ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Layla Hassan, the co-head of the Deir al-Zor Civil Council, says the people in the Syrian province were relieved when they heard some 400 US troops would remain in the region.
Following US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he would withdraw American forces from Syria, people in Deir al-Zor began to fear that the Syrian government would return to the area.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control areas east of the Euphrates River, while pro-regime and Iranian-backed forces dominate the western bank of the river, including Deir al-Zor city.
The SDF also control other Arab-majority towns along the Euphrates River, such as Raqqa and Tabqa.
Fears increased after local administrations, which were set up with support from the Syrian Kurds, said they held talks with Moscow to find a solution with Damascus. However, Damascus made it clear it was not ready to accept any autonomy for the Kurds.
“They [Iran and Damascus] started to spread rumors among the people that the US forces are leaving, and the SDF cannot protect you,” Hassan said.
Moreover, she said both Iran and Damascus began to communicate with Dr. Ghassan Youssef, the other co-chair of the Deir al-Zor council, to convince the council to join the Syrian government.
“They communicated with Dr. Ghassan, and said if you join us, we will give you whatever you want.”
However, in February, the White House announced Washington would keep at least 200 troops in Syria, the number later rose to 400 according to reports.
“After the announcement about the withdrawal, we were afraid that the regime would come back, but then they announced they would keep 200 soldiers,” Hassan stated. “Now we feel much better.”
Many civilians living under Syrian government control in Deir al-Zor have left for areas under the control of the SDF to escape military service. Hassan said thousands of people who lived under regime control fled to SDF-held areas.
The Syrian government previously wanted to strike a deal with the SDF to hand over the territory the US-backed forces hold to Damascus, or it would advance with force. Now that the US will keep some troops in the country, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will find it difficult to move in.
Most civilians say they do not trust the central government because of Iranian influence and would prefer the US remains to protect their areas.
“We need a guarantee from big countries [such as the US], so that the regime doesn’t return,” Ahmad, 32, who fled Deir al-Zor city, told Kurdistan 24.
“When someone returns to the regime area, they arrest them and make them fight in Idlib,” he added. “We don’t need these militias [backed by Iran]. They are worse than ISIS [Islamic State].”
Fadi, a 33-year-old who was also displaced from the city, said Deir al-Zor “is full of militias,” adding all the homes in the city are under regime control.
He underlined the confidence that civilians have in the US-backed SDF who “are capable of liberating areas from terrorists.”
“The important thing is that we don’t need the regime,” he added. “The US is good, but the regime is not because they will slaughter us if they come in.”
“We are all with the SDF against Assad.”
According to Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, the government-dominated areas in Deir al-Zor are dominated by pro-Iranian government forces and the Revolutionary Guard, notably in places like Abu Kamal and Mayadeen.
Tamimi said the fears civilians have about the regime, and pro-Iran forces are “understandable” and “justified fears.”
“I remember that the [SDF-linked] Deir al-Zor military council used to talk about towns on the other side of the [Euphrates] river as occupation.”
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany