The assassination of a major tribal sheikh in eastern Syria and the ensuing protests have raised concerns about the stability of Deir ez-Zor province and what this may mean for its notoriously porous border with western Iraq.
The sheikh, Mutsher Hamud Jeidan al-Hifl, was a prominent leader of the Egaidat, the largest tribal confederation in the province. Another sheikh who was with him at the time was also killed.
The killings were followed by protests in eastern Syria, shootings and a statement of condolences from the United States.
It is currently unclear who killed the sheikhs or why. Many from the area deny it was the Islamic State (IS), usually blamed by default.
One Deir ez-Zor native, a longstanding source of this journalist, told her via WhatsApp on Aug. 8 that IS continues to assassinate people in the region — but “not any top tribal figures” — and the latest killings were by “people linked to the Syrian regime.”
The source noted that “the current hostility between the local population and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is very dangerous” since “there does not seem to be any alternative to the SDF” in Deir ez-Zor, an area with an Arab-majority population but which is administered by the Kurdish-led SDF.
The SDF, he said, “kills the conscience of the Arabs that join it only for a salary,” making them susceptible to being co-opted by the regime, IS or others.
Though SDF anti-IS operations continue, locals claim the operations often target the wrong individuals. Some note that the SDF’s media operations are offensive to the local Muslim population, tweeting as they do such things as a photo of a small amount of money and prayer beads “confiscated” to show off their latest arrests of “dangerous” individuals.
When this journalist reported from Deir ez-Zor in 2019, she found that most inhabitants preferred the SDF over the regime or IS but were concerned that the SDF would at some point come to an agreement with the regime to allow it back into their areas. They also complained of extrajudicial killings, abductions and a ban on protesting.
The latest Pentagon report on international coalition activities in Syria and Iraq noted that most Deir ez-Zor Arabs gave “passive support” to the SDF but felt excluded from all decision-making processes in their region.
If the current instability grows, this could also affect Iraq, where IS’s top leadership has long been from. The source claimed that many Iraqi nationals are still in eastern Syria even outside of the well-known al-Hol camp run by the SDF, especially around Hasakah, Markada, al-Sur, Shaddadi and Dishisha in the Hasakah and northern Deir ez-Zor regions, and smugglers have been known to get these people into Iraq for between $500 and $1,000.
Accusations of corruption concerning al-Hol camp have been rife for years, long before IS’s last territorial stand in Baghouz in eastern Deir ez-Zor, retaken by the SDF with the support of the international anti-IS coalition in March 2019.
In early 2017, this reporter met with Iraqi nationals previously in al-Hol who had been brought back to IDP camps in Iraq’s Salahuddin province. They claimed that al-Hol camp officials had taken their Iraqi government-issued IDs, marriage certificates and other documents, and refused to give them back. Others claimed they were returned only if large bribes were paid.
At that time, the UNHCR’s Scott Craig had said that confiscating refugees’ IDs was “indeed the standard practice of the Kurdish camp management, despite UNHCR’s advocacy.”
The Deir ez-Zor source told Al-Monitor that many Iraqi nationals in Syria who had presumably been with IS did not want to go back unless the Iraqi government were to pardon them. Thus, the only alternative for many now, he said, was to “organize and fight for the return of IS,” and thus they are “trying to create anarchy in northeastern Syria.”
He claimed some with fighting experience had been “recruited by the PKK” and were now in Sinjar and Rabia in northwestern Iraq near the Syrian border.
On Aug. 9, the head sheikh of the Karabla tribe, Rabaa al-Karbouly, stressed to Al-Monitor via WhatsApp that “hundreds of women and children without men but who were the wives and children of IS fighters have arrived in Qaim in recent months from the al-Hol camp,” with involvement by “neither the international community nor the Iraqi state.”
Qaim is a strategically located city in western Anbar along the Syrian border where this journalist interviewed Karbouly several times since it was retaken in late 2017.
Karbouly stressed it should be remembered that “before the Sykes-Picot Treaty in 1916, there were no borders separating these areas” and the tribes continue to be in close contact.
The sheikh claimed these families had been “smuggled via the SDF and then handed over to smugglers linked to the Popular Mobilization Units through either the road to Mosul or the one to Qaim, taking dangerous roads and exploiting these families in an ugly manner with up to $2,000 charged per person.”
On border security between the two countries, international anti-IS coalition spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III told Al-Monitor in a WhatsApp voice message on Aug. 8, "We’ve recently divested several million dollars’ worth of border guard towers to the Iraqi border guards, and those towers are being placed in areas that had been common smuggling routes and give the Iraqi security forces better capability to identify, observe and detect any illegal border crossings." He added, "The SDF and Iraqi security forces over the past few years have been trained. They are capable forces."
Through “our relationship with the SDF and Iraqi government," said Caggins, "We have been able to learn that they are talking to each other and coordinating security operations, because everyone in this region shares a common goal of defeating IS.” He stressed that almost no one in the area supports IS anymore, and though they may be capable of “low-level attacks, assassinations and shakedowns,” they are not able to retake territory.
"We have not conducted any airstrikes in Deir ez-Zor or Anbar in the past 30 days,” Caggins said.