When the U.S. and its allies finally began their offensive to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor in August 2017, the Syrian battlefield looked very different to when the conflict began in 2011.
Back then, President Barack Obama came out in support of rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, in 2012, began arming them. In the years since, America’s friends and foes have shifted, however, and its leading rival, Russia, stepped in to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quell a nationwide rebellion and reclaim the lion’s share of his country.
Moscow’s entrance to the conflict, along with growing jihadist influence among rebel groups, forced the U.S. to realign its position and settle on a new, informal goal: stopping Iran. The U.S., now led by maverick President Donald Trump, suspects Iran is seeking to establish a long-term foothold to build an international corridor of influence stretching from Tehran to Beirut and Washington is struggling to stop it
Taking advantage of eastern Syria’s tribal roots, however, one team of analysts say the U.S. may have a chance to retain a stake in Syria. But doing so may take a level of clarity and commitment not yet seen by the U.S. in its approach to the six-year conflict and it may already be too late to do so.
“This is a larger challenge in Deir Ezzor than any part of Syria for the coalition and for the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, tells Newsweek.
Beginnings of a Conflict in Tribal Deir Ezzor
Heras teamed up with Bassam Barabandi, co-founder of anti-Assad activist group People Demand Change and a Deir Ezzor native, to research and map out the complex, yet vastly influential network of tribes that shape Deir Ezzor society.
Their report, which was published in full last week, details not only the current state of what’s become the most highly contested province of Syria, but how it became the latest focal point for violence in Syria.
Prior to the 2011 uprising against Assad’s government that precipitated the ongoing conflict in Syria, Deir Ezzor was in poor shape. The largely rural province was suffering the effects of years of urbanization, with younger Syrians choosing to live in larger cities like Damascus and Aleppo, and a crippling drought made worse by state mismanagement.
Residents were bitter, but when demonstrations condemning government corruption, unemployment and lack of social freedoms devolved into armed clashes between security forces and what would ultimately become the Syrian opposition, Deir Ezzor was one of the last areas to turn to revolution.
While tribesmen may have seen the growing rebellion as an opportunity to ditch the state, they were also very cautious not to back a losing faction and risk further chaos in a part of the country very rooted in tradition. In 2012, when the anti-Assad insurgency reached “critical mass” as Heras says, armed opposition groups composed mainly of tribal militias gained momentum against pro-government forces and ultimately expelled most of them from the city in 2013. The remainder would remain trapped for years to come.
As the opposition fended off Syrian military attempts to regain the city, locals’ fears of further bloodshed appeared validated as various rebel groups, including Al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, battled one another for control of the province’s lucrative oil fields. The situation only got worse when a new, more powerful entity took advantage of the infighting to gain a foothold in Deir Ezzor.
The Rise and Fall of ISIS
After breaking off from Al-Qaeda in 2013 the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) spread across half of Iraq and into neighboring Syria. ISIS swarmed Deir Ezzor in summer 2014 and enlisted the support of the province’s disillusioned tribal leaders by force and by presenting itself as the most stable, wealthy guarantor for locals. Most acquiesced and helped fuel what would become an economic and political hub for the jihadists’ self-proclaimed caliphate.
In the three years since, ISIS lost most of its ground across the border in Iraq and separate campaigns by the Russia-backed Syrian military and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities that’s taken the place of rebels as the U.S.’s main ally in Syria, have begun closing in on what is now the jihadists’ last major city. Both the Syrian government and Kurdish leaders are looking to oust ISIS, but they have different visions for Deir Ezzor once the militants are defeated. Once the competition to annihilate ISIS ends, they’ll have to face off once again to appeal to locals to support their post-war plans. So far, Assad may have the upper hand.
The Syrian leader, who once appeared poised to fall after withdrawing his military from most of the country early on in the war, has since been able to retake nearly every major population center. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad has retaken up to half the city and pushed the jihadists back across the Euphrates.
Assad’s staying power leaves him a serious option for tribes, who may be reluctant to reconcile with the government, but also remain skeptical of the U.S.’s longevity in the conflict once ISIS is defeated. Many locals of Deir Ezzor have direct relations in Iraq’s Anbar province, where the U.S. made a number of deals to secure local support against ISIS’s previous incarnation, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, back in 2006. When ISIS ultimately took control of the region years later in 2014, Washington’s promises did little to defend Iraqi tribesmen from the jihadist wrath.
“In Deir Ezzor, Assad would have to play the long-term game rooted in the assumption that the Americans and their allies will eventually leave,” Heras tells Newsweek. “[Local tribes] still trust that Assad will return and stay, assuming that the Americans won’t stay for decades to come.”
Suspicious of U.S. and Iran’s Intentions
Heras describes the area as “much more anti-Iran than pro-America,” which may actually present itself as an opportunity for the U.S. As little support the U.S., and much less the Kurds, has among residents of Deir Ezzor, local distrust of Iran may be greater.
Tehran’s campaign to expand its influence across the Middle East has proved an effective force against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, but it’s also drawn the scorn of Sunni Muslims, who enjoy a solid majority in Deir Ezzor and many other parts of the region.
Broken promises in Iraq may mar potential alliances between the U.S. and tribes in Syria, but Assad’s proximity to Iran and its allies may have even greater consequences in the current scheme of things. With ISIS largely defeated in western Iraq, the largely Sunni Muslim Iraqi relatives of Deir Ezzor’s tribes now fear retribution from the majority-Shiite Muslim Popular Mobilization Forces, known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, backed by both Tehran and Baghdad.
These militias and their fellow Iran-backed allies across the border in Syria have nearly completed a land route allowing pro-Iran elements to move freely between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Heras says the U.S.’s best chance of limiting Assad and Iran’s influence in Deir Ezzor would be to back a powerful, representative military council whose structure mimics the Syrian Democratic Forces in the north, but remains independent enough as not to appear as a Kurdish takeover in a region still very much attached to Arab nationalism.
Genevieve Casagrande, Syria research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War cautioned that any perceived connection to Kurdish groups would doom any plans to recruit these tribes for a self-ruling council. Such tensions plague similar councils in the Syrian cities of Manbij and Raqqa.
“Even if you have this sort of Arab component to the Syrian Democratic Forces, there’s a fear that a local government will be dependent and subordinate to the Kurdish governance project, which the population of Deir Ezzor will reject,” Casagrande tells Newsweek.
A Race for Oil
With Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies steadily gaining in Deir Ezzor city, however, the U.S. and its Kurdish allies may have already abandoned efforts to take the regional capital. In fact, their southwestern advance against ISIS appears to indicate another target altogether, Syria’s main oil fields located in rural Deir Ezzor.
Syrian military affairs analyst Wael al-Hussaini says both the U.S. and Russia are vying for control over these lucrative oil and gas fields and that, although he believed U.S.-backed Kurds would succeed in securing a number of these strategic sites, they would ultimately be willing to return them to Assad as part of post-war agreement, potentially in return for greater autonomy in the north.
Hussaini says that, after a Kurdish independence referendum drew condemnation from nearly every regional actor and was even rejected by the U.S., Syrian Kurds would try to avoid pushing for full statehood. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said last month that Damascus may be willing to negotiate “some sort of self-management” for Kurds in the north once ISIS was defeated and the Kurds may see Deir Ezzor’s oil fields as bargaining chips in future talks.
“If you don’t have access to water and your neighbor can shut down its borders and your airspace can be closed also, then you won’t be able to establish an independent state. So eventually they will have to talk to the Syrian government,” Hussaini tells Newsweek.
Reconciliation between the Syrian government and Kurds could provide Trump a defensible exit strategy from the conflict, but it still leaves the door open for Iran’s eventual expansion. Only capitalizing on the remaining revolutionary and sectarian fervor of Deir Ezzor’s Sunni Muslim tribal confederations ensures support in keeping Iran out, at least until a pro-U.S. autonomous leadership was formed in the city. Revitalizing these tensions, however, could ignite further bloodshed for years to come.
Even if the U.S. did try to capitalize on local tensions to recruit tribal fighters, it appears that Assad and his allies have beaten Washington to it. Neil Hauer, lead analyst at the SecDev Group, says the U.S. has been “dramatically outpaced by Iran and the regime in terms of outreach to tribes.” He explains that the Syrian government and Iran, having long planned the Deir Ezzor offensive, have already established pro-government networks.
“Syrian and Iranian officials have been working hard to establish links with the tribes of Deir Ezzor for nearly a year now, with the knowledge that eventually they would be moving towards this area as clashes with rebels were largely frozen and efforts from all sides focused more on IS territory,” Hauer tells Newsweek. “U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces efforts pale in comparison, especially as the latter is increasingly viewed as a Kurdish nationalist project.”
“A Game of Great Powers”
With the U.S. having essentially lost its foothold in eastern Syria, Iran may still encounter major obstacles to its long-term plans for the region. Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that, as the U.S. concludes its anti-ISIS campaign and Assad reasserts control, observers would be most interested in examining how the strategic relationship between Iran and Russia plays out.
The two powers formed an alliance of convenience in response to the conflict, but Russia’s willingness to engage amicably with Iran’s two greatest foes, Israel and Saudi Arabia, may erode Moscow and Tehran’s tolerance of one another. China too, has a stake in the region as part of its greater “One Belt One Road” initiative, meaning post-war Syria will likely continue to be a theater for a number of major international powers.
“How will the great powers agree to disagree on spheres of influence?” Nerguizian tells Newsweek. “It’s still very much a game of great powers.”