US-backed Kurdish militia in east Syria repel Arab attacks with help from rivals

Battles reignite in oil-rich region, where up to 200 people were killed in the past week

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Arab tribal auxiliaries entered territory held by Kurdish militias in eastern Syria on Monday, as the region became a theatre of the civil war once again.

A force comprising several hundred fighters fired mortar rounds on the Muhsali-Arabhasan axis in the Minbij area of eastern Aleppo.

The axis forms part of a zone along the border with Turkey controlled by the People Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which is supported by the US.

By late Monday, the two sides had fought to a stalemate. Three Arab fighters were killed and there were an estimated 10 casualties on the Kurdish side, said Abu Bilal Al Okeidi, a commander in the attacking force.

“It has been a back-and-forth battle,” he told The National, adding that parts of the area formerly held by the YPG have become a no-man's land.

The YPG has come under a multipronged attack in eastern Syria by Turkish-backed Arab forces after an Arab mutiny in the YPG-dominated coalition that was formed by the US in 2015 to fight ISIS.

The east accounts for most of Syria's oil and wheat production. Both dropped sharply since the civil war, which started in 2011, after the authorities used force to suppress a peaceful protest movement against President Bashar Al Assad.

Large parts of Syria has since been fragmented into zones run by proxies of Iran, the US, Russia and Turkey.

The Arab mutiny, which broke out last month and was centred in the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor, has been largely crushed by the YPG.

There may be a wider insurgency by Arabs resentful of its ethnic domination of their areas.

But it led a wider violent Arab backlash that Turkey, Russia and Iran are trying to employ to undermine the US.

Despite their differences over Syria, the three countries are united in that they want to expel Washington from the resource-rich east.

A US soldier at Al Omar oilfield in Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria. The governorate has seen recent fighting involving US-backed forces. Reuters

Nawaf Al Bashir, a tribal figurer in Deir Ezzor supported by Iran and loyal to Mr Al Assad, has reportedly sent subordinates to fight alongside tribes that had turned against the YPG in Deir Ezzor. But there have been no significant attacks on YPG bases in the governorate.

At the same time, the Syrian army has been fighting along with the YPG in areas that came under attack by Arab fighters in Hasakah, where 23 people were reportedly killed on the weekend, mostly on the pro-Turkish attacking side.

The Syrian military said three of its soldiers were killed.

Russian bombing

Mr Al Assad's forces and the YPG have for years jointly manned positions in Hasakah, in an effort to stop Turkish expansion in northern Syria.

Russian air force bombing has also helped to check the recent Arab attacks on the area, as well as on Minbij, sources opposing Mr Al Assad said.

“Russia would rather keep the YPG in the north rather than see Turkey expand,” one source in Amman said.

“Deir Ezzor is different in that the US is vulnerable there because the Kurds don't have a core population base there.”

The YPG has been the latest civil war force to control large parts of the east, after the all-but-defunct Free Syrian Army, the nucleus of the armed resistance to Mr Al Assad, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and ISIS.

The area is also manned by US force of about 2,000, covering parts of Hasakah, a largely Kurdish governorate with a significant population of Arabs, and parts of the overwhelmingly Arab governorates of Deir Ezzor, and Raqqa.

By some estimates, at least 200 people have died in clashes across Syria in the past week, after Arab-Kurd tensions in the east rose following the arrest of the Arab warlord, known as Abu Khawla, his nom de guerre.

Updated: September 04, 2023, 5:35 PM