Clashes in East Syria -Deir ez-Zur- An Opportunity For Iran to Further its Land Corridor Northern Route

During the past week (starting August 27), heavy fighting has been taking place in several cities in the Deir ez-Zur province, east of the Euphrates River. So far, this fighting has claimed the lives of several dozen people, including civilians, and wounded a similar number. The Deir ez-Zur region, near the Iraqi border, contains several oil fields and is of strategic importance for the US-led forces, for Iran, and for ISIS cells in the region.

The clashes occurred between Kurdish forces belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local Sunni Arab tribes that support a group called the Deir ez-Zur Military Council (DMC). It is important to note that until the outbreak of hostilities, the two groups collaborated in the fight against ISIS and that both are supported by the United States.

Above: Free Syrian Forces (SDF) military vehicles in the Deir ez-Zur area.

According to various reports, the clashes started after the Kurdish forces detained and relieved of command several prominent DMC commanders. The formal accusations against them were that they committed various crimes and failed to defeat ISIS, but different sources suggested that the main reason was the commanders’ contacts with Syrian, Iranian, and Russian government officials, as well as ISIS cells in the region.

Following the arrest, which took place in the city of Hasakah, Arab tribal forces began attacking the Kurdish forces in the area. In response, the Kurdish forces bombed a number of towns and villages throughout Deir ez-Zur province and imposed curfews in areas under their control.

In recent days, Arab tribal forces have taken over many areas east of Deir ez-Zur and the Euphrates River, near the border with Iraq, and have entrenched themselves in several cities in the province. On the other hand, the Kurdish forces continued to send reinforcements, apparently with the intention of retaking the territories they lost.

Following these events, the Arab tribes in northwestern Syria declared that they were prepared to confront the Kurdish forces in the area of Aleppo and Manbij in order to support the Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zur in the east. In order to achieve this objective, they declared a staging area for mobilizing forces northeast of Aleppo and even erected a “war tent,” which has so far been joined by more than 10,000 people.

Above: The war tent of the Arab tribes in the Aleppo area.

The violent clashes occur amid a continuing dispute for control of several regions in Deir ez-Zur Province. The conflict originated in 2017 when the SDF took control of the area. After the defeat of ISIS, the Arab tribes that make up the Deir ez-Zur Military Council sought to administer the province, but the Kurdish forces that formed part of the SDF, led by the Kurdish YPG party, opposed this.

In this context, it is important to note that Kurdish forces control a region with a clear Arab majority, creating ethno-sectarian tension. Arab communities’ claims of Kurdish discrimination, particularly with regard to the distribution of profits from oil fields in the region and the distribution of budgets and resources in general, further highlighted this issue. In recent years, numerous demonstrations and protests against Kurdish control have expressed discontent.

It is essential to note that the battles between Kurdish forces and Arab tribes represent only a portion of the overall instability in eastern Syria and Iranian activity in the country. In recent days, Assad regime forces, aided by Russian support, have attacked rebel and SDF targets in northeastern Syria. This adds to a significant increase in ISIS activity in the province, which has already led to dozens of fatalities in recent weeks.

In addition,  the Iranian foreign minister made a visit to Syria and Lebanon last week, where he met with several high officials led by Hassan Nasrallah. One of the main topics discussed during those meetings was the recent mobilization of American reinforcements to east Syria and the American efforts to disrupt Iran’s activity and encircle its forces in the region.
It is evident that Iran is concerned by these developments because of their potential to disrupt the continuity of its land corridor between its Shia axis forces in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

In light of this, it can be expected that the continued violence between the sides will damage the cooperation between the forces comprising the SDF and undermine the control of the pro-American forces in eastern Syria. For instance, several villages and towns with Arab populations have already declared the establishment of civil councils to serve as local authorities, following the withdrawal of Kurdish forces.

The disintegration of the SDF in the Deir ez-Zur area has several possible consequences: The first and most immediate is the intensification of ISIS activity in the region. These forces, if stepped up, could further destabilize eastern Syria and threaten the oil fields under American control. Second, the power struggle will weaken the pro-Western coalition. Such a development would make it easier for Iran to drive a wedge between the various forces and neutralize forces that oppose its activity. This will enable Iranian forces to expand east of the Euphrates River and north towards Aleppo, effectively controlling the entire border between Syria and Iraq. As a result, Iran will be able to more easily breach the land corridor’s northernmost path towards Aleppo. It is highly probable that the Iranians will join the Arab tribal forces by diverting significant resources and providing them with support against the Kurds, all the while playing up the ethnic-ethnic issue.

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Boaz Shapira

Boaz Shapira

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