The Changeling of Deir ez-Zor

The Syrian rebel Abu Ishaq aligned with all types of factions during Syria’s war

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The Changeling of Deir ez-Zor
In Deir ez-Zor/ Courtesy of Shelly Kittleson

I first met Abu Ishaq over tea in a small town on the Turkish-Syrian border in the now far-off 2015. He was with another opposition commander from Deir ez-Zor in an outdoor cafe of a hotel notorious for the fighters, commanders, and funders that had passed through on their way into or out of Idlib in northwest Syria. Later that evening, the three of us sat chatting in a cramped hotel room, eating takeaway food from plastic foam containers.

The tension that had been palpable earlier due to the fear of regime spies or Islamic State operatives eavesdropping had by then dissipated. The two men joked and laughed easily, scooping up food with their hands and wistful for their home region, so far away both geographically and in terms of traditions. Deir ez-Zor, in the easternmost region of Syria, was by then under ISIS.

Abu Ishaq, a defector from the Syrian military still in his 20s, was said in some Deiri circles to have killed a Tunisian ISIS fighter and, in so doing, had been the first to openly fight the transnational terrorist group in his hometown.

When I reached for a bottle of water with my left hand, he swatted it away.

“Haram,” he said with a grin on his face. “We only use our right hand for eating. We will have to teach you Islam.”

Abu Ishaq moved between many areas of the country over the years. He admired and fought alongside an al-Qaeda figure but later joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed force fighting against ISIS. Some say he joined the SDF for the same reason many armed opposition groups accepted the presence of ISIS in their territory when it first arrived in the country: to make use of the group until shared military goals were met, but with the idea of severing ties later. Abu Ishaq was pragmatic, as people especially from underprivileged areas and classes must be if they are to survive.

Born in 1990, First Lieutenant Ismail al-Abdullah (later widely known as Abu Ishaq al-Ahwazi) left government forces in the first year of war and went back to his native eastern Syria to fight against the regime alongside others from his province. Initially, he was a brigade commander in Liwa al-Ahwazi and then became commander of the group after his older brother was killed in battle against regime forces in his home region.

During my attempts to get information on battles and groups, Abu Ishaq would pepper his answers with philosophical musings on Islam. The “right” to take a second wife came up, as did whether Islam and tribalism were complementary or at odds with one another. Women’s rights are often brought up in Syria with female reporters as a way to gauge their views. Many men will claim that women have more rights under Islam but argue about what exactly the Quran says on the matter. These issues were of secondary importance to the conflict but central to Abu Ishaq’s life and choices.

The factions he fought with and his position within them changed considerably over time. He nonetheless remained staunchly against both the Assad government and ISIS until his death.

Abu Ishaq and other local opposition groups were a motley mix of Islamists, “secular” fighters, and friends they had grown up with or met during compulsory military service. Others they met once they took up arms against the regime after 2011.

After defecting from the regime’s military, Abu Ishaq joined a local armed opposition group in Deir ez-Zor. The armed groups fought ISIS for months with virtually no outside support. But in June 2014 when the jihadist group took Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, it was strengthened by the capture of a large cache of Iraqi army weapons, including M1A1 Abrams tanks. This left the poorly equipped local groups in Deir ez-Zor — already cut off from other opposition areas — with little hope of being able to resist ISIS. Abu Ishaq and his group were forced to leave the area through an agreement with ISIS. Initially, he went to opposition-held Qalamoun and then continued toward Idlib.

Unconstrained following the departure of local opposition groups, ISIS committed a major massacre in the three towns of the Shaitat tribe soon thereafter. The “jihadists” didn’t abide by their commitment to avoid interference in civilian affairs and eventually many of the remaining young men rose up against them. Several hundred at a minimum were killed, mostly men and boys, and mass graves have yet to be exhumed years later. The incident garnered relatively little attention in the international media compared to the Yazidi massacre across the border in Iraq, which occurred in the same month of August 2014.

