Ahmed al-Khubail, also known as Abu Khawla, commander of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, is not a reputable figure in the Deir ez-Zor countryside. This area is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the International Coalition.

Over the years, al-Khubail has been known for his arrogance, disrespect, and aggression towards social and tribal leaders in the region. He has been actively involved in smuggling and seizing people’s livelihoods, and his followers have kidnapped and robbed local merchants; there have also been personal allegations against him, including harassment and rape. Despite local residents repeatedly calling for his removal, the SDF, with whom he is officially connected, have largely dismissed these complaints. Their apparent indifference to his behavior and actions may be due to the fact that they rely on him to maintain control over the Deir ez-Zor countryside.

Recently, a decision was made to isolate al-Khubail. This decision came to light following revelations of his communications with various groups, including Iran, the Assad regime, Nawaf al-Bashir of the Baqir Brigade across the Euphrates River, and with the Syrian National Army and Turkey. It appears that al-Khubail was attempting to assert his independence from the SDF and gain greater control in the Deir ez-Zor region, east of the Euphrates River. Contrary to some claims, the SDF’s decision to isolate al-Khubail was not a response to public demand, nor to his oppressive behavior towards the locals. Instead, it was primarily because he posed a threat to the SDF’s influence and interests in the region.

Ahmed al-Khubail is a member of the al-Bukayr tribe, one of the largest and most populous clans of the al-Uqaydat tribe in the Deir ez-Zor countryside, governed by the SDF. Most fighters in the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, formerly led by al-Khubail, are from this clan. Currently, some members are actively opposing the SDF in support of al-Khubail, but statements and videos from tribes in areas rebelling against the SDF seem to show a lack of concern for al-Khubail’s situation. They view his isolation as an internal SDF issue, one that aligns more closely with their interests. This indifference is partly because al-Khubail has already contributed to the clans’ grievances against the SDF, including issues related to justice, security, wealth distribution, equal representation, demands for local governance, and the need for improved infrastructure.

The tribes have taken advantage of the al-Khubail issue as a pretext to declare their rebellion against the SDF, even though they were not initially supportive of it. In response to this rebellion, the SDF, rather than addressing the underlying causes of the tribes’ unrest, has resorted to branding them as affiliated with ISIS, subordinate to the Syrian regime, or operating under Iranian influence aimed at destabilizing the area. This approach by the SDF is unlikely to resolve the issue or lessen the Arab community’s resentment towards the Kurdish leadership in the Syrian Jazira region: in fact, it may actually exacerbate tensions. These accusations seem to be baseless, as the rebelling tribes are not known to frequent the Russian Hmeimim base, nor do they provide facilities for Syrian regime security operations in their territories. They have not permitted Lebanese Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to establish bases on their land, nor are they involved with the Qaterji militia in oil trading. Contrarily, these tribes appear more committed than the Kurdish leaders to opposing the regime and Iranian militias, at least in the seven villages they control east of the river. There are also complaints from residents about the SDF’s failure to adequately protect them from ISIS incursions into their towns and villages, and ISIS members imposing the zakat tax on land and money owners in areas that should be under the SDF’s direct protection and influence.

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The SDF achieved a military victory in Deir ez-Zor. From the outset of the rebellion, it was apparent that the tribal forces, fighting with emergency backups without formal military organization and armed only with light and medium weapons, stood little chance of winning. Nonetheless, the SDF faced a symbolic defeat. In their response, they quickly resorted to accusations of betrayal against those who were expected to be their allies in the cause or the “Brotherhood of Peoples”, and reacted against them violently. These clans are unlikely to pass up any future opportunity to retaliate against the SDF. They inhabit an extensive area, enabling them to continually disrupt and target the SDF’s presence. Such actions also create an environment conducive to the rise of nationalistic sentiment against the Kurds and lay fertile ground for the resurgence of jihadist groups in the region. This situation is exacerbated by the SDF’s violent and arrogant approach to the first significant internal challenge to its “democratic” project.

In recent years, the SDF and their political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council, have made efforts to organize seminars and dialogue conferences in various European countries, and have sought meetings with Syrian and international leftist parties and movements. All of this is commendable. But for the residents in the areas under their control – whether Kurds or Arabs – they have tightly restricted any avenue for dialogue. It’s the people living under SDF rule who need this dialogue the most. It’s not enough to simply appoint nominal Arab figures at the forefront of their political arm, particularly since these individuals are given limited real-world authority, often reduced to mere Facebook activism. Moreover, these figures themselves often require an “expat card” to live in the eastern and northeastern areas of Syria controlled by the SDF. This approach overlooks the importance of engaging genuinely with the local populace in these regions.

In his first media appearance during the ongoing conflicts, Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the SDF, did not offer any reassuring rhetoric to the residents of the rebelling areas regarding their legitimate demands. Instead, he used this opportunity to accuse the rebels in the region of betrayal and issued a threat of accountability towards the sheikh of al-Uqaydat tribe. This approach is contrary to the pursuit of truth and stability. The rebels are not ISIS members or traitors, as the SDF leadership tries to depict them, but rather individuals with legitimate grievances that deserve attention and action.

The SDF’s insistence on denying any Arab-Kurdish tensions in the current conflicts is an attempt to hide the real issues. Despite controlling large areas in Raqqa, Aleppo’s countryside, and Deir ez-Zor for years – areas without significant Kurdish populations – the SDF has not adequately represented the diverse local residents in these regions. Stability in these areas cannot be assured without genuinely incorporating the various local communities into their ranks, beyond mere claims of representation. This should also involve reducing the influence of dominant and foreign elements in the region, enabling local participation in the management of their areas under the SDF’s proclaimed “autonomous administration.” Currently, these forces are predominantly controlled by Kurds, many of whom are not native to Syria. A truly respectful autonomous administration would promote a high degree of decentralized local governance, involving political and civil figures from the local population in the region’s management.

A review of recent developments suggests that the SDF have maintained a consistent approach towards the residents of these areas, which involves labeling anyone who opposes their policies as affiliated with ISIS, adding a layer of strain to the already complex relationship between the people and the SDF. The locals haven’t forgotten the harsh treatment they received in the camps managed by the SDF during the battles with ISIS, where families fleeing the conflict were housed.

Furthermore, the Arab community feels a sense of injustice, especially as they observe the disparity in resource allocation. They note a significant difference in the funds expended by the Autonomous Administration in al-Hasakah and Qamishli compared to the conditions in areas within Deir ez-Zor, which lack essential life components and are rife with corruption within the official institutions and councils of the SDF, despite being much wealthier areas.

An examination of the official designations used by the SDF and the Autonomous Administrations in the years preceding the recent crisis reveals their approach toward the region’s residents. They predominantly view them as members of clans, neglecting to recognize or foster any civil, civic, or partisan presence beyond the tribal authority. The SDF manipulated this authority by selectively supporting certain individuals while sidelining others, often disregarding the clans’ wishes. In these regions, the SDF seems averse to the development of a civil society and institutions beyond their control or those of a few tribal figures loyal to them. This perspective treats the area as if it were solely composed of clans, unable to evolve or give rise to political and civil entities that transcend tribal structures and their inherent hierarchies.

In Deir ez-Zor, the SDF governs one of Syria’s wealthiest regions, yet it is also an area severely lacking in infrastructure and basic life necessities. For stability to be achieved, it’s essential to have justice, security, fair representation, adequate service provision, and a focus on genuine development priorities. The optimal scenario for this region, in the near future, would be to maintain the SDF’s presence and the support of the international coalition, but with equitable representation and wealth distribution that fosters regional stability. Without these changes, there’s a risk of increased interference from Iran and Assad’s forces, as well as the intrusion of their allied militias. These groups might exploit and amplify the legitimate grievances of the local population. Additionally, there’s a possibility of ISIS re-emerging in the region, considering its proximity and ongoing presence in the area.