Pro-SDF Arab tribal leader assassinated in northeast Syria

“Such attacks are very instrumental in increasing the rift between Arabs and Kurds and destabilizing northeastern Syria.”

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – A senior tribal leader from the Bu Assaf clan, Ubaid Khalaf al-Hassan, was found dead in his home on Tuesday in a village near Tel Abyad, local news agencies reported.

The tribal leader was known to be close to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

In February 2017, he read a statement on behalf of Arab tribal leaders calling on them to support the SDF and their operation to liberate Raqqa from the so-called Islamic State.

The tribal leader was also known to be a critic of Turkey, and in an interview with local Kurdish media in November 2018, he said that “tribes would be the first to confront Turkish occupation [forces] if they try to enter our territory.”

He was found dead with bullet wounds to his body in the Ali Bajliyah village of Tel Abyad, an Arab majority town on the border.

Local security forces have launched an investigation into the incident.

This is not the first time assassinations have targeted leading Arab tribal leaders or officials close to the SDF-backed authorities in northeast Syria.

Bashir Faisal al-Huwaidi, a well-known tribal leader from Raqqa, was killed in an attack the Islamic State claimed on Nov. 2, 2018.

On March 15, 2018, Omar Aloush, a senior Kurdish official who played a key role with the United States on stability efforts in Raqqa, was assassinated in his home in Tel Abyad.

Thomas McClure, a Syria-based researcher at the Rojava Information Center, said the assassination of Hassan is “just the latest in a series of attacks targeting Arab tribal leaders, council leaders, and others close to the Autonomous Administration in North East Syria.” 

According to McClure, there were at least five such attempts in Deir al-Zor, Tal Brak, and Hasakah in May 2019.

“In general, ISIS sleeper cell attacks have been concentrated in newly-liberated regions like Deir al-Zor, but the past weeks have seen a rise in attacks outside these regions, with car-bombings spreading to Qamishlo, Tel Abyad, and Hasakah, among others,” he told Kurdistan 24.

The researcher said these attacks are meant to scare “Arab communities from engaging with either the majority-Arab SDF which led the fight against ISIS or the multi-cultural, secular Autonomous Administration.”

McClure noted that the Islamic State is not the only group interested in the destabilization of Syria’s northeast, but “both the Turkish government and the Syrian regime also have a hand in current efforts to destabilize the fragile peace.”

Mona Alami, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, also confirmed that many factions are interested in targeting Arab tribal leaders that play an important role in improving relations between Arabs and Kurds.

Alami told Kurdistan 24 the SDF had dismantled sleeper cells affiliated with the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield groups.

Moreover, the Syrian regime also has an interest in destabilizing the region, she said, and several tribal members have pledged allegiance to Damascus in the past.

“All these factions want to profit from the growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds,” Alami stated. “Such attacks are very instrumental in increasing the rift between Arabs and Kurds and destabilizing northeastern Syria.”

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany