ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Syrian government forces wounded multiple protesters outside the northeastern city of Deir al-Zor when they stormed a security checkpoint on Friday afternoon, demanding the withdrawal of regime troops and Iran-backed militias from their areas and instead for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US-led coalition to take charge.
The demonstrators, made up largely of displaced villagers from areas under the control of Damascus, made their demands for multiple towns east of the Euphrates, including Khasham, Hatlah, Marrat, al-Husseiniyah, and al-Salhiya, where the incident took place.
The US-backed SDF control territory east of the Euphrates River while pro-regime and Iranian-backed forces dominate the western banks, including Deir al-Zor.
Thousands of displaced civilians have fled to SDF-held areas to escape the reach of regime forces, many because they fear being forced into military service or are wanted by government security forces.
The protestors were able to take over the al-Saker station checkpoint, located in a factory district, after Syrian government forces pulled back. Locals say that at least two civilians were killed and 10 others injured when Syrian government forces fired on the group of protesters, some of whom were wearing SDF flags.
One of the banners read, “the people of Hatlah village ask the Coalition and the SDF to liberate our village from the Iranian militias.”
The al-Salhiya crossing connects the regime-controlled territories to those controlled by the SDF. The area to the west of the river has a large presence of Iran-backed militias, especially at the Al-Bukamal border crossing which they have controlled since November 2017.
The area is important for the militias since it could serve Tehran in its bid to create a strategic corridor stretching through friendly territory from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, all the way to Lebanon.
According to Omar Abu Layla, the executive director of the Deirezzor 24 media outlet, “These demonstrations have a clear slogan, expelling the Assad regime and Iranian militias from the east of the Euphrates.”
#Breaking:— Omar Abu Layla (@AliAlleile) September 20, 2019
Peaceful protesters were injured when Assad forces opened heavy fire at the demonstrations held in Al-Salhiyah town north of #DeirEzzor, which demanded the expulsion of #Assad forces and Iran's militias from eastern Euphrates.@DeirEzzor24 pic.twitter.com/Xr8rvulWSy
“The demonstrators want the entire east of the Euphrates without Assad's regime and without Iranian militias, which are constantly threatening their lives. Iranian militias are a source of instability in the region, the same danger that Daesh [the Islamic State] poses,” he continued.
Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24 that the Syrian government has a tenuous grasp on Deir al-Zor.
“Already a historically marginalized region before 2011, the return of the regime to large areas of [Deir al-Zor] has not improved the people’s daily lives. The regime is too distracted with existential issues in western Syria and has little attention for the east.”
On Sept. 12, Fadi Efais, a leader of the pro-Iranian Liwa al-Baqir militia, threatened in a video statement to invade the areas held by the SDF in Deir al-Zor.
The SDF said they would defend their areas against any regime aggression.
According to Heras, civilians from Deir al-Zor “see little reason to welcome a return to Assad's rule.”
He added that there are shortages of essential goods, “warlordism,” and an oppressive security regime in areas under Syrian government rule that are increasing a “creeping Iranian control that is anathema to many Deiris.”
“Assad's regime is sitting on a volcano in [Deir al-Zor] that is rumbling and ready to boil over back into active resistance against Damascus,” he concluded.
Editing by John J. Catherine