When I reported from the Shaitat area in May 2019, a few months after the last sections of the eastern part of the Deir ez-Zor region had been liberated from ISIS, the deaths and sacrifices suffered by the local community as well as unhappiness with the area’s Kurdish-led administrators based further north hung heavily. ISIS graffiti had yet to be painted over. There was little electricity. Sweltering days of Ramadan fasting were followed by nights on rooftops under sparse mosquito nets. Flies buzzed around children’s faces. But the moon and stars were bright, the tea at iftar (the breaking of the fast) was sugary, and the inhabitants talked long into the night. Locals, where the massacre had occurred, would recount their horror stories, pointing out streets where ISIS had left bodies as a warning, the walls where the rotting and decapitated heads of their neighbors had been placed. They spoke of the men and women who were able to sneak into the town to collect valuables before embarking on uncertain journeys, not knowing if they would ever return.

Many of Abu Ishaq’s closest friends and some of those he fought alongside were from the Shaitat area, not far from his hometown on the eastern banks of the Euphrates. Though fighting Syrian government forces was important for him, fighting ISIS and enabling “his people” to return was even more so.

In late 2015, Abu Ishaq played a part in the formation of the Turkish-backed rebel faction Ahrar al-Sharqiyah aimed at taking back the home province of the displaced Deiri fighters it consisted of. He later left the group following a dispute with its leader, Abu Hatem Shaqra. He was also known to have fought alongside the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra, a decision attributed mainly to his admiration for the charismatic Iraqi commander Abu Maria al-Qahtani. Over the years, Abu Ishaq repeatedly spoke to me about Abu Maria, a former policeman from Mosul who joined al Qaeda in Iraq but moved to eastern Syria after the uprising started. He described Abu Maria as a “hero.” Abu Ishaq’s guiding purpose, however, was to get back to his native Deir ez-Zor.

After returning to eastern Syria with the help of other opposition fighters from Deir ez-Zor, and after Western pledges of support to local Arabs failed to materialize, he joined the SDF because he saw it as the only viable option for liberating his home province. International support had been channeled to the Kurdish-led SDF despite its links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that has for over a decade been officially designated a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union. The United States also named the PKK a significant foreign narcotics trafficker in 2008, with the U.S. Department of the Treasury noting that “drug trafficking is one of the PKK’s most lucrative criminal activities.”

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), which leads the SDF, espouses PKK ideology and plasters photos of the group’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan on its equipment, facilities, and buildings in areas it takes over, which sparked outcry in certain instances like the liberation of the Arab-majority city of Raqqah. However, as the SDF is supported by the United States, many Western officials and media have been careful to overlook this affiliation.

After years of trying unsuccessfully to get sufficient international support for retaking the Arab-majority areas, many Deiris and eastern Syrians joined the SDF starting in 2018, seeing it as the only way to move forward. Abu Ishaq nonetheless criticized the Kurdish-led armed group even as he fought alongside them, claiming that many of the ISIS fighters caught by the SDF were later released for money or other reasons.

Deiris often speak with disgust about outsiders who came to Syria to support the YPG, comparing them to ISIS volunteers who also came to this “promised land” without knowing much about the local communities. Abu Ishaq remained in awe, on the other hand, of Abu Maria al-Qahtani even after he joined the SDF. The former first lieutenant considered the Iraqi former al Qaeda member a “true leader” who had helped Deiris in their time of need without profiting off them.

Though many more highly-educated activists who left the country early on have long spoken out against unsavory alliances made by various armed groups, those inside are often grateful for whatever help they can get. Military prowess is a highly valuable asset in any conflict and especially so when so many fighters have little or no prior experience: taking over a nearby military base may mean your family is less likely to be killed by attacks originating from it.

After those with military training but differing ideological leanings have served their purpose, however, they are often seen as a problem.

