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Turkey's Erdogan eggs on Syria's Arab tribes against US-backed Kurds

Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria "poses a threat to its national security."
Troops from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) special operations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come out in support of Arab tribes engaged in violent clashes with the United States’ top local ally against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria’s oil-rich eastern Deir Ezzor province, calling their actions a “principled struggle for dignity.”

“Deir Ezzor’s true proprietors are the Arab tribes,” Erdogan told reporters Monday as he flew back from Russia after meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

His comments have reinforced allegations that Turkey is helping to fuel the unrest in line with its ongoing campaign to destroy the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES). Ankara says the administration, which operates under US military protection outside the central government’s control, poses a threat to its national security. This is because of its close links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the rebel group waging an armed campaign against the Turkish army for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey.

The Turkish leader asserted that Putin was in agreement with him that “it was significant that as owners of the region, the Arab tribes had come together to struggle against the terrorist organization.” Erdogan continued, “It is seen that the arms and ammunition provided by the United States to this terrorist organization has not served peace in the region. Each and every weapon given to the terrorist organization has contributed to the spilling of blood and to the unraveling of Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity.”

Turkey has long lobbied Washington to ditch its alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and more recently joined Russia and Iran, the principal backers of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in calling on America to withdraw its estimated 900 special operations forces from the Kurdish-led region. Russia has been squeezing US military aircraft in Eastern Syria while Iran has stepped up the flow of weapons for use against US bases to pressure them to leave. Russia and Iran have been coordinating. The Syrian government is desperate in particular to wrest back control of Arab-majority Deir Ezzor, which is home to 70% of the country’s oil wealth, amid ongoing protests over fuel hikes and other grievances in Druze-majority Suwayda and neighboring Daraa, which are under its control.

Violence between the SDF and the Arab tribes living under its control therefore presents opportunities for would-be mischief makers, but not all pan out. As the SDF and tribesmen faced off in Deir Ezzor, Turkish-backed Sunni Arab factions moved against SDF-held territory near Manbij and Tell Tamar further north, only to be repelled by Russian airstrikes.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on Tuesday downplayed news of those attacks. "Our focus is going to be on the defeat-ISIS mission. We certainly recognize that there are multiple actors in the region and that at times, there will be different perspectives," he said.

Yet Ryder signaled the US had no intention of abandoning the SDF in favor of any alternate forces. 

"One only need look at their efforts as it relates to al-Hol and the detainee population [of IS families] there,"  Ryder told reporters. "We'll continue to work with the SDF and other regional partners and the international community on the defeat-ISIS mission," he said.

Aside from the regime Syrian Kurdish leaders have publicly blamed “external forces” — a euphemism for Iran, Turkey and Russia — for the fighting that has left more than 70 people dead, including at least nine civilians. But they have refrained from mentioning either Russia or Iran by name for fear of drawing their wrath. There is no such skittishness when it comes to Turkey.

“Erdogan and his malign regime are among those contributing to the tragedy and suffering of the Syrian people. Rather than focusing on Deir Ezzor, they should cease their systematic racist campaign and quell hate speech against Arab refugees in Turkey,” SDF spokesman Farhad Shami told Al-Monitor.

“Contrary to the narrative Erdogan and his regime are trying to portray, the situation on the ground in Deir Ezzor is different: All Arab tribes are united, offering support and actively participating with the SDF in the operation against the intruding armed groups,” Shami said.

He added that SDF forces were close to regaining full control of the area as they closed in on Dhiban, the last stronghold of the rebellious Arab tribesmen, after negotiations for their surrender failed.

The immediate trigger for the tensions was the detention on Aug. 27 of Deir Ezzor Military Council Chief Ahmed al-Khbeil, better known as Rashid Abu Khawla, over his alleged collusion with the regime and Iranian-backed militias and his involvement in a wide range of criminal activities including the trafficking of drugs. Abu Khawla had long been a thorn in the SDF’s side as he built up his own private militia and power base, alienating the Kurds and other tribal leaders alike.

The SDF’s ability to prevail was never in doubt. Regime forces — had they decided to intervene in Abu Khawla’s favor — are no match for a vastly superior SDF equipped and trained by the US-led coalition and seasoned by years of combat against IS. At the same time, the regime and its allies lack the financial resources to win over the tribes, which in turn remain deeply divided amongst themselves. However, the bad blood created by the flare-up will be hard to overcome, analysts say.

It’s unclear why the SDF finally decided to move against him at this particular time — Abu Khawla’s laissez-faire attitude toward the jihadis is cited as one reason — but when it did, Abu Khawla’s men fought back and by Wednesday were joined by several prominent tribal leaders in calling for the SDF to leave Deir Ezzor.

The Arab tribes have always been an Achilles' heel for the SDF. It was only under intense US pressure that the SDF extended the fight against IS to Arab-majority areas, including Deir Ezzor. The province is split between the SDF to the east of the Euphrates River and regime forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias to the west.

In a bid to head off potential conflict, Syrian Kurdish leaders installed local Arabs in positions of influence, including as the heads of local military and civilian councils, and the US-endorsed policy appeared to work. But the past week’s bloodshed suggests otherwise.

However much the SDF points to malign outside forces, “The principal cause is the rejection by the Arab tribes of Kurdish authority over them,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2 who closely monitors the Syrian conflict.

“The situation as in much of the rest of Syria is catastrophic in economic terms, and the tribes consider the AANES incapable of running their region, especially in Deir Ezzor where there is electricity for only an hour a day, just two functioning hospitals and people are simply fed up,” Balanche told Al-Monitor.

“They believe the Kurds are stealing their oil. There are more and more Arabs who contest the SDF presence,” Balanche said.

On Sunday, a US delegation led by the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Ethan Goldrich and commander of the US-led coalition Maj. Gen. Joel Vowell met with Kurdish and tribal leaders in Deir Ezzor where US forces maintain bases, including at Syria’s largest gas field, Al-Omar.

“They agreed on the importance of addressing grievances” of locals and “the dangers of outsiders interfering,” the US Embassy said in a statement posted on its Twitter account.

Behind closed doors, US officials asked tribal leaders if they would rather be ruled by the Assad regime, according to regional sources who declined to be identified by name.

Many tribal leaders are not averse to the US presence but would rather deal with the Americans directly than go through the SDF. “They want to create a little Arab kingdom of their own, with control over their own oil,” Balanche said.

Additional reporting by Jared Szuba in Washington.

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