BEIRUT -- The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces took credit for defeating the Islamic State in its last stronghold in eastern Syria, celebrating the victory in front of throngs of journalists at a ceremony in March after a bloody four-year war.
But the Kurdish-led force now faces protests by local Arab tribesmen in Deir el-Zour province demanding better services, jobs and a bigger role in decision-making in the predominantly Arab, oil-rich and fertile region. Though limited to about a dozen villages for now, the demonstrations are a growing challenge to the U.S. and its local partners at a time when President Donald Trump plans to reduce America's military presence in Syria.
On Thursday, the Kurdish-led fighters opened fire at protesters in the village of Shheil, killing one person -- the first fatality since the protests began last month, according to Syrian state TV and the DeirEzzor24 activist collective, which monitors developments in the province.
The protest came after an overnight raid in the village by the U.S.-led coalition and the Kurdish force killed six people, according to DeirEzzor24 and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group. The Observatory said two people, one of them an Islamic State member, were arrested.
A Syrian Democratic Forces official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the protesters so far are a small percentage of Deir el-Zour residents.
But the demonstrations benefit the Syrian government, its Iranian backers and Turkey, and undermine "our victory against Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Several rounds of talks between the Syrian Democratic Forces and local officials have so far failed to make progress, leading to concerns the protests could transform into an all-out uprising against the predominantly Kurdish force, founded in 2015 to fight the Islamic State and armed by the U.S.
Militant sleeper cells have intensified attacks in recent weeks. Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops, based along the west bank of the Euphrates River that cuts through Deir el-Zour, have vowed to reassert control over Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria. And Turkey, which considers the force to be a terrorist organization, has also set its sights on the region.
The Syrian Democratic Forces controls nearly a third of Syria. But unlike the provinces of Raqqa and Hassakeh in the north that have large Kurdish populations, Deir el-Zour in the east is almost purely Arab, leading to ethnic tensions between the local population and the Kurdish force.
Until Thursday's fatal shooting, the more than two weeks of protests by the residents in more than a dozen towns and villages in Deir el-Zour have been mostly peaceful as the protesters closed major roads and burned tires to prevent Kurdish tanker trucks from taking crude to Kurdish-held areas in the country's north.
Areas liberated from the Islamic State suffer fuel shortages and militant sleeper cells are launching a guerrilla campaign to avenge their defeat two months ago when the Syrian Democratic Forces captured the village of Baghouz, marking the end of the extremists' self-declared caliphate.
Some of the protesters believe that Kurdish fighters sell oil to Assad's loyalists amid severe fuel shortages in government-held parts of the country, aggravated by U.S. sanctions on Syria and its main backer, Iran.
Since the Syrian Democratic Forces began capturing parts of Deir el-Zour in 2017, residents have expressed anger at what they say has been forced recruitment of Arab residents into the group, as well as the detention of many on suspicion of links to the Islamic State.
Several meetings have been held over the past weeks between Syrian Democratic Forces officials and Arab dignitaries from Deir el-Zour to try to ease the tension without success, according to Barabandi and Observatory.
An Arab man from Deir el-Zour who took part in the talks said that "the Kurds have been refusing to make any concessions." He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.
He said the Kurdish force is taking away most of the oil it pumps in Deir el-Zour -- about 60,000 barrels a day -- and leaves hardly anything behind.
Arab officials demanded, among other things, the release of Kurdish-held detainees, stopping the flow of oil from the province, giving Deir el-Zour fighters within the Syrian Democratic Forces a bigger role, ending compulsory conscription into the Kurdish force and improving electricity and fuel services.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said chaos in eastern Syria is not a good omen for the Syrian Democratic Forces.
"The regime could be the biggest winner from what is happening," he said.
A Section on 05/10/2019
Print Headline: Kurdish-led forces in Syria face protests