorable political settlement to the conflict.

Nor is Turkey showing any overt willingness to tolerate the YPG, which it considers to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, considered a terrorist group by Ankara and many of its Western allies.

Meanwhile, though IS attacks are reportedly down in northeast Syria overall, security threats persist. The YPG-affiliated Rojava Information Center reported Tuesday that Ahrar al-Sharqiya, a Turkey-backed Syrian opposition militia, claimed credit for two attacks in April near the SDF-controlled town of Ain al-Issa outside of the Turkey-backed militia’s area of operations.

Members of the same militia assassinated Kurdish politician Havrin Khalaf in October during Turkey’s military incursion against the SDF.