Abu Ishaq was killed in an attack in early 2019 near his native village of Breha, not far from the town of al-Busayrah, in what many see as suspicious circumstances. He had played a major role in such SDF victories as over the town of Hejin in eastern Deir ez-Zor in late 2018.

There are many versions of what happened and why. According to one longtime source from the area, an ISIS-linked Iraqi named Abu Jarrah was behind the killing. Abu Jarrah, the man said, had also been behind a series of other attacks in the nearby Shaitat tribal area in 2018 and 2019. He was killed a few months later in an international coalition strike.

Others claim that SDF leaders were aware of the plan to assassinate Abu Ishaq and did nothing to stop it. Some say that the current head of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, a man known as Ahmad Abu Khawla, was behind it. One person who espouses this theory is Ahmed al-Sawadi, a Deir ez-Zor native who worked closely with various armed opposition groups as a media activist and who went on to set up an information website on eastern Syria now named Euphrates Post. For years, al-Sawadi was key to getting information out of ISIS-held areas due to his wide network of sources on the ground.

Al-Sawadi told me that he had received information about plans to assassinate Abu Ishaq and other Arab former officers that had defected from the regime military and later joined the SDF. He claimed that Abu Khawla had wanted to concentrate power in his hands and had seen former officers such as Abu Ishaq as a threat, as he could not compete with them because of their military experience, culture, and support from local communities.

He claimed Abu Khawla had been from a humble family and had previously been known for selling stolen cars, but that after joining the SDF he had received “pledges of allegiance” from members of his tribe and declared himself its “emir”. Al-Sawadi said he had warned Abu Ishaq about the threat to his life and that all three men he had such information on were later killed in SDF territory.

Many Deiris — for whom Abu Ishaq remains a hero — believe there was foul play involved and that his blood should be avenged.

On a sluggish afternoon during Ramadan in 2019, I sat down with Abu Ishaq’s father in his family home in eastern Deir ez-Zor to discuss his son. Birds chirped outside the window and women slept in an adjacent room. Abu Ishaq’s beloved chestnut horse neighed outside. The father remained composed and factual, holding his voice steady. He called his deceased son ambitious and clear-headed, sharp and tactical. But once the stop button was pushed on my recorder, he broke down.

“Ya Haram. He was a boy. He was only a boy,” he sobbed, using the sleeve of his dishdasha to wipe his eyes. Abu Ishaq was still in his 20s when he was killed.

“They will not take him, though,” he said, gesturing towards Abu Ishaq’s younger brother, sitting across the room on another cushion, eyes as wild and curious as his elder brother’s but without Abu Ishaq’s good-natured half-smirk.

“They tried,” he said, speaking of the Kurdish-led SDF. “He wanted to fight.”

But the father hadn’t let him. In a steady but rueful voice, he added, “We need him.”

I stayed in contact with the younger brother. In mid-2020, he told me he was tending sheep as there was no work. His experience was a far cry from his two “martyred” brothers who had been educated at the Damascus military academy. He added that the area was a mess, with many competing outside influences.

In September 2020, an announcement was made that a group of over 100 Deiri fighters had been trained and had chosen to join the SDF with the name “The Martyr Ismail Abdullah Academy.” Locals told me that the name had been chosen to honor the memory of Abu Ishaq, who has remained a much-admired figure in the area even after his death.

Poster hangs, calling Ismail al-Abdullah (later widely known as Abu Ishaq al-Ahwazi) a martyr/ Courtesy of Shelly Kittleson

My trip to eastern Deir ez-Zor in May 2019, during which I met with Abu Ishaq’s family, was a logistical nightmare, mainly because of the SDF’s stubborn resistance to “unembedded” journalists. It was one of the few trips, if not the only trip, made by a Western journalist unaccompanied by SDF fighters since the end of the Baghouz military operation months earlier. Residents told me that the SDF was committing serious abuses. Arbitrary arrests and bribes for the release of detainees were frequent, they said. In the town of al-Shuhail, family members of former opposition-fighters-turned-SDF who had been killed in suspicious raids showed me the SDF ID cards of the victims and photos of their bloodied faces after they were killed.

