US soldiers stand at an oil field in the countryside of al-Qahtaniyah town in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province near the…
FILE - U.S. soldiers stand at an oil field in the countryside of al-Qahtaniyah town in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province near the Turkish border, Aug. 4, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Tensions are flaring in an eastern Syria province after the assassinations of several powerful Arab tribal leaders, with U.S.-backed forces accusing Islamic State (IS) sleeper cells and Syrian government proxies of carrying out such attacks to cause instability in the former IS stronghold.   

In the past two weeks, three leaders of the al-Agidat and al-Baggara tribes were killed by unknown gunmen in separate incidents in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, local news reported.   

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a major U.S. partner in the fight against IS terrorists, has accused sleeper cells affiliated with IS of the recent killings in the Arab-majority province.

“These cells from the remnants of ISIS strive to cause confusion, whether through assassinations, spreading rumors, mining and booby-trapping operations,” the SDF said in a statement Monday, using another acronym for IS.   

The SDF also accused the Syrian regime, Turkey and their respective local allies of using certain elements in Deir al-Zour to cause instability.   

“Through their plans, these forces have targeted security and civil peace by sabotaging and weakening service and administrative sectors and creating a rift between the tribes and the civil administration,” the SDF said in its statement, noting that their goal “is to turn the tribes against each other and against the Syrian Democratic Forces and the international coalition.”   

Following the Turkish-led invasion of parts of northeast Syria in October 2019, the SDF has often accused Ankara of destabilizing other SDF-held areas in eastern Syria. Turkey denies such allegations. The country views the SDF as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington. While Turkey has denied the SDF allegations about its involvement in eastern Syria, Turkish officials have often said that SDF fighters are targets for Turkish forces.      

IS attacks   

In March 2019, the SDF, supported by the U.S.-led coalition against IS, declared the physical collapse of the so-called IS caliphate after defeating the group in its last stronghold in Deir al-Zour province.    

But IS militants have since continued to carry out attacks against SDF fighters and civilians in the Syrian province.    

In June and July, the SDF launched two major campaigns to hunt down IS remnants in Deir al-Zour, killing and arresting hundreds of militants.

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Col. Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the global coalition against IS, told VOA that “the coalition’s view is that the parties in [Deir al-Zour] should focus on keeping ISIS from causing chaos.”   

Regime cells   

A senior SDF official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that in addition to IS sleeper cells, the Syrian regime and its allies have also been using their networks to “cause chaos” in the SDF-held parts of Deir al-Zour.   

“We are facing complex security challenges on many fronts in Deir al-Zour,” the SDF official said, noting that “the Syrian regime is increasingly using some local networks to target our forces and civilians.”    

Forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-backed militias control the western part of Deir al-Zour.    

Reaction to the oil deal  

Some experts say a recent deal between the SDF and a U.S. company to develop and export crude oil in areas under the SDF control in northeastern Syria could be a factor in a growing Syrian government involvement in attacks in eastern Syria.

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“This deal has infuriated the Syrian regime, because it means the region will never return under its control,” said Omar Abu Layla, director of Deir Ezzor 24, a news and research group focused on developments in eastern Syria.  

“Everyone thinks that only Daesh has sleeper cells in the Deir al-Zour region, but the reality is the [Syrian] regime, Iran and even al-Nusra [al-Qaida’s former Syria affiliate] have their own cells in Deir al-Zour,” he told VOA, using an Arabic acronym for IS.  

Abu Layla, whose group has a network of researchers in oil-rich Deir al-Zour, said the oil deal “was the last straw for the Syrian regime, who immediately gave the green light to its cells to launch attacks in Deir al-Zour.”     

The Syrian government last week condemned the deal between the SDF and the U.S. company, describing it as stealing Syria’s oil.  

Mismanagement and corruption   

The SDF-held part of Deir al-Zour is run by the group’s local affiliate, the Deir al-Zour Military Council, which has often been accused by locals and experts of corruption and incompetence.   

“Since the liberation of Baghouz [IS’s last stronghold in Deir al-Zour] in March 2019, there has been mismanagement by the international coalition and the SDF in the area [through] relying on corrupt civilian elements that were previously linked to IS and the regime,” said Abdullah Al-Ghadhawi, a Syrian researcher with the Washington-based Center for Global Policy whose research focuses on dynamics in Deir al-Zour.   

Ghadhawi told VOA that it was a strategic mistake by the SDF and its coalition partners “to expand the Deir al-Zour Military Council with unruly and unprofessional forces.”  

“IS is a party to the equation and it carries out activities, but the one who rules the region is responsible for its security,” he added.   

Analyst Abu Layla echoed similar views.   

“If the SDF wants a sustainable security solution in Deir al-Zour, it needs to be more inclusive by having a better representation of the tribes in the local administration as well as bringing competent individuals to run the region,” he said.    

An SDF official admitted that corruption is a major problem for their local partners in Deir al-Zour. He said it would take some time to remove corrupt military and civilian officials from the ranks of the SDF.