Syrian government again attempts to incite Arab tribes against SDF

The SDF Commander-in-Chief, Mazloum Abdi, in December 2019 held a meeting with pro-SDF notables in response to regime pressure on Arab tribes (Photo: SDF)
The SDF Commander-in-Chief, Mazloum Abdi, in December 2019 held a meeting with pro-SDF notables in response to regime pressure on Arab tribes (Photo: SDF)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Tribal leaders aligned with the Syrian government have again pressured Arabs in northeast Syria to defect from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and join the regime. 

Last week, tribal figures loyal to the Assad government released a statement calling on Arab tribes, particularly in Hasakah province, to reject the SDF.

Regime incitement

Pro-Syrian government businessman and former MP Fares Shehabi said on Feb. 6 that the statement shows that “this gang [SDF] will not be able to claim that it represents the inhabitants of the region because the Arab component in the Syrian Jazira [Hasakah province] is the biggest, and with other Syrian components, and many of the Kurds, who see the SDF as a gang of thieves.”

In a statement published last Tuesday, the pro-SDF Notables Board in Northeast Syria condemned the tribal figures.

“We say to these people that their relations and social values and the National spirit and relations of integration to bring together the components of our society from Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, Chaldean-Assyrians, are what liberated the regions of North and East Syria from terrorism,” the group said.

The group referred to the Islamic State’s territorial defeat on March 23, 2019, in Baghouz, at the hands of the SDF and the US-led Coalition.

The pro-SDF Arab tribal members warned their compatriots to unite behind the SDF in face of these statements “that call for chaos and internal fighting at the time the Syrian homeland is bleeding.”

The group blamed the chaos on the Syrian regime for its “refusal to accept a political solution” and on groups backed by Turkey. 

Multi-ethnic SDF

Although the multi-ethnic SDF is led mostly by Kurdish commanders, the majority of its ranks are composed of Arab fighters from tribes from across northeast Syria. The SDF also includes fighters from other ethnic and religious minorities, including local Syriacs and Assyrians.

In recent years, Turkey, the Syrian government, Iran and ISIS have all attempted to convince fighters to defect to their sides in the Syrian conflict.

A recent US Pentagon Inspector General report covering the end of 2020 quoted US Central Command as saying “that the Syrian regime and its partners continued efforts to exploit grievances against the SDF to garner support among the local population” in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Deir al-Zor.

However, it said that “so far, no significant tribal elements have switched their allegiance.”

CENTCOM also said that Arab populations have demanded greater representation in the SDF and civil institutions, “where they often do not have as much influence as their Kurdish counterparts.”

SDF Targeted by All

Nicholas Heras, of the Institute for the Study of War, told Kurdistan 24 that the “opponents of the SDF all make a strikingly similar argument in their information operations targeting Arab tribes: the SDF is a vehicle for ethnic Kurdish domination of Arabs.”

“The Assad regime and its allies, especially Russia, are the most effective at using this narrative in propaganda against the SDF. Russia in particular seeks to undermine Arab tribal support for the SDF in Hasakah, where any inroads by either the regime or Russia could severely challenge the stability of the Autonomous Administration.”

Mohammad Ibrahim, a local researcher and analyst focused on northeast Syria, told Kurdistan 24 that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have clear policies against US-backed SDF, "and close coordination targeting the SDC project in the northeast."

"One of the key components of that policy is igniting an Arab-Kurdish rift that would weaken the successful SDF architect."

"We have seen verified footage fabricated by Turkey-backed armed groups purportedly showing Kurdish SDF members hitting Arab men and women on checkpoints,” with the aim of provoking local Arabs against the Kurdish component of the SDF, he added. 

Ibrahim said similar tactics are employed by other actors, including the Syrian regime, Iran, and ISIS cells, who also target Arab tribal leaders for assassination. 

"Pro-regime figures are calling for anti-SDF protests in Hasakah and Qamishli centers. Russians officers meet with Arab figures willing to pick up arms against the SDF. All of this while, the three actors are waiting for clarity of US policy under the Biden administration, and aiming for the collapse of SDF, and seeking instability in the region that might push US forces to reconsider a complete withdrawal from Northeast Syria,” he said.

It’s not the first time that pro-Syrian regime figures have called on Arabs to defect from the SDF. In 2019, Syria’s national security chief Ali Mamlouk met with Arab tribal leaders and called them to join hands with the Syrian regime.

Read More: SDF leadership meets with Arab tribes in response to Damascus call to defect


However, independent researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a prominent expert on Syria, told Kurdistan 24 that the statements issued by tribal figures, either close to Turkey, the SDF, the Syrian government, do not necessarily mean much due to internal divisions among the Arab tribes in Syria.

“During the course of the war, you've seen many statements put out from different sides by people who claim to represent various tribes,” he said.

“In reality they don't, they don't represent various tribes, they don't represent the whole tribe. At most they only represent a part of it,” he said. “And in reality there is as much division between the various tribes in terms who they align with and why.”

SDF-regime tensions

The recent call by pro-regime figures comes after a period of tensions last month between forces backed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s west and the Kurdish-led administration in the east, including clashes between the SDF-aligned Asayish internal security forces and the pro-Syrian government National Defense Forces (NDF) armed group.

During the unrest, Hasakah governor Ghassan al-Khalil met with Arab pro-regime figures and called on Arab and Kurdish tribes to stand against the SDF, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Earlier in February, Kurdish-led forces reached a deal with Damascus to lift two competing blockades: one on areas in Shahba under Syrian regime control and the other in Kurdish neighborhoods of Aleppo. However, the pro-Syrian government media continues to criticize the SDF and its alliance with the US-led Coalition against ISIS.

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly