The River-Wading Into Syria’s Next Conflict

An observation point for Deir ez-Zor Military Council fighters along the Euphrates river from where they can monitor regime movements on the west bank. And by “regime” they were referring to pro-regime Shia militias with Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief among them. Having been initially lured to Syria to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab and other Shia holy sites, Shia militias have since been firmly woven into the deadly fabric of the Syrian theatre.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Qamishlo/Erbil-Working in Syria is never a facile effort unless perhaps one brings many thousands of dollars/euros/pounds to insulate themselves from as many genuine interactions with Syrians as conceivable. I think I sometimes revel in the adversity. The Byzantium of offices and permission papers on either side of the border. The stoicism I’m forced to project while navigating this convoluted framework. Smile, Kurmanji, chai, sit, repeat. 

When I succeed without a fixer, based purely on linguistic and interpersonal skills, it’s that much more satisfying. In Deir ez-Zor governorate, I just jumped into total immersion with the eponymous Military Council, the local constituent war fighting group of the SDF. While everyone else was engaged in pack journalism further south, I got a feel for the area’s indigenous cultural dynamic and tribal endogamy rather than the now familiar though still poorly understood Apoism originating in Cold War-era Turkey being imported from the north. 

The tension over the control of the Wadi al-Furat (Euphrates river valley) is palpable throughout the governorate as the conventional frontline fight against IS winds/wound down. Within the SDF umbrella, each group has starkly different priorities. The YPG-YPJ is concerned about protecting its Rojava heartland, the MMC feels trapped in limbo between Turkey and its proxies and the regime and its backers. Whilst the Deiri fighters, far from the Turkish border, are worried about the regime, aka the enfeebled nationalist-named Syrian Arab Army in lopsided partnership with assorted Shia groups, pushing into their tribal lands they fought to push IS out of. In my new piece forJane’s Intelligence Review,I examine the current threat they face and how this looming danger may portend into something larger. 

A YPG=helmed, American-supplied Humvee- originally intended for Iraqi security forces-returns from the Baghouz frontline to the south in Albu Kamal district. The SDF’s hardware of American provenance was in use on the IS front, leaving the front with the regime virtually undefended. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

In terms of foreign reporting, so much of what is going on in Syria has been and continues to be based on constant repetition of talking points of seemingly scurrilous origin. How many times must we read “Kurdish-led” or “US-backed” without scrutinising them on the ground? The veracity of these depend heavily on the area one is observing. There are members of the SDF who receive little to no US military assistance depending on present utility of their force and position. And there are local units who are entirely Arab in make up. Yes, I know the aforementioned, oft repeated terms refer to Mazlum Kobane and the YPG but their copy-and-paste overuse obscures nuances within the war’s human geography. These nuances may seem unimportant now but they likely will be in the near term if there are seismic shifts in the battlefield’s principal orientation. For a rough analogy, just think of what occurred in Kirkuk in October 2017 less than two weeks after the liberation of al-Hawija.

I think most people either don’t care or don’t understand on a fundamental level what is taking place in SDF-controlled regions of Syria’s fractured governorates. I don’t claim to understand all of these nebulous political-military currents obviously, hardly any one could. But I’m certain there’s far more going on than what is repeated ad nauseam on the wires and in much of credible Anglophone and Francophone media. Some of my fellow Western reporters have even referred to the YPG-the West’s ostensible partners-as “Kurdish militants” which to me reads like unexamined AKP propagation coming directly from the defence ministry in Ankara. I guess maybe if you’re Istanbul-based or trying to curry favour with the Turkish government or just hoping not to get backlisted, you have to play ball. When the FTThe Independent,and Washington Post are using the same terminology as Anadolu and PressTV, well you get the idea…

There’s been somewhat of a ‘trending’ narrative of late that the war for Syria is nearing its conclusion or that the Syrian regime has regained its hold on much of the country. The Syrian war isn’t close to having concluded. And the regime has only been able to make said gains with the help of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. However, the geopolitical aims of its regional middle and great power backers respectively should only be conflated at the West’s peril. Tehran and Moscow have decidedly differing aims in Syria. This competition may come to the fore sooner that we may expect. I would venture that the two are more competitors than collaborators in this sense.

While Syria is nowhere near as complex as it once was before IS consolidated its primacy in the salafiyya-jihaiyya realm and it seemed the country was overrun with rebel groups too numerous to count (save for certain Twitter personalities that made a cottage career industry out of it at the time), the place is still highly complex

Even with the territorial defeat of IS and with HTS primarily having been reduced to swaths of Idlib governorate, the IS insurgency is already underway while HTS has made inroads into western Aleppo governroate and northern Hama governorate. Then there is the massive question of what will be the role of the SDF as the conventional war against IS ends and regime elements jockey for space while Ankara re-calibrates its incursion strategy according to the diktats of a wildly unstable American leader.

It’s not over. No one can say when it will be.

Hiding in the open from an IS attack on a Asayish-manned roundabout up the road, my Qamishloki driver converses with a local driver outside the al-Tanak oil field while we nervously waited out a YPG counter attack. All my driver had was a dated pistol for our protection. Grateful for that YPG MRAP that sped past us.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

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