However, people still saw the SDF as the least worst option, a testament not so much to the group’s virtues as to the woefulness of the alternatives.

One young man who had previously fought in an opposition group against ISIS and who drove me part of the way to Deir ez-Zor from Shaddadi in 2019 was arrested and beaten that evening by SDF fighters for reasons that remain unclear. I saw photos of lash marks on his side and back. His relatives told me that he was released through tribal intervention less than 24 hours later. Had he been sent further north, it might have taken years and substantial bribes to get him released.

Many Deiris also complained that locals who had previously fought for ISIS, and were thus responsible for their relatives’ deaths, had been incorporated into the SDF’s ranks. One researcher told me she had documented “dozens” of such cases.

While many reports and articles cite foreign countries and the regime in Damascus as the source of rising tensions in the Arab areas under SDF control in 2020, little attention is given to the local grievances against the Kurdish-led administration.

Deir ez-Zor is often portrayed by analysts as nothing more than a traditionalist backwater susceptible to extremism and violence. Much of this is due to the strictures the SDF places on foreign journalists visiting the territory under its control. While the leadership actively promotes a narrative of its “heroic struggle”, anyone critical of its policies is labeled “an enemy of Rojava,” or even an accomplice of ISIS, and prevented from entering.

The SDF also has a strong social media presence which often deploys the tired tropes of the war on terrorism (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”). The irony here is rich, since the cyber army is advocating for a force led by an armed group closely linked to a proscribed terrorist organization.

The SDF has also managed to garner the support of friendly scholars and experts who often push a neo-Orientalist narrative of a secular and enlightened force, unlike the militant and backward Arabs. The SDF itself is often referred to as a “Kurdish” force, even though it draws much of its manpower from Arabs. To the extent that the Arab component is acknowledged, it is claimed either that it is entirely happy under the YPG’s yoke or that the fighters are empowered participants in a multiethnic democratic organization.

There is no evidence that the Arabs in the SDF hold equal status with the Kurdish component. There are good reasons to doubt that the SDF can be considered “democratic,” and even more to doubt its commitment to human rights.

The UN, for instance, also received allegations of torture in SDF military intelligence facilities in which at least one prisoner said he had been subjected to electric shocks and that weights had been attached to his genitals.

One YPG fighter told me that he had been “taken to the mountains” in northern Iraq for training and indoctrination when he was 12 years old. Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, among others, have documented continuing recruitment by the YPG of both boys and girls as young as 11 years old even though the YPG had signed several agreements to end the practice.

Though more attention has been given in recent months to tribes in Deir ez-Zor, with the international coalition actively trying to court them, many fighters and supporters of the uprising, in the beginning, were against both the regime and the power wielded by tribes. Many of the region’s youths had for decades headed to the Gulf to support families back home in the mostly rural region, poverty-stricken despite its oil fields, and some returned specifically to get involved in the fight.

Abu Ishaq had not left Syria other than brief trips to Lebanon and Turkey during the war to gain support to get back to his home territory and family. He had followed a path in life from early on that would have likely seen him rise in the ranks of the military very quickly, given that he was a well-respected first lieutenant in his early 20s. He also proved an asset to the armed groups he later fought with.

He was not a jihadist, although he’d been called one when convenient. When he joined “the Kurds,” he automatically became a “fighter for women’s empowerment and the rights of the dispossessed Kurds.” He was neither. And neither are so many other Syrian Arabs from the eastern part of the country. Abu Ishaq’s story doesn’t fit into any tidy, readymade narrative. It does, however, embody the tragic contradictions of the lives of Syrians living under an “occupying force” that many concede is better than the current alternatives.

Survival in conflict zones requires pragmatic choices; we forget this at our own peril.

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