Local and regional dynamics in Syria are reactivating, potentially leading to a new conflict. The only way to address this is to acknowledge that managing these dynamics with groups like the PKK/YPG is not feasible.
Recent developments in Syria show that the dynamics caused by the civil war are still in effect as demonstrations against the Bashar Assad regime continue due to economic dissatisfaction and clashes between local Arab tribes and the PKK terrorist group’s Syrian presence YPG accelerate.
Both issues come as no surprise to those who closely follow Syria. The developments in Suwayda reveal a misinterpretation of the Syrian civil war, which portrays Assad as the winner. It shows that the regime, which has collapsed economically and lost its capacity to function as a state, is struggling to govern even in the areas it controls. Developments in Deir el-Zour, on the other hand, are critical as they carry the potential for a new civil war within the ongoing war.
The apparent reason for the uprising against the PKK/YPG by the Arab tribes in Deir el-Zour is the arrest of Military Council head Rashid Abu Khawla by the YPG during a meeting in Hassakeh. More importantly, one of Abu Hawla’s men was killed by the PKK/YPG during the arrest. However, there are many different driving factors behind the uprising. Analyses on this point reflect orthodox political views in Washington. One of the main reasons behind the uprising is that Arab tribes, acting in concert with the Syrian regime and, therefore, Iran, have risen against the PKK/YPG, forcing the PKK/YPG out of areas with strong Arab populations. Of course, the terrorist group is one of the main proponents of this view. However, this view oversimplifies the clashes centered on Deir el-Zour that spread to Manbij and ignores other driving factors. At this point, focusing on the other driving factors and the consequences of the United States’ strategic choices offers us a much broader explanation.
The first and most important reason is related to the demographic dynamics of the region. Deir el-Zour is a region where the Arab population is the dominant element. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the PKK/YPG has pursued an aggressive “Kurdification” policy in northern Syria. In reality, this is a process implemented by the PKK to expand its territory in the Syrian revolution. However, with Türkiye’s military presence in Syria, the PKK/YPG lost its demographic foothold in northern Syria and tried to create an artificial demographic base for itself. When this process spread to Arab regions such as Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, especially with the support of the U.S. as part of the fight against Daesh, the PKK/YPG became a threat to the tribes. After the complete defeat of Daesh, it was no longer possible for a structure dominated by the PKK/YPG and Kurds to govern the Arab demography. This situation did not last long, and Arab tribes began to look for ways to get rid of the terrorist group. This search led the tribes to reposition themselves, and the common threat among the tribes shifted from Daesh to the PKK/YPG.
Another important driving factor is the PKK/YPG’s model of local governance. With the spread of civil wars, the governance structures of non-state armed actors have created an interesting situation. On the one hand, non-state armed actors have implemented alternative governance and sovereignty practices. On the other hand, they have started to undermine the territorial integrity of the countries they are in. It is precisely at this point that the PKK/YPG established an autonomous structure in Syria with the support of the U.S. through its local governance model. However, this structure has created new problems both ideologically and in terms of the fair representation of local elements. The PKK/YPG has implemented dominant and authoritarian governance, ruling Arab tribes and populations in areas without demographic depth. Thus, the status of the Kurds in the administrative cadres has become primary, while that of the Arabs has become secondary. This administrative model, in addition to the PKK/YPG’s arbitrary practices, human rights violations and war crimes, has tended to weaken the power of the Arabs and strengthen the position of the Kurds. On the other hand, the PKK/YPG’s Marxist-Leninist exclusionist ideology has offended Arab political culture, forcing Arabs to take a position against the PKK/YPG.
The economic logic of the PKK/YPG’s local governance model is constructed in a way that excludes local tribes from oil revenues and uses the profits to finance the terrorist group. This has resulted in enriching the PKK/YPG economically and weakening the local population. As a result, the YPG became a mafia organization that built the local administration model in line with its interests.
Another important dynamic in this context is the wrong policies and strategy of the U.S. that paved the way for Arab tribes to target the PKK/YPG. While the U.S. prioritized the fight against Daesh, it ignored Arab discontent and Türkiye’s warnings. After the defeat of Daesh, the U.S. revised its goal to prevent Iranian-backed Shiite militias from penetrating the U.S.-controlled regions. This was because Iran had increased its influence over the Assad regime on the one hand, and on the other, it had become the country with the largest number of militias on the ground. Thus, the U.S. implemented the “Tribal Belt” policy, which it has not officially announced. The aim was to minimize the PKK/YPG’s presence and create a force of local tribes, thus building a balancing force against Iranian-backed militias. In this way, the Arab tribes could have achieved their goals against the PKK/YPG and pushed it back toward the north. However, when this policy did not work, the U.S. allowed the status quo to continue; yet, it ignored the most important rules regarding the essential motivations of local populations and forces in the civil war. The primary motivation for tribes is to survive in Syria and maintain their local order. This is no exception in the Syrian civil war. Consequently, the tribes have many reasons to rise against the PKK/YPG and gain autonomy.
The question is what the U.S. will offer the tribes to maintain the status quo and how it will convince the PKK/YPG to withdraw further north. Developments during the uprising suggest that the U.S. will mediate in this conflict, but other local and regional dynamics make it impossible for the status quo to continue.
At this point, Türkiye’s stance on the developments in Deir el-Zour is critical. Türkiye’s position has been quite clear from the beginning. While Türkiye was initially silent about the events, it has become more open. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Arab tribes have become stronger by uniting against the PKK/YPG. Erdoğan also underlined that the Arab tribes are the actual owners of the region and stated that the attitude of the tribes is honorable, local and national.
On the other hand, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan stated that Türkiye had foreseen these developments and argued that the YPG should no longer be seen as a legitimate actor. The message here, as always, was to the U.S. Türkiye will not determine its position only according to the developments in Deir el-Zour. The top priority for Türkiye is the YPG’s complete withdrawal from west of the Euphrates. In this context, Manbij is as critical as ever. Tribes from Manbij were also involved in the clashes between the tribes and the YPG. The YPG’s violent suppression of the uprising may bring Türkiye’s military intervention in Manbij back to the agenda. Such an intervention could spread the conflict dynamics between the YPG and local tribes throughout Syria.
The local and regional dynamics in Syria have become active again. The transformation of this movement into a new conflictual period could happen at any moment. There is only one way out: It is never possible to manage local dynamics with artificial structures like the YPG.