Experts argue that Washington is likely to end up hurting its own policies if it does not intervene and stop its allies in northern Syria from a resource grab.
They have stopped during Ramadan, but the Arabs of Deir Ezzor will be back on the streets to protest against the America-backed SDF.
They accuse the SDF of rampant looting, illegal beatings, and arrests, and selling locally-extracted oil to the Syrian regime.
Mohammad, one of the protestors from the town of Shihel in the province, asked TRT World to protect his identity as he fears possible incarceration and certain ill-treatment by the Kurd-dominated SDF were they to find out he spoke to the press. He said that SDF’s tactics increasingly remind the people of Bashar al Assad's security apparatus.
“We've been protesting against SDF's arbitrary arrests, home raids that resemble the regime's intelligence raids,” he said. “Security situation has deteriorated and the civic services are quite bad.”
In addition to experiencing a low standard of living, the Arabs feel that the control of the oil business has slipped into the hands of SDF. Arab tribes have dominated Deir Ezzor for generations and derived benefits from their crude-rich lands. However, they allege that the SDF is not only selling their oil to the Syrian regime but also spending the earnings in Kurd-dominated areas such as Hasakeh while denying the disaffected people of Deir Ezzor their fair share.
“They steal hundreds of oil barrels from Deir Ezzor and take it to Hasakeh. While the Kurds get the oil at subsidised rates, for us it is expensive, even though it is our resource” said Mohammad. “PYD's tanks smuggle this oil to regime’s refineries,” he added.
Badea Abu Janah, a local activist with the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, backed the claim.
“It's not a secret that oil has been sold to the regime by the SDF,” he said. “It's done under the supervision of the SDF's high leaders, more accurately YPG/PYD's leaders. Hundreds of oil tanks have been sent to Hasakeh, part of them is sold to the regime and the other part goes to an unknown destination.”
The SDF is largely made up of the YPG, the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by both the US and Turkey.
Protesters say the tanks end up at a refinery in Homs, which is back under the control of the Syrian regime. They say the SDF sells the oil to the Qatirji group, sanctioned by the US and EU, which in turn supplies it to the refinery.
Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that if the US did not act to stop its allies, it could end up hurting its own policies.
"The US has placed devastating sanctions on Syria in order to hurt Syrians and cause them to become more dissatisfied with their government which is unable to provide for them or to protect them. Sanctions of oil and gas imports is a key element of the US effort to turn out the Assad government and to kick start a political process that Washington advocates,” he said. “If Washington allows the Kurds to sell the oil of the north to Damascus, US policy will likely fail.”
Unaware of the broader US strategy, some of the Arabs of Deir Ezzor are furious with the local US allies. They said that protests, peaceful thus far, could soon take a violent turn unless the SDF pays heed to their complaints.
In 2014, as Daesh expanded into Syria through the Iraqi border, Arab tribes stood up to challenge the group alongside the Kurds. They defeated Daesh territorially and succeeded in vanquishing it from their soil by late March this year. Even now, the two are cooperating with each other, hunting for Daesh’s remnants in its sleeper cells.
However, experts say, the recent unravelling of the relationship had always been a matter of time.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat currently based in the US, said that while the Kurds and the Arabs have met to reconcile the issues, it did not produce any results.
“It is hard for the population of Deir Ezzor to understand why their conditions are so poor and underdeveloped when 80 percent of Syria's oil resources are within their province, and under SDF control,” he said.
Barabandi said that since the liberation of the first areas in Deir Ezzor in September 2017, the pace of rehabilitation, economic development, and the provision of essential services have not been sufficient to meet the basic needs of the population. As a result, people are feeling hopeless about their current situation and the future. He said they expect the international community to provide humanitarian aid and essential services and in time rebuild infrastructure. However, as of now the plans from the international community about how to help resurrect fallen cities and rebuild lives are unclear.
Barabandi said: “The slow international response to create a fully funded stabilisation programme for Deir Ezzor is starting to have a negative impact on the situation in the province.”
The protests have been sporadic and scattered across the province on the Iraq-Syria border. While the number of protestors who gather is still relatively small, experts suggest the tensions between the SDF and the Arabs could quickly escalate unless urgent measures are taken to resolve the conflict. They say resources must be pumped into the province to stabilise the situation and a political compromise found between the Arabs and the SDF. While the two became allies to fight Daesh, there was no social contract among them on who gets what and governs what in the post-Daesh phase.
The protestors are demanding that the SDF brings down oil prices in Deir Ezzor, halts its trade with the regime and closes down the river crossings through which the oil is smuggled. They are also asking for a bigger role in the governance of Deir Ezzor, certainly more than what’s being currently being offered by the SDF militants.