In this March 28, 2018 photo, a Kurdish policeman checks an Arab Syrian man at a checkpoint controlled by The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, on a highway in Hassakeh province.
In this March 28, 2018 photo, a Kurdish policeman checks an Arab Syrian man at a checkpoint controlled by The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF, on a highway in Hassakeh province.

VOA's Saleh Damiger contributed to this story.

WASHINGTON — For three consecutive weeks, residents in parts of the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour have been protesting against U.S.-backed forces that recently defeated Islamic State in its last stronghold there. 

With help from the U.S., Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led military alliance, has controlled large parts of eastern Syria after removing IS militants from the region.

But rising food prices, lack of services and arbitrary arrests of IS suspects have forced many frustrated locals to take to the streets in protest of the new administration, local news reported.

"In addition to those factors, there is a growing discontent among local Arabs against Kurdish rule in Deir el-Zour," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has researchers across the country. 

He told VOA that such protests were expected, given the demographic and political composition in the Syrian province. 

Ethnic tensions 

Deir el-Zour is an Arab-majority province where Kurdish forces now are mostly in charge of security and other services. But parts of the oil-rich province are controlled by Syrian troops and allied militias.    

Analysts warn that continued tensions in Deir el-Zour could risk military gains recently made against IS.

"Any ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs could create a vacuum in the area, which would lead to the reemergence of IS or other groups," said Omar Hossino, a Syria policy expert based in Washington. 

"There have been ethnic tensions in many areas controlled by the SDF for some time now, as many Arabs have been excluded from power-sharing. And the economic situation is making it worse," Hossino told VOA. 

He added, "It's not only Arabs. Many other Kurdish political and civil society groups have also been excluded from power-sharing from the SDF."

SDF officials said they have been working to defuse the situation by holding talks with influential tribal leaders. 

"Some people indeed would like to turn this into a Kurdish-Arab conflict, but it isn't," said Sinam Mohamad, an SDF political representative in Washington.

"We have reached out to Arab tribal leaders and told them that our administration is not exclusive to ethnic Kurds. We're not trying to understate these protests. In fact, we are trying to resolve it soon," she told VOA.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand i
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand in formation at a ceremony to mark their defeat of Islamic State militants in Baghouz, at al-Omar Oil Field base, Syria, March 23, 2019.

‘Winning the hearts of locals'

Some experts suggest that the SDF could assert its rule in the post-IS period by supporting the local Arab population with sustainable economic projects. 

"If the SDF wants to present itself as a better alternative in eastern Syria, then it should be genuine about winning the hearts of locals in these Arab areas," said Radwan Badini, a politics and journalism professor at Salahaddin University in Irbil, Iraq. 

"The SDF needs to be more effective in terms of providing services and addressing economic grievances of the local residents in these areas that have been devastated after years of IS rule," he said. 

SDF said IS still poses a threat to many parts of Deir el-Zour, where their security operations continue to target remnants of IS.   

"Twenty (IS) terrorists and a large quantity of armament were captured, and two tunnels were found in the security operation by our forces in (the) village of as-Shuhail (in Deir el-Zour)," Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, said in a tweet on Wednesday. 

Despite being defeated militarily, IS still has sleeper cells across eastern Syria, SDF officials charge. 

"We believe some of the recent demonstrations were instigated by those elements of IS, the Syrian regime and other regional powers," said Mohamad, the SDF political representative in Washington. 

This week, Syria called on the U.N. Security Council to stop what it called "attacks and treasonous actions of the SDF militias, which are backed by the U.S. and some Western states" in Deir el-Zour. 

This file photo released on April 7, 2019, by the
This file photo released on April 7, 2019, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows cars queuing to fill their tanks with fuel, at a gas station in Daraa, south Syria.

US oil sanctions

Since late last year, the U.S. Treasury Department has imposed a number of sanctions against entities and individuals involved in oil dealings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

What is happening in Deir al-Zour "is a product mainly of the oil sanctions which the Trump administration put into effect on Syria in the last few months, including the sanctions on SDF entities trading in oil with the regime last year, and the sanctions on the Assad regime's oil imports which really went into effect on Jan. 3," Hossino said. 

"The economy in these areas is very much integrated with the regime areas, which is having a major impact," he added. 

SDF officials said they are seeking to normalize the local economy in eastern Syria after more than four years of economic chaos under IS. 

"When IS was in control of these areas, big families and tribes were producing oil primitively and selling it on their own," Mohamad said. "But because we now want to organize oil dealings, some people find that threatening their interests."

Hossino said one option to improve economic conditions in areas recently liberated from IS is for the U.S. to use its leverage to make the SDF less dependent on the Syrian government. 

"The U.S. needs to continue to work to peel away the SDF economically from the regime economy," he said. "If that is the case, the SDF is going to have nowhere else to economically integrate, other than with other Syrian opposition areas, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey."