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Security and Defense

As Iran Tensions Rise, the SDF Face New Threats in Eastern Syria

Update: On Sunday, December 17, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) claimed the assassination of Roni Welat (Sherwan Hassan). They claimed to have targeted him after ‘locating’ him in Deir ez-Zor, although he was known to have been based there for the last few years. This might indicate coordination between Ankara and Damascus in Deir ez-Zor: it would be extremely difficult for Turkey to carry out such an attack in that region without it. The Syrian government benefits from Turkey’s assassination campaign, as it weakens the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces without requiring further Turkish military encroachment onto Syrian territory, which Damascus opposes. The United States has not publicly responded, in keeping with its approach to previous Turkish assassinations of senior SDF and AANES leaders. 

The assassination of Roni Welat (Sherwan Hassan), a senior commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack on December 5 near the Al-Omar Oil Field base in Deir ez-Zor highlights the serious threat posed to the SDF by the ongoing four-month insurgency in the region, which began following the arrest and dismissal of Deir ez-Zor Military Council leader Ahmed Al-Khubail (Abu Khawla) on August 30. This threat could undermine the anti-ISIS fight.

It comes in addition to other serious pressures on the SDF, including a Turkish campaign of drone assassinations that began following the end of Turkey’s ground operations in Serekaniye (Ras al Ain) and Tal Abyad in 2019. According to a recent report from the Rojava Information Centre (RIC), drone strikes have killed 83 people in northeast Syria in 2023 so far. A multi-day campaign of air and drone strikes in early October killed 48 more.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), in November alone, Turkey carried out ten drone attacks, killing seven people, including one civilian and six members of SDF military formations. Moreover, according to SOHR data from November 24, Turkey has carried out 104 drone strikes in 2023, leading to 86 deaths.

As a result, the SDF is now squeezed between two fronts, in addition to attacks by ISIS cells. Before the tribal insurgency in August, the main threats to the SDF were ISIS and Turkey. But in a November interview, SDF spokesperson Farhad Shami told Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman that “Iran is more dangerous than ISIS. We don’t want an escalation with them, least of all when we are under constant attack from Turkey and ISIS.”

Since the arrest of Deir ez-Zor Military Council leader Abu Khawla in August, Deir ez-Zor has seen several rounds of heavy fighting between the SDF and tribal gunmen, which the SDF says were backed by the Syrian government. The SDF also said it arrested members of the pro-Syrian government National Defence Forces (NDF). Over 118 people were killed in August and September, and clashes continued in November and December. Moreover, 76 people were killed in clashes between Turkish-backed factions and SDF. Turkish-backed groups attacked SDF forces in the countryside of Aleppo, Raqqa and Hassakah to put additional pressure under the SDF while they were attacked in Deir ez-Zor.

Fighting has been particularly concentrated in the vicinity of Dhiban and Hawaij, the home base of the local Ageidat tribal leader Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl, who is the self-proclaimed Commander-in-Chief of the ‘tribal army,’ who in early September joined the clashes. Al-Hifl fled to Syrian government-held areas in September after the SDF took Dhiban from his fighters on September 6. According to the SDF, al-Hifl is backed by Damascus and Iran, although his supporters deny this. On November 26, a new video was published on social media networks showing al-Hifl with armed anti-SDF insurgents in Deir ez-Zor, showing the ongoing insurgent threat.

So far, it is unclear who killed Roni Welat, who was a top SDF commander in Deir ez-Zor and was responsible for relations with Arab tribes there. According to researcher Alexander McKeever, Roni Welat was the “most powerful man in the region – and is perhaps the most senior SDF official to be assassinated.” The assassination occurred a week after Roni Welat met with Ageidat tribal leaders and coalition officials in Deir ez-Zor.

No group has officially claimed the assassination. The pro-Abu Khawla Facebook page ‘Emirate of the Bakir Clans’ claimed Roni Welat was killed by Ageidat tribal fighters. The pro-Syrian government anti-SDF page ‘The Sons of Jazira and Euphrates Movement’ also dedicated several posts to the death of Roni Welat. The page quoted a leader of the ‘tribal army’ claiming that since the killing of Roni Welat, the ‘tribal army’ has killed 20 SDF fighters, including four commanders. The SDF claims that this tribal army is a proxy for the Syrian government.

There are also claims that the Syrian government has been feeding Turkey targeting information in regards to its ongoing assassination campaign against SDF and AANES leadership. SDF forces in northeastern Syria, including Deir ez-Zor, have faced attacks, including assassinations, from ISIS cells in areas beyond the reach of Turkish drones since the defeat of ISIS territory in 2019. However, it seems unlikely that Turkey was involved in the assassination of Roni Welat.  Both Damascus and Ankara have been accused of carrying out assassinations of tribal leaders, SDF members and civilians working with the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), such as Raqqa official Omar Aloush, who was allegedly killed by Turkey, in 2018.

“The only area where Turkish drones have been unable to target SDF commanders has been Deir-ez-Zor. However, SDF leaders are now also being killed there by Arab tribes, likely with support from Iran and the Assad regime,” Kurdish analyst Abdulla Hawez wrote on Twitter.

The SDF has blamed the insurgency that erupted after the arrest of Abu Khawla on the Syrian government and Iran. On September 9, the SDF published a confession of an alleged National Defence Forces (NDF) fighter, who said he was compelled to engage the SDF under the guise of ‘tribes’. SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi told Al Monitor’s Amberin Zaman that the “regime’s position remains unchanged and it continues with its Iran-backed allies to stir conflict among the tribes in Deir Ezzor.”

Iran’s objective is to push U.S. forces and the SDF out of Deir ez-Zor. This coincides with the interests of local anti-SDF insurgents such as Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hifl. Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder on November 2 also confirmed that one of Iran’s goals is to force out the US from the region, including Syria, and Iraq. “They’ve (Iran) employed these proxy groups through multiple means in the past to do this,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

Moreover, since the renewed Hamas-Israeli conflict in October, Iranian-backed armed groups under the name ‘the Islamic Resistance of Iraq’ have targeted coalition bases in north east Syria with rockets and suicide drones, especially in Deir ez-Zor, which has also affected the SDF. According to SOHR, at least 48 attacks on Coalition bases have been carried out by Iranian-backed militias across Syria since October.

SDF forces maintain control over the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zor, while the western bank is governed by the Syrian government and supported by armed groups affiliated with Iran. This geographical division makes it challenging for the SDF to prevent the infiltration of gunmen, who can easily cross the river from Syrian government controlled areas. Consequently, the likelihood of the insurgency coming to an end in the near future seems low, especially also due to local Arab grievances over SDF control, the sharing of oil resources, services, and education.

Amidst attacks by Iran-backed groups, the current situation undermines the SDF’s fight against ISIS and the US presence in Deir ez-Zor. To counteract this, the SDF could initiate structural reforms in the local administration of Deir ez-Zor, granting more autonomy to Arab tribes, sharing oil resources, conducting local elections for the Deir ez-Zor council administration (allowing political different factions and civil society  to participate), and improving living conditions.

North and East Syria’s newly adopted Social Contract may be an opportunity to take action on these reforms. The document organizes SDF-held areas into seven cantons, of which Deir ez-Zor is one.  It emphasizes that ethnic and religious components in each region should manage their affairs in their respective languages and cultures. Each canton’s People’s Council will have the right to decide on matters that concern its region. Smaller administrative divisions will be able reject decisions made by the Autonomous Administration by referendum. The People’s Councils are to consist of 60% delegates  elected by the people in general elections and 40% delegates elected by political parties, ethnic and religious organizations, and other groups.

Additionally, the Social Contract limits the entry of security forces into residential homes unless granted judicial permission, aiming to enhance security operations in Deir ez-Zor. This measure addresses concerns about these operations, particularly incidents involving civilian casualties.

The implementation of this social contract could address the grievances of local residents in Deir ez-Zor, if the political diversity and the different tribes are represented in a future Deir ez-Zor administration.

(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

About the Author

Wladimir Van Wilgenburg


Wladimir van Wilgenburg is an on-the-ground reporter and analyst specialized in Kurdish affairs. He graduated from Utrecht University with an MA in Conflict Studies in 2011, and from Exeter University with an MA in Kurdish Studies in 2013. He…

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