Ethnic Tensions Between Washington’s Syrian Allies Boils Over, Around 100 Dead

by | Sep 6, 2023

Ethnic Tensions Between Washington’s Syrian Allies Boils Over, Around 100 Dead

by | Sep 6, 2023


Ahmad Abu Khawlah, chief of the Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC) -- a coalition of Arab tribes and fighters that belongs to the broader US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces -- speaks during a press conference in the northeastern Syrian village of Abu Fas, on the southern outskirts of Hasakah province, on Sept. 9, 2017. Abu Khawlah announced the launch of a new offensive to oust the Islamic State group from swathes of Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC) have battled for over a week, leaving nearly 100 dead. The fighting between America’s Syrian proxies is a result of ethnic tensions boiling over. Washington has primarily relied on the Kurdish SDF to rule the eastern third of Syria, which 900 American soldiers occupy. 

Tensions between the SDF and Arab DEMC turned into fighting last week when the SDF arrested the head of the council, Abu Khawla, at a meeting. A deal to end the battle by having Khawla step down as head of the council failed to produce a ceasefire. Before the meeting, the DEMC operated under the SDF.

Maj. Gen. Joel Vowell met with SDF officials and leaders of Arab fighting groups over the weekend. The US Embassy reported that both sides agreed to de-escalate as soon as possible. So far, Washington’s calls for its allies to end fighting have failed to produce results. 

Initially, the SDF fought a battle against the DEMC, but Deir Ezzor’s Arab residents have also taken up arms against the Kurdish militia. One battle is being fought at the al-Omar Oil Field, where some American soldiers maintain a base. The Cradle reports Washington has reinforced its allies in the region, and the fighting has shut down production at the oil field. 

The AP reports at least 90 people have been killed in the fighting. The Cradle says the death toll has surpassed 100.

Omar Abu Layla, a Europe-based activist who heads the Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet, explained that the fighting results from ethnic tensions boiling over. “This is an unprecedented escalation between SDF and Deir el-Zour residents,” he said. “This is an indication of the bad policy implemented by the SDF and the wrong calculations by the Americans.”

Syrian journalist Ibrahim Muhammad made a similar observation last week, noting most people in Deir Ezzor “categorically refuse to be ruled by the Kurds.”

Washington claims it is concerned that fighting between the SDF and DEMC will result in the Islamic State making a resurgence in Syria. However, the SDF claims it arrested Khawla because the DEMC communicated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If the DEMC were to reunify with Damascus, they would enlist a powerful ally in the fight against terrorism, as Assad has aggressively worked to eliminate IS in Syria. 

Early in the Syria War, the Obama administration used the CIA to arm, train and fund the opposition to Assad. As the US intelligence community predicted, the CIA program led to the rise of IS and other al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. Assad lost a significant amount of Syria’s territory to the CIA-backed groups before calling on Iran and Russia for assistance. 

Washington exploited Syria’s instability and began training and arming the Syrian Kurds to fight against IS and al-Qaeda. Under this program, the US was able to capture about a third of Syria’s territory and rule the primarily Arab population using the SDF. 

Since the defeat of IS in 2019, Washington claims it maintains its ttroopsin Syria to prevent the return of jihadists. However, American officials have explained that the occupation in Syria weakens Assad and Iran. 


About Kyle Anzalone

Kyle Anzalone is news editor of the Libertarian Institute, opinion editor of and co-host of Conflicts of Interest with Will Porter and Connor Freeman.

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