In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Syrian Kurdish commander Mazlum Kobane discussed the recent clashes in Deir Ezzor between local tribes and Kurdish forces.
A rare tribal uprising in eastern Syria against the United States’ top local ally has been successfully suppressed after more than a week of fierce clashes that have left 90 dead and threatened to derail the US-led coalition’s ongoing fight to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. The clashes between Arab tribesmen against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) unfolded in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor as Turkish-backed opposition fighters launched concurrent attacks against Kurdish targets in Russian-protected areas of northern Syria.
The United States sent senior diplomatic and military officials to the region Sunday to help restore calm as the fighting between the SDF and local tribal forces spread, potentially threatening the security of its own estimated 900 special operations forces deployed in the hotly contested region.
The Arab-majority province is divided geographically and politically by the Euphrates River, with the SDF holding the oil-rich eastern bank stretching to the Iraqi border and the Syrian Arab Army controlling the western bank. The regime and its top allies Russia and Iran are pressuring the Americans to leave.
Tensions between locals and the Kurdish-led administration have been brewing for some time over the SDF’s heavy handed tactics in flushing out IS cells and what locals say is discrimination against them in favor of the Kurds.
The immediate trigger for the fighting was the arrest by the Kurdish-led autonomous administration (AANES) of local tribal warlord Abu Khawla, a key US ally in the anti-IS campaign, over a litany of charges including conspiring with the Syrian regime against the SDF. The incident rapidly spiraled into the worst upheaval seen since IS was crushed there in 2019.
The regime and Turkey have aired support for the rebellious tribes, with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad vowing to “liberate” Deir Ezzor from the United States and its “terrorist allies” and Turkey demanding that the former scotch its alliance with the latter, which Ankara labels as terrorists, as well.
In an interview late Wednesday, SDF commander Mazlum Kobane pointed the finger of blame at the Syrian government, Iran and Turkey and said that the United States and Russia had sided with his forces. Speaking via a secure line from an undisclosed location in northeast Syria, Kobane acknowledged nonetheless that Arab grievances about governance and security were legitimate and needed to be urgently addressed in concert with local tribal leaders.
The following is the full text of the interview, which was conducted in Turkish and lightly edited for clarity.
Al-Monitor: What is the current situation on the ground?
Kobane: Militarily we have achieved our goal. We have full control of all the areas.
From here on we will be implementing security measures in all the villages affected by the disturbances to ensure they are not repeated.
The armed groups that crossed into our territory from the western bank of the Euphrates River in order to sow havoc and discord among local tribes have gone back to government-held territory. They were forced to retreat.
Al-Monitor: Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl of the Akaiadat was at the forefront of calls for the tribes to unite against you. Where is he now?
Kobane: Sheikh Ibrahim has gone back to the regime side, where he resides. He returned to help unleash these provocations. Our comrades entered Dibhan town [al-Hifl’s stronghold], where he had based himself among his fellow tribesmen. The village folk have not left and our comrades are in constant dialogue with all the tribes and their elders.
You know that Sheikh Nawaf al Bashir of the al-Bakara tribe claimed he would be crossing over to our side to take up arms against us as well. He is closely allied with the regime and with Iran. But he is still in regime-held territory and his men have all been pushed back.
Al-Monitor: You refer to armed groups who came in from the regime side. Were these all tribal people? Or were there any regime forces or Iran-backed militias among them?
Kobane: They were tribal forces organized by the regime. Many were financed and armed by Iran. There were also regime officers among them, the regime’s intelligence officers. We captured four of those people. They are members of Al Difa Watani [a pro-government militia that formed with Iran’s help]. We are still investigating whether Iran-backed Shia militia members were among those who penetrated our territory.
Al-Monitor: What is the death toll from the violence?
Kobane: We lost 25 of our security people. And we also lost seven civilians; 97 of our fighters were wounded.
We don’t have exact figures for the number of casualties on the enemy side. They took their dead back across the river. We don’t have any bodies.
Al-Monitor: There are claims that the YPJ, the all-women fighting force, took part in the battles and that this was a deliberate attempt to humiliate the tribes.
Kobane: The YPJ were not on the front lines. We understand the cultural sensitivities in this part of tribal Syria. They provided logistic support. As for the overall ethnic composition of our SDF forces, there are Kurds, Assyrians and others, but the majority are Arab. The majority of those deployed in this conflict were ethnic Arabs and the majority of our losses were our Arabs friends, including several from Idlib.
Al-Monitor: It wasn’t a secret that Abu Khawla was a bad-faith actor. Why did you not take action against him sooner?
Kobane: It is true that there were complaints against him coming to us from locals for a long while. For example, he was linked to the deaths of two women [who were allegedly raped and killed by Abu Khawla’s brother]. We have been investigating these claims just as we were facing constant threats from Turkey and it took some time. Finally, at a recent security meeting, we decided that it was time to act. We confirmed that he was assembling an armed force to attack us in collusion with the regime. As you may recall, regime officials were in parallel making statements about how they were going to come here and supposedly free the people. Our intelligence confirmed that this was beyond mere rhetoric and that there were indeed such preparations and that Abu Khawla was part of these plans. Therefore, his arrest was a pre-emptive measure.
Al-Monitor: Were you not surprised by the ferocity of the response and the fact that other tribes aired their opposition to the SDF and the AANES as well?
Kobane: I would not call it a surprise. We knew Abu Khawla was up to no good. We moved first. What was unexpected was the degree of coordination with the regime and the number of forces who crossed over the river, while Turkish-backed forces further north around Manbij and Tell Tamar launched attacks simultaneously against our positions.
Sheikh Ibrahim has aired his discontent for some time. And he moved over to the regime side two years ago. We initiated dialogue but it didn’t yield any results. I spoke to him again over the past few days. I told him that we are ready to work with him. I am renewing this message again through you. I am saying to him, “Come back. Let us meet face to face. Tell us what you want and let us seek to resolve our differences through dialogue.” For me, a military solution is never a real solution. He took arms against us first. We were forced to respond.
But as for the remaining tribal leaders, our relations with them remain intact and they are good. During this period, they showed solidarity with us and we were in constant dialogue. Had they sided against us, there is no way we could have quelled the unrest so swiftly and brought the situation under control.
Al-Monitor: But many of the grievances aired during this period aren’t new. There have long been complaints of discrimination against Arabs by Kurds, of disproportionate and arbitrary use of force during anti-Islamic State operations and of poor governance overall.
Kobane: It is true that there are shortcomings in terms of the provision of municipal services and security in Deir Ezzor. There are also issues with law and justice. I am aware of this. Even before these incidents occurred, we were holding meetings with local leaders to seek ways to address them and promised that we would. And we will. As soon as full calm is restored, we will hold a congress where all of these grievances will be on the table. We will invite all the tribal leaders, community elders, thought leaders, politicians, civil society actors and are determined to come up with lasting solutions.
Al-Monitor: Another big grievance is oil. The people of Deir Ezzor claim you are “stealing” oil that is rightfully theirs.
Kobane: The local population’s fuel needs are largely met. We strike individual agreements on distributing and producing the oil [with tribal leaders]. But there are problems among the tribes themselves. Everyone wants to get involved in the petroleum business. There are problems for sure and to be honest, we need to regulate the trade more effectively. But oil is not the real issue at hand.
Al-Monitor: Where does most of the oil go?
Kobane: At least half of it is converted to diesel fuel and distributed to the local people at subsidized prices. The rest goes to the other side [rebel-occupied areas], to regime areas. The oil belongs to the Syrian people and we are striving to ensure that all Syrians get their share.
Al-Monitor: Another complaint is that locals, including girls, are being forcibly conscripted by the SDF.
Kobane: This is absolutely untrue. There is no mandatory conscription in Deir Ezzor. All military service is paid for and voluntary.
Al-Monitor: There are claims, particularly coming out of Turkey, on social media that your forces tortured and mistreated locals during this operation.
Kobane: Some civilians have died. We are in touch with their families and we have launched a full investigation into all such allegations, into exactly who and which side is responsible. We have zero tolerance for torture or abuse of any of our citizens. Each and every such allegation is worthy of thorough scrutiny. I have said so before and I am saying it to you again.
Al-Monitor: The economic situation in Deir Ezzor is catastrophic. Did the Americans pledge more aid by way of helping to ease popular resentment?
Kobane: The situation is catastrophic across Syria and it’s getting worse by the day. The protests in Suwayda are proof of this and it seems they will continue and pose a threat to the regime. The regime lacks the means to suppress them in the way they did in the past. Indeed, the regime seized on the clashes in Deir Ezzor to deflect public attention away from the protests. Ordinary Syrians were hoping that normalization with the Gulf countries would have a positive impact. But it did not, because the regime is not fulfilling its pledges.
Al-Monitor: You mean to eliminate the Captagon trade and to reduce the influence of Iran and its militias?
Kobane: Those are some of the examples. As for the [US-led] coalition, it does have a responsibility to help. They say they have their routine budgets and plans. But we and the people of Deir Ezzor have asked them for additional assistance. Ultimately, we rely on our own resources to care for our people.
Al-Monitor: What are the regime and Iran’s motives in stoking unrest in this area?
Kobane: The Syrian foreign minister was very clear. He said, “We will liberate those areas from America and the forces that support it,” meaning the SDF, and came out in support of the armed groups that attacked us. This is nothing new. Their goal is to get the Americans out and to drive the SDF out of this area.
Al-Monitor: The Russians want the Americans to leave as well. Were they involved in these recent attacks in any way?
Kobane: As I mentioned previously, there were attacks against us by Turkish-backed groups near Manbij and Tell Tamar and Russia repelled them with airstrikes against them. I can’t say for sure whether they are linked in any way to the Deir Ezzor incidents, but the Russians denied to us that they were involved. They told us, “We had nothing to do with this.”
