Deir ez-Zor remains in turmoil amid multiple conflicts, threats

By Ahmad Othman

DEIR EZ-ZOR, Syria (North Press) – Since the start of the war in Syria, Deir ez-Zor Governorate in eastern Syria witnessed many bloodshed, conflicts, and various consecutive controlling powers, starting from the Turkish-backed armed opposition factions to Iranian-backed militias. The most violent events, however, occurred when the Islamic State (ISIS) controlled the area. The shift and fluctuation in events contributed to destabilizing the area up to the present day.

Even though the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS announced defeating the group in March 2019, ISIS remains a threat to the population, as its sleeper cells are still highly active in Deir ez-Zor due to the geographical characteristics of the region.

The group specifically targeted this area to gain Deir ez-Zor’s natural resources. At ISIS’ peak, the riches of Deir ez-Zor contributed in funding the group’s operations and militants.

Besides ISIS, other parties to the conflict are present in Deir ez-Zor. Two Coalition bases are located there. One is the largest base of the Coalition in Syria, which is stationed in al-Omar oil field, also known as the Green Village, and another one in the Conoco gas field.

Additionally, the Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed militias are also present there. The Euphrates River separates the eastern areas of Deir ez-Zor, which are controlled by the SDF, from areas to the west, which are controlled by the government forces and Iranian-backed militias.

For this reason, Deir ez-Zor has become a target not only for ISIS but also for the Syrian government, which seeks to create chaos in the area, driven by its desire to access the oil fields that could alleviate the severe crisis it faces. Meanwhile, Iran aims to take its conflict with the U.S. to Deir ez-Zor to avoid U.S. retaliatory actions on its own territory.

ISIS has posed the greatest challenge to the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) since 2019 and up until late August 2023. Then, the situation changed.

Based on demands by the local tribes and population in Deir ez-Zor, the SDF launched on Aug. 27, 2023, a military operation called “Security Reinforcement” with the support of the Coalition on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River to eliminate ISIS sleeper cells, and to pursue criminals and smugglers for abuses against the people.

A few days later, on Aug.30, the SDF arrested Ahmad al-Khabil, also known as Abu Khawla, former leader of SDF’s Deir ez-Zor Military Council, for committing violations against the population in Deir ez-Zor. This led to tensions and security chaos, which the Syrian government, Iran, and Turkey took advantage of.

The operation led to clashes between the SDF and gunmen affiliated with Abu Khawla and Nawaf al-Bashir, whose groups are active in the western bank of the Euphrates.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim al-Hefl, sheikh of the al-Uqaydat tribe, became known during the clashes as the leader of the government-linked gunmen. He recruited militants and called to fight against the SDF.

This unrest hindered service provision in Deir ez-Zor and exacerbated the instability, creating another security threat. As a response, the AANES convened a conference titled ‘Enhancing Security and Stability towards Development and Consolidation of Cooperation in Deir ez-Zor’ in late October 2023. The conference discussed the political, economic, security and social situation and called for the improvement of the conditions in Deir ez-Zor.

Additionally, Deir ez-Zor witnessed further escalation by Iranian-backed militias, where they targeted Coalition bases in Deir ez-Zor under the pretext of supporting Gaza following the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict on Oct. 7, 2023.

In this regard, Anas al-Marfou’, a Syrian politician and representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in Deir ez-Zor, said the attacks on the SDF were plotted by the Syrian government and Iran. He added that the leader of the armed groups appeared on several occasions with individuals in close connection with Iran and who have great influence among the government forces.

“Achieving stability in Deir ez-Zor is closely tied to providing services, improving living conditions for residents, and focusing on the health and agricultural sectors. It also involves improving education and reopening river crossings that serve a wide segment of the population,” al-Marfou’ stated to North Press.

He emphasized that achieving stability in Deir ez-Zor requires applying international pressure, particularly by the U.S., on both Iran and Turkey to deter them from targeting the region.

Iran attempts to control the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor, through supporting local militants and militias and attacking U.S. bases.

Al-Marfou’ links establishing stability to the population. This can be achieved by implementing effective mechanisms to enhance economic, political, social, cultural, and security aspects of life for the residents.

The incidents of Deir ez-Zor necessitated changes in political, military, and civilian strategies. Comprehensive and timely approaches are required, including administrative reforms and serious efforts to combat corruption, according to al-Marfou’.

Restoring stability to Deir ez-Zor requires collective community efforts involving civil society organizations, tribes, civilian institutions, religious leaders, and the media. Moreover, activating political participation and holding a national dialogue conference based on common interests among the residents would play a vital role in stability in Deir ez-Zor, as suggested by al-Marfou’.

He added that there is a need to establish monitoring committees to accomplish accountability through providing reports and data. Additionally, al-Marfou’ stressed the reform of security and military apparatuses, development of military doctrine, and the prevention of armed manifestations are crucial.