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Kurds and Arabs: The Crisis of Identity and Influence

2023-10-10 11:17

Issam Khoury

Kurds, Arabs , Identity Crisis , Power Dynamics , Syrian Jazeera , Historical Conflicts , Tribal Politics , International Coalition , Syrian Democratic Forces,

Kurds and Arabs: The Crisis of Identity and Influence

"Exploring the intricate dynamics between Kurds and Arabs, this piece delves into historical identity clashes and the shifting power play in the Middle East."


In July 2023, we introduced the "Parallel Zones Project" published by The Czech-Slovak Institute of Oriental Studies. [1] The initial phase, dubbed "The Border Control Strategy," was instrumental in formulating opinions and drawing critical conclusions, setting a solid foundation for the project's second and third stages.


As anticipated, Arab factions backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were some of the fiercest critics of this initiative. [2] They view it as a direct threat to their sphere of influence, especially since it jeopardizes the logistical support they receive to assert Iran's dominance over the Mediterranean coastline.


During an episode of the Game Chair show, aired on Al Sharqiya Tv channel in late August 2023, the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, voiced his apprehensions about the U.S. attempting to seal the Syrian-Iraqi border. He posited that if this initiative bears fruit, its ulterior motive would be to entirely encircle the Syrian regime by land and air, hinting at a rejuvenated push to topple the Syrian government. This notion becomes increasingly pertinent given the surging protests in the Sweida region and the fact that certain northern Syrian territories are no longer under the Assad regime's control.


Simultaneously, Hezbollah's Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, dismissed the idea of shutting the border, [3] cautioning that his troops stand prepared to militarily confront the Americans.


Following these pronouncements, tensions flared between the tribes of the Military Council in Deir ez-Zor and the Syrian Democratic Forces. The public discord emanated from the arrest of the Military Council's Commander, Ahmed al-Khabil (known as "Abu Khula"),[4] by the Syrian Democratic Forces on corruption charges. Numerous Arab tribes, previously not aligned with the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, plunged into the fray, escalating tensions. The international coalition stepped in to broker peace. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Ethan A. Goldrich, [5] and General Joel Foyle [6] convened with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Military Council, and tribal chieftains from Deir ez-Zor in northeast Syria. They reached a consensus on the importance of addressing the grievances of Deir ez-Zor's populace and emphasized the urgency of halting hostilities.


Spearheading an Arab insurrection was the leader of the Al-Uqaydat tribe, Ibrahim Al-Haffal. [7] Despite being deficient in heavy weaponry, his forces launched assaults on the Syrian Democratic Forces' checkpoints. Al-Haffal urged all Arabs within the Syrian Democratic Forces to desert and rally behind him. Though many Arab tribes empathized with Al-Haffal's stance, their hesitance to rally behind him swiftly allowed the Syrian Democratic Forces to overrun his bastion in the town of Dhiban by September 8, 2023. [8] Consequently, a multitude of Al-Uqaydat combatants retreated to adjacent villages, gearing up for urban warfare and thereby imposing a considerable strain on the Syrian Democratic Forces.


The National Dilemma


Ahmed al-Khabil's arrest is merely a spark in a long-standing conflict. The Arab-Kurdish power struggle for the Syrian Jazeera region dates back to the tenure of Hafez Al-Assad and persisted under his son. The rift between the Arabs and Kurds intensified with the Al-Qamishli stadium events of 2004, resulting in what became known as the Kurdish revolution. Arab tribes, siding with the Syrian state, played a role in quelling the rebellion. However, during the Syrian revolution in 2011, many Arab tribes opposed the regime and allied with select Kurdish forces, aiming to dethrone the ruling powers in the Al-Hasakah region.


With the advent of the Islamic State's vast territorial acquisition in Syria, the International Coalition Against Terrorism made its presence felt. Numerous Kurds, previously aligned with the Assad regime, shifted their allegiance to the United States. This pivot led to the formation of the "Syrian Democratic Forces" (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish-Syriac military coalition against terrorism. Appointed as the SDF's military leader was Commander Mazloum Abdi, a Syrian Kurd. Though militarily adept, Abdi leaned extensively on Kurdish leadership, causing Arab tribes to sense a political and military sidelining.


Further tensions arose when new laws, incongruent with Arab tribal traditions anchored in male superiority and Islamic law, were introduced in northeastern Syria. Notable legislative changes included a ban on polygamy, ensuring equal inheritance rights for men and women, and mandatory 50% female representation in all administrative roles. Such reforms alienated Arab tribal leaders, leading the Al-Uqaydat tribe to urge the International Coalition Against Terrorism to interact with Arab tribal structures distinct from the Kurds.


The "Parallel Zones Project" showcases a nuanced comprehension of Syria's diverse communities. It suggests a synergy between the Syrian Bedouin and Deir ez-Zor tribes to seal the Syrian-Iraqi borders. To this end, the SDF, with oversight from the international coalition, is deemed pivotal. Once achieved, tribal autonomy over their regions should replace SDF governance.


Respecting the cultural nuances of these Arab tribes is paramount. It's incumbent upon the Americans not to hasten changes to their age-old practices but to adopt a gradual approach. In line with this, we propose:

  1. Convene dialogues between American, British, and Arab tribal leaders to discern their aspirations.
  2. Establish a Syrian political committee aimed at reconciling Arab-Kurd differences. "A list of prospective members is available upon request."
  3. Initiate a formalized Arab tribal council, representing a consolidated leadership for all Arab tribes.
  4. Lay the groundwork for an Arab military entity, functioning under international coalition supervision. Its principal mission should be overseeing the Iraqi-Syrian borders. Collaboration should be fostered with General Mazloum Abdi. "Potential candidates for leadership roles can be suggested."


Implementing these proposals is integral to fostering harmonious engagement between Arab tribes and the international coalition. The ultimate goal is to disrupt the Iranian conduit from Iraq to Syria, effectively crippling Shia militia operations and consequently diffusing sectarian tensions in eastern Syria.




[1] Parallel Zones Project, part (1) “The border control strategy”/ by, Issam Khoury/ July 2023


[2] Al-Hadath Tv, al-Arabiah, Aug 2023

[3] Orient Channel/August/Aug 2023


[4] Commander of Deir ez-Zor military council dismissed after abuse of power/ Target/ Aug 31, 2023


[5] Goldrich and Foyle Meet With SDF and Syrian Tribes/ The Syrian Observer/ Aug 2023


[6] Major General Joel Foyle, Commander of Operation Combined Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve


[7] Al-Uqaydat: large Arab tribe which straddles Syria's eastern border with Iraq. It is the largest tribe in the Deir ez-Zor province. the tribe can be found on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.


[8] Kurdish-led Syria force vows to meet tribal demands after clash/ By Maya Gebeily/ Sep 7, 2023/ Reuters

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