Assad’s Hidden Hand in the Uprising Against the Kurds in Eastern Syria

How the Syrian regime exploited real grievances to fuel unrest against the US and its local allies

Assad’s Hidden Hand in the Uprising Against the Kurds in Eastern Syria
The U.S. military sends reinforcements to its bases in Deir ez-Zor province in Syria on Aug. 13. (Omer Al Diri/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Six years ago, the cornerstone of U.S. policy in eastern and northeastern Syria was focused on combating the Islamic State group. The strategy had many critics in 2017, few of whom would dispute that it led to the current crisis in eastern Syria: Last week, an uprising against the U.S.-backed Kurdish administration broke out after Kurdish forces arrested Abu Khawla, one of their local allies in Deir ez-Zor, causing bloodshed and renewed tensions.

In 2017, the U.S. selected someone they considered a suitable ally in Deir ez-Zor to fight jihadists, namely Ahmad al-Khubayl, better known as Abu Khawla, who was to lead the effort under the local umbrella of Deir ez-Zor Military Council as part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Abu Khawla was chosen because he was both willing and better positioned than others from the area, according to our conversations with American officials. He belongs to a clan that had a relatively large number of members supporting the Islamic State, the only local core the jihadists had in the province at the time. More importantly, most of the more capable nonjihadist forces from Deir ez-Zor preferred working with Turkey rather than the Kurds to defeat the organization. Our sources told us that the U.S. either had no better options or had no desire to explore alternatives that their Kurdish allies would oppose, amid a pressing need to finish off the dwindling caliphate in its last stretch of land in Deir ez-Zor that year.

While the approach had its flaws, it worked. Kurdish-led forces defeated the jihadists and controlled the areas east of the Euphrates River, while the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies controlled the opposite side. Over time, by around 2019, jihadist cells in the area had weakened. Since then, the focus of U.S. policy, as well as of its critics, has revolved around two main concerns: the Islamic State’s potential to maintain sleeper cells in the area, and how the actions of U.S. allies either alienate or attract locals to the group.

The central local grievances against the U.S.-backed forces lie in the corruption, poor governance (even when compared to the Bashar al-Assad regime) and daily transgressions of those working with the SDF. According to interviews in Washington and in the region, Arab locals have consistently asked the U.S. to establish an entity to run Deir ez-Zor with real local representation, independent of the Kurds, who have no demographic presence in the province. The argument has an ethnic dimension to it, but the economic and ideological aspects are more pronounced. The SDF is an ultrasecular entity informed by Marxist ideas that often clash with the area’s conservative norms, including those espoused by certain Kurdish clans in northeastern Syria. Locals also say that the fight against the Islamic State caused mass destruction of local buildings and the houses of innocent and impoverished families, calling on the U.S.-led coalition to allocate funds for rebuilding and services. According to locals, this dire situation persists because the Kurds misappropriate local resources, primarily oil, diverting them to enrich a foreign-led and transnational Kurdish militia, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with no interest in real representative governance or economic development. (The SDF denies it has links to the PKK and claims many of the violations that people complain about are caused by Arab locals from these towns.)

Residents told us they view the U.S. as an arbiter and partner in introducing better local representation and running their own areas. American officials, according to conversations with the authors, are wary of any move that could disrupt the status quo and open doors for a jihadist return. Abu Khawla seized his moment to lead the fight against the jihadists in 2017 and made himself indispensable in the continued effort to suppress the jihadist sleeper cells and establish his networks, which then made it hard for the U.S. to remove him. Supporters of the U.S. policy in the region argue that locals missed a chance to mobilize against the Islamic State and work with the international coalition, leaving the U.S. with little choice but to rely on the Kurds and the likes of Abu Khawla. Additionally, the Kurds perceive the situation as rooted in inherent anti-Kurdish hostility, viewing the unrest as a short-term problem caused by removing a corrupt warlord and his associates.

But the backstory of the current crisis is far more intricate than publicly presented by both sides, with new challenges and opportunities for the U.S. to help stabilize the area. In the months leading up to the current unrest, the focus of the U.S.-led forces shifted from combating jihadist cells to monitoring increased activities by individuals and networks linked to the Assad regime in Damascus and, more recently, a local plan to expel the Kurds from the area. Indeed, the Kurdish decision to apprehend such a key partner as Abu Khawla was compelled by these new developments.

On Aug. 27, news emerged that the Kurdish forces had lured Abu Khawla from his headquarters into the northeastern province of Hasaka for a meeting with the top Kurdish leadership to discuss a way out of a weekslong standoff between the Kurds and Arabs in the area. He was arrested, along with two top commanders working with him, after the end of a warm meeting with Kurdish officials. In response, his brother led an armed rebellion against the SDF, releasing videos in which he threatened to execute wounded prisoners if Abu Khawla was not released. The skirmishes led to casualties from both sides but mostly from within the SDF and among Arab locals from Deir ez-Zor and other areas, such as Idlib.

Questions linger regarding the motivations behind the Kurds’ arrest of Abu Khawla, who remains in custody, especially considering the already precarious situation in Deir ez-Zor due to escalating tensions involving both the Syrian regime and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a rare television interview, issued a warning about an imminent major U.S. effort to tighten control over the Syrian-Iraqi borders, effectively closing the Assad regime’s sole lifeline. He suggested that Washington had a plan to destabilize the regime, a sentiment echoed shortly afterward by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iraqis are concerned about any such escalation because it could destabilize a delicate status quo in western and northern Iraq, although there is no evidence or indication that the U.S. has any plans to increase pressure on either Syria or Iraq.

The Kurds, meanwhile, have advanced the narrative that they arrested Abu Khawla because of complaints against him in Deir ez-Zor, including his corruption and abusive treatment of locals, an unlikely reason given the yearslong pressure by locals to remove him and, more remarkably, given the heightened tensions in the area.

An investigation by New Lines can reveal that the reason for the arrest is grounded in the discovery of a plan by Abu Khawla to expel the Kurds from the area, in coordination with other actors from Deir ez-Zor and nearby areas. These revelations are based on interviews we conducted with individuals close to Abu Khawla, other members of the SDF and their families, as well as local people and dignitaries from different sides of the conflict in the areas affected by the events. (As this article was being published, the existence of the plan was also confirmed by the SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi, who said in a statement that the Syrian regime aimed to seize the area “within two days,” adding that tribes living in the Kurdish-controlled part of Syria opposed such a return of the regime and that all contact with the U.S. in eastern Syria must go exclusively through him.)

Abu Khawla’s scheme involves his own former local adversaries and critics, with whom he mended ties recently after years of animosity and heated exchanges over how to run the area. We can also reveal that some of those involved in this effort have existing links to the regime, including through leaders living in Damascus or through smugglers operating across both banks of the Euphrates.

The involvement of regime supporters in Abu Khawla’s scheme and in the current crisis is an added complication: Abu Khawla is known to oppose the Syrian regime, and is wanted by Damascus for his anti-regime activism.

Abu Khawla envisioned the military formation as a parallel special forces unit, named al-Fedayeen. It consisted of around 500 soldiers, commanded by one of Abu Khawla’s close relatives, and based in the village of Rubaida, where Abu Khawla has his headquarters. The unit procured substantial quantities of weapons and ammunition through an arms dealer with connections to the regime in Al-Ezba village. Both Al-Ezba and Rubaida came under attack by Kurdish forces in the early hours of the events, suggesting the Kurds intended to go further than arresting Abu Khalwa to dismantle his core groups.

Many of the commanders closely associated with Abu Khawla, including those leading the new formation, either faced arrest alongside him during the meeting in Hasaka or met their demise in the aftermath. According to an insider account from individuals present in the meeting and family of one of the guards killed during the arrest, the overall commander of the SDF, Abdi, extended an invitation to Abu Khawla and his senior commanders for a meeting at a military base known as Istirahat al-Wazir. Prior to the meeting, Abdi promised to entrust Abu Khawla with the complete administration of Deir ez-Zor, encompassing both military and civilian matters. Shortly after this gathering, the Kurdish forces dispatched reinforcements from southern Hasaka to Deir ez-Zor, with the aim of dismantling or apprehending Abu Khawla’s conspirators in the region. Notably, this deployment occurred prior to any significant reactions from the local population in response to Abu Khawla’s arrest.

Testimonies from various individuals in multiple areas affected by the fighting pointed to summary executions targeting commanders of small formations linked to Abu Khawla. In one case, for example, a commander from Shaddadi in southern Hasaka was killed after he approached the SDF to surrender to them. The commander, identified as Abu Khadija, headed a group of fighters serving as “palace guards” to Abu Khawla’s headquarters in Rubaida. In addition to the attacks and killings of several commanders of local units in places like Al-Ezba, Busayra and Rubaida, the SDF also conducted search campaigns targeting individuals in different villages. The reinforcements sent by the SDF did not include Kurdish fighters, but mostly Arab members from outside Deir ez-Zor, including from Idlib. The SDF’s explanation of the reinforcements after the arrest is that they wanted to contain the situation by asserting control over the area.

The Kurdish actions against Abu Khawla extended beyond him, challenging various explanations advanced by the SDF for his arrest, such as corruption, alienation of the local community and collaboration with the regime. Subsequent to his arrest, the Kurds pursued a broader campaign involving arrests, searches and targeted killings. Some 70 people have been killed in the events over the past week, including fighters.

These details help clarify why the local community in Deir ez-Zor has united in opposition to the Kurds, especially considering that Abu Khawla was a despised figure whom they consistently implored both the Kurds and the Americans to remove for years. Widely known by the moniker “motorbike thief” due to the rowdy reputation he gained before the Syrian uprising, Abu Khawla alienated people in the province and incurred the ire of almost all tribal sheikhs in the area. This animosity stemmed from his activities as a warlord and his demand that they support his appointment as the Chief of Zubaid — a panregional tribal confederation that includes major tribes across the region, and to which most of eastern Syria belong.

Locals, as the Kurds no doubt assessed, would have been willing to overlook his arrest. In fact, Abu Khawla’s supporters put up little resistance after he was detained, and most of the mobilization against the SDF was sustained by forces outside his narrow base. The mobilization against the Kurdish forces included supporters of the regime and members of the opposition with personal grievances against Abu Khawla. Almost everyone from the province joined in the call for an uprising against the Kurds, not only within the area but also beyond, in places like Aleppo close to other Kurdish areas.

The current cycle was caused by a miscalculation triggered by two interconnected surprises. First, the Kurds were effectively forced to make a move against a critical ally they had previously refused to replace with a more locally accepted individual, compelled by his plan to fully take over. The risks of taking such action had otherwise outweighed any disagreements the two may have previously had. The other factor is that the Kurds either did not see, or downplayed, the hidden hand of the regime.

Even before the latest events, evidence pointed to increased focus by the regime on connecting with movers and shakers in eastern Syria, from social notables to smugglers. The authors also gathered evidence of key tribal sheikhs reestablishing ties with the Assad regime, with increased outreach by regime allies such as Nawaf al-Bashir of the Baggara tribe, especially after regional powers reestablished diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. This regime outreach also involved loyalists from within the SDF areas, who took advantage of increased divisions and tensions in those territories by offering support or future guarantees from the regime. Sometimes such connections revolved around drug smuggling and economic privileges between the SDF and regime sides of the river.

This created a murky situation, in which various individuals and networks were connected together, mostly for economic gain. This situation enabled the regime, or its smuggling networks, to use such individuals to make inroads into the Kurdish zone, which in turn enabled it to stir up trouble therein. The Abu Khawla-led plan to create his own independent structures, with the help of others, was illustrative of this state of affairs. Because of his pragmatism, he may have overlooked the politics of those who could help him in his project. Before the recent tensions, the SDF’s Kurdish leadership and Abu Khawla also differed over how to deal with local elements loyal to the Assad regime, especially among tribal chiefs or their delegates on the ground.

Aside from its indirect involvement in the Abu Khawla-led plan, the Syrian regime also played a role in fueling the crisis. The regime’s media has portrayed the events as an uprising against the U.S. and the Kurds, and tribal loyalists have produced nonstop statements calling for people to rise up and join the rebellion — curiously, without necessarily referencing the regime. Sources on the ground have also reported that key individuals involved in the protests crossed into regime terrain after the SDF began search operations in certain villages.

For locals, the involvement of Damascus raises alarms about the possibility that the crisis will deepen or be exploited by the regime. Some fear the regime may carry out assassinations of notable figures and blame the Kurds, a tactic that has been employed in the past when such killings were attributed to the Islamic State, even when the latter did not claim responsibility, as they otherwise typically would.

The SDF faces no real military challenge from within Deir ez-Zor, because of the lack of organized militias there. Unlike in 2017, most locals welcome — even demand — working under the umbrella of a U.S.-led effort in their areas. This means that a return to the status quo may be a matter of time.

But the crisis has exposed several fault lines. The regime’s ability to fuel the clash has been enabled by the existence of deep-rooted grievances that both the U.S. and the Kurds have downplayed, because these grievances did not manifest serious military or security threats. For U.S. officials, this lack of internal threats, combined with the need to delegate matters to the Kurds, meant that the current situation was good enough. The recent crisis has raised the temperatures of ethnic and social tensions to unprecedented levels, fueled by nonstop propaganda from all sides, including the release of old footage of individuals speaking Kurdish and humiliating or executing Arab men and women.

The arrest of Abu Khawla closes one chapter in eastern Syria; another will begin when the situation stabilizes. Individuals from the U.S. side involved in outreach efforts to end the crisis fear that the Kurds may be driven further into paranoia about an area they know is hostile to their presence. So far, based on our conversations with individuals close to the Kurdish leadership, they believe that the lack of a military threat to them means a deeper control of the area is more possible and even necessary now that Abu Khawla is removed and the threat from the Assad regime increased.

Sleeper cells loyal to the regime have replaced those loyal to the Islamic State as the main threat to the current structures in eastern Syria. Another fear expressed to us by locals is that loyalists will likely continue to build up their influence there and may prove to be harder to root out and more effective in destabilizing the area than the jihadist cells. The regime’s presence in the area is a new development, and locals say that that presence will deepen existing vulnerabilities and grievances, producing unforeseen scenarios in the future, in the same way the latest events exposed the regime’s ability to stir up or exploit the current unrest.

Meanwhile, locals see an opening for strengthening stability and the post-conflict order in eastern Syria, and local efforts behind the scenes call for the U.S. to mediate a sustainable solution in the province. In meetings with local leaders, U.S. officials asked for help to calm the situation and return to the status quo without promising a response to the popular demands. The U.S. also issued a generic statement declaring solidarity with the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State, a bureaucratic priority that does not resonate with locals, given the nonexistence of the jihadist threat at the present moment. For locals, popular demands for better representatives have become easier to meet with the removal of a warlord who helped fight the Islamic State and then moved to consolidate power around himself. Now that he is out of the picture, they hope this will open the door for the U.S. to work with alternatives, committed to representing and developing the area.

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