September 6, 2023 - 10:00am

For American policymakers, distracted by Ukraine, the past week’s tribal uprising in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province against the Kurdish-led AANES administration must have felt like the return of an unwelcome ghost. The war against Isis was won four years ago, with the eastern half of the province pacified by inclusion into the AANES autonomous region — yet its US-backed SDF security forces have always been barely tolerated there, viewed as ethnic outsiders by the local Arab tribes who also oppose the evangelising social liberalism central to the AANES worldview.

Split both politically and geographically by the Euphrates river, with Assad’s Damascus government holding the western bank and regional capital, and the AANES administration holding the rural eastern bank stretching to the Iraqi border, this provincial corner of Syria is hotly contested. Iran, Russia, the US and Turkey all compete for influence among the fractious and divided local Arab tribes.

The immediate spark for the fighting, the AANES administration’s arrest of their own problematic local warlord proxy, Abu Khawla, rapidly spiralled into the province’s most sustained disorder since the crushing of Isis rule in 2019. This saw the mostly ethnic Arab militiamen that the Kurds, for reasons of political delicacy, deployed to garrison the region surprised and outfought by tribal fighters.

For the Kurds, the conquest and annexation of Deir ez-Zor, far outside their ethnic and political comfort zone, was an unwelcome task carried out to win America’s approval. Rich in oil, the deeply conservative region is strikingly poor and underdeveloped, a paradox that drives much local dissatisfaction.

For the US, control of the region’s oil resources is a valuable bargaining chip in finally negotiating some form of peace deal with Assad (though the Syrian leader has so far shown no interest in pursuing it). It was for Deir ez-Zor’s Conoco oilfield, like the nearby Omari oilfield still a base for US troops in the province, that Russia’s now-famous Wagner Group made a daring and ultimately bloodily unsuccessful assault back in 2018 — an early test run by Putin to gauge America’s appetite for direct conflict. 

Yet with a final deal to formally end Syria’s mostly dormant conflict remaining elusive, America has found itself stuck in eastern Syria, almost solely to prevent a repetition of the Turkish campaign against the Kurds Trump which permitted back in 2019. Many local Arab tribal figures, reasonably, would prefer to deal with their American overlords directly, perhaps gaining a share of their own oil wealth, rather than going through the Kurdish-dominated administration they resent.

Yet the Americans are broadly content with the current situation, rebuffing tribal requests for direct dialogue with a bland statement reminding them that the SDF is America’s chosen partner, and that the disturbances should be halted.

Whatever the intrigue behind the abortive rebellion exciting Syria-watchers, America is now absorbed by more pressing matters in Europe. It is not the 2010s anymore, and intricate negotiations with Arab tribal chiefs in a distant corner of Syria are a luxury beyond Washington’s current attention span. In its response to the uprising — quietly blessing the Kurds’ quick and successful campaign to quash it — America more delicately echoed Russia’s deadly response to an attempt by Turkish-backed rebels to exploit the drama. 

For all their performative local jostling against each other in eastern Syria, the United States and Russia, deadly rivals in Ukraine, find themselves united by a desire to keep the Syria conflict frozen. While some Syrians feel their war has not yet run its course, for DC and Moscow it’s already ancient history.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.