Members of a Kurdish-dominated, US-supported militia force surrounded a stronghold of an Arab tribe in east Syria on Tuesday and demanded the surrender of its leader, sources on both sides said, as the militia sought to crush a nascent insurgency.
The fighting, mainly in the Deir Ezzor governorate, has undermined the presence of Washington's Kurdish allies in the region, the centre of Syria’s oil and wheat production, as well as American-backed factions formed to fight ISIS.
A Kurdish source in the US-backed administration of the east told The National that the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main Kurdish-led proxy of Washington in Syria, has besieged hundreds of Okeidat tribesmen in the area of Diban in Deir Ezzor, located on the Euphrates River.
The source said that the surrounding forces are demanding that Sheikh Ibrahim Al Hafl, a main Okeidat figure who has challenged the Kurdish-led order in Deir Ezzor, turn himself in.
“They will let his men go if he does, without their weapons,” said the source, who is in contact with Kurdish commanders but not authorised to publicly comment.
Although the SDF has superior firepower, its commanders are certain the food and ammunition supplies in Diban will run out, the source said, adding that Arab tribesmen have killed dozens of mostly Kurdish fighters in the area over the past two weeks.
They had turned against the SDF after it arrested an Arab warlord, called Abu Khawla, who belongs to a tribe called Al Bukeir, previously an ally of the SDF. He had sought a bigger share of power and resources than what the Kurdish players were willing to hand over to him, and tried to alter pro-SDF tribal leaderships in Deir Ezzor, according to local sources.
Some said Abu Khawla had also opened communication channels with a cross-section of actors in the Syrian civil war, from Russia to Iran, and from the Syrian regime to ISIS in a bid to carve a larger role for himself in the east and gain leverage against his rivals.
The war started in 2011 after regular and militia forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad crushed a peaceful protest movement against his rule, partly with the help of Kurdish gunmen, who later became members of the People Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known as the YPG.
The YPG became the core of the SDF, which was formed by the United States in 2015 as the main component of anti-ISIS ground forces in eastern Syria. The US has around 2,000 troops in the area.
Although ISIS has been largely defeated, the US-led campaign against the group has enabled the YPG to take de facto control of swathes of territory populated by Arab tribes in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa governorate, as well as in the governorate of Hasakah, which has a majority of Kurds but also contains a significant Arab population.
Mr Al Hafl has demanded that the administration of Deir Ezzor be handed over to a council comprised solely of Arab tribes, who would deal with US forces in the area without the need for Kurdish commanders.
“He is dreaming if he thinks the US would do that after all of its investment in the Kurds,” the Kurdish source said, acknowledging that traditions of tribal solidarity have contributed to Mr Hafl’s survival.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig Gen Pat Ryder said the US would continue working with the SDF.
“We've had this conversation before on the critical role that the SDF has played, and continues to play, when it comes to the ISIS mission,” he told reporters.
“One only need look at their efforts as it relates to Al Hol and the detainee population there … We will continue to work with the SDF and other regional partners and the international community on the Defeat ISIS mission.”
Sporadic attempts by tribal forces from outside Deir Ezzor, supported by Turkey, to relieve pressure on Diban by attacking outlaying SDF positions appear to have been thwarted in the last several days, with the help of Russia, Mr Al Assad’s most powerful supporter, as well as troops loyal to the president.
A member of the Okeidat tribe said that the siege on Diban is not tight and that supplies are still reaching the area as well as tribal reinforcements.
“Don’t expect the Sheikh to surrender soon,” he said.