SDF ‘ends military operations’ against Arab tribal militias in eastern Syria

US warned SDF commanders and Arab tribal leaders that fighting in Deir al-Zor risked enabling Islamic State to regain strength

The US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have declared an end to “military operations” against Arab tribal militias after 10 days of fighting in eastern Syria.

At least 90 people have been killed and dozens wounded in the clashes. Essential infrastructure, including two hospitals and three water treatment plants, have been damaged or destroyed.

SDF spokesman Farhad Sahami told Agence France Presse: “Neighbourhoods are being searched for armed groups from the western [government-controlled] bank of the Euphrates [river].” The eastern bank is held by the SDF and its partners.

US senior official Ethan Goldrich and Maj General Joel Vowell, commander of the 900 US troops in Syria, met last weekend with Arab tribal leaders and SDF commanders and warned that “distractions” from fighting Islamic State, also known as Isis, risked a resurgence of the group. They agreed on the necessity to “address local grievances [and] de-escalate violence as soon as possible and avoid casualties,” the US state department announced.


The US-led coalition helped the SDF – which includes a smaller Arab component – oust Islamic State from swathes of territory in northern and eastern Syria over the last seven years.

Islamic State lost its last territorial bastion of Baghouz, which lies in Deir al-Zor, in 2019 to the SDF. Hundreds of Islamic State fighters continue to roam across parts of Syria and have waged attacks against the SDF, the Syrian army and pro-government militias.

Fighting erupted after the arrest of Deir al-Zor military council commander Ahmad Al Khubail, known as Abu Khawla, on August 27th. He was apprehended on charges of corruption, drug smuggling and contacts with the government and Iran-backed militias. When the SDF detained his chief lieutenants, tribesmen installed roadblocks and assaulted SDF patrols. The Kurds sent reinforcements to the area and shelled Arab villages, forcing civilians to flee.

Clashes drew in multiple Arab tribes, the Syrian army and Turkish surrogate militiamen and risked deepening the existing rift between the Kurds and Arabs. Despite serious differences, they had co-operated in efforts to eliminate the fugitive jihadis in Deir al-Zor province.

Since the SDF has exerted control over Deir al-Zor and adjacent areas, which constitute one quarter of Syrian territory, the Kurdish military and local administration have alienated the Arab majority.

Arab resentment flared when the Kurdish education authority imposed a Kurdish curriculum and Kurdish language in schools that had adhered to Arabic curriculum. Teachers and students were arrested. Some children went to government-held areas to study in Arabic, the language spoken by most Syrians.

Arab tribal leaders say they have been deprived of oil revenues and complain that their areas are neglected, charges dismissed by the Kurds.

“We want them out of all of Deir al-Zor, we want the administration of the area in the hands of the original Arab inhabitants,” tribal sheikh Mahmoud al-Jarallah told Reuters.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times