Al-Monitor: Reliable sources such as Syrians for Truth and Justice and even Syrian opposition news channels are reporting that hundreds of fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have deployed from Idlib towards Manbij. At the same time, we hear that Ahrar al Sharqiya, [a US-designated extremist Sunni rebel group] and other Turkish-backed Deir Ezzor factions are also moving towards Manbij. Isn’t this odd, given that the Russians responded so forcefully?
Kobane: As I said, we don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that the attacks in Deir Ezzor and those by Turkish-backed forces began on the same exact day. Turkey has been actively seeking to turn the tribes against us through its members living under its own occupation [in northern Syria] and within Turkey itself. This is nothing new.
Turkey must have known of the impending attack in Deir Ezzor. It was coordinated. They organized and positioned themselves to take advantage of the situation in Deir Ezzor to grab more of our land around Manbij, Serekaniye and Tell Tamar.
They were obviously counting on the conflict lasting and spreading, but we spoiled their plans. Just today, al-Qaeda-linked groups attacked two villages in Manbij, but our forces pushed them back. Russia did not approve the Turkish plan.
Al-Monitor: Can you be more specific? Did the Russians provide you with security guarantees that they would not allow such attacks now and in the future?
Kobane: They told us that they had rejected Turkey’s demands to attack our areas now, as they have in the past. We can’t call these security guarantees per se, as they did not give us any such assurances for the future.
Al-Monitor: You told Al Arabiya TV that US-led coalition forces supported you against the insurgents. Did they conduct airstrikes? Provide actionable intelligence, logistic support? What did they do?
Kobane: The Americans wanted to resolve the issue through dialogue. Their representatives engaged with local actors to help de-escalate the situation. As you know, [Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Ethan] Goldrich and the coalition commander came here Sunday. We held joint meetings with tribal leaders. The Americans told them to not allow external forces to destabilize this area and encouraged them to work with us. The tribal leaders agreed. Of course, the Americans have their own forces here and need to protect them. They deployed aerial assets, unmanned drones over the area during the troubles.
Al-Monitor: Did the Americans strike your enemies?
Kobane: No, they did not. They were acting to deter, to send a clear message that they are behind us, supporting us. The US administration made a statement to that effect. That we are their partners and that they will not allow such forces to destabilize our region. I should add that the Americans are helping treat our wounded, as they always have.
Al-Monitor: Overall, would you say the Americans are giving you enough support?
Kobane: No, and we have criticized them for this, especially in the political arena. Yes, we have military cooperation against terrorists, against the Islamic State. But insofar as providing diplomatic backing for our local administration here, I would say that it falls short.
Al-Monitor: Are you disappointed or surprised that [National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa] Brett McGurk, who used to meet with you frequently as America’s coalition envoy and was regarded as a big friend of the Syrian Kurds, has not set foot in northeast Syria since taking charge of Middle East affairs at the White House?
Kobane: You would have to ask McGurk about that. Obviously, the war in Ukraine, and getting Turkey’s support for Sweden’s entry to NATO are some of the factors that could explain this situation.
Al-Monitor: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made remarks to the press backing the tribal insurgents against you. Today, we heard Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan repeating Turkish calls on the Americans to end their alliance with you. Are you concerned that the United States will eventually withdraw their forces from northeast Syria?
Kobane: There is little doubt that Turkey will continue to make such demands of the Americans and Russians alike. So far, they have not got what they want and hopefully never will. And there are absolutely no indications at this time that the United States is planning to withdraw its forces from here.
Al-Monitor: Have you been in contact with the regime over this period?
Kobane: Yes, we have. We called on them to end this mischief and conveyed our desire to enter meaningful dialogue with them for democratic governance for this area. These kinds of malign interventions clearly don’t serve that cause and set things back. In any case, although we continue to hold sporadic talks with Damascus, we have made no progress in terms of getting the regime to hold substantive talks for a comprehensive solution encompassing Syria as a whole.
Al-Monitor: Did any regional leaders contact you during this time? The Saudis, the Emiratis, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani, for instance?
Kobane: No, they didn’t.
Al-Monitor: What about the [Syrian opposition] Kurdistan National Council? Any support, any calls?
Kobane: They are split among themselves. There were some general statements against the violence from some, but nothing substantive. None of them called.
Al-Monitor: There have been reports in the media claiming that the United States has deployed additional forces along the Syria Iraq border. Is this true? Is there a buildup?
Kobane: We have not encountered any signs of a buildup. We read those media reports and we asked the Americans about them. They told us that they were false, that there was no buildup.
Al-Monitor: Final question. I know you are super busy. Given the past week’s events, do you regret carrying the campaign against the Islamic State to Arab-majority territory?
Kobane: No, absolutely not. We were under constant attack by Salafist groups from those areas, even before the Islamic State took over. We knew we had to go all the way up the [Euphrates] in order to keep our people safe and our areas stable. Indeed, while we deeply regret the loss of life and wish it could have all been averted, there are some positive outcomes from the week’s upheaval. It is far clearer to the people who are with the regime and who are not. Today we are even closer to the people of Deir Ezzor. We are more determined than ever to address their legitimate grievances and work together to improve their lives.