By Syrian Voice Staff
DEIR E-ZOR: Residents in a remote province of eastern Syria describe improved quality of life, including lower prices and ease of movement, under U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who took the area from the Islamic State two months ago.
The neighboring Jazarat and Abo Khashab regions of Syria’s oil-rich Deir e-Zor province were taken from the Islamic State (IS) by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated coalition of U.S.-backed groups.
The advance came as part of the SDF’s Euphrates Wrath Operation, which seeks to encircle and capture IS’s de facto capital in Raqqa province, just east of Deir e-Zor.
By pushing into Deir e-Zor, which is almost entirely controlled by IS, the SDF hopes to cut off strategic routes used to supply remaining IS territory in Raqqa.
The Syrian Voice spoke with several residents of the areas taken by the SDF who described changes that occurred over the past two months, such as improved freedom of movement and lower costs for essential goods.
The improvements come despite longstanding tensions between the majority-Arab region and Kurdish territory to its north.
Prices drop under SDF control
Three residents of the Jazarat and Abo Khashab regions told the Syrian Voice that prices for various goods have dropped significantly under SDF control.
Shaheen al-Ma’anid, a shopkeeper in northwestern Deir e-Zor, told the Syrian Voice that one bag of flour [about 25 kg] is now priced at 5,000 Syrian pounds [$10.00], down from about 18,000 pounds [$38.00] when the Islamic State had control.
Another resident, Hamid al-Daham, who works in the agricultural sector also described improved prices. He said urea fertilizer dropped from at least 50,000 pounds [$100.00] to about 8,000 pounds [$16.00].
Al-Daham added that residents are no longer subject to agricultural “taxes” that were imposed by the Islamic State, which rose according to the size of each farm and crop quantity.
Mohammad al-Saleh, a sheep trader, told the Syrian Voice that “residents in the area can now easily go to Hasakeh province [also controlled by the SDF] to buy food products, especially flour, sugar and oil.”
He described this as a drastic change from IS rule, under which travel from Deir e-Zor to Hasakeh was only allowed in special circumstances, such as for those seeking medical treatment.
Al-Saleh also mentioned that “the livestock market in areas under the SDF’s control is better than [the one] under the Islamic State.”
Amid these improvements, al-Daham did criticize the lack of fuel products, especially diesel, which he said is particularly important to power the water pumps used on agricultural lands.
He explained that there was a higher quantity available under the Islamic State, due to the group’s control over a large portion of the country’s oil fields.
Kurdish groups previously accused of collective punishment
The improvements described in northwestern Deir e-Zor came as a surprise to some residents of the area – mostly made up of Arab tribes – who feared SDF rule.
SDF forces are dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Self-Administration, which governs the de facto autonomous Kurdish-held region in Syria’s northwest.
The Self-Administration has been accused by Amnesty International of forced displacement and destruction of entire villages in Hasakeh and Raqqa provinces after the YPG took parts of those provinces from IS control in early 2015.
A report released by Amnesty International the same year showed “clear evidence of a deliberate, coordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by IS, or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group.”
That campaign was conducted “in retaliation for resident’s perceived sympathies with, or ties to, members of IS or other armed groups.”
Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist organization and opposes U.S. support for the SDF, has also warned that Syrian Kurds seek to ethnically cleanse Arabs from the autonomous region in order to form an independent Kurdish state.
Despite such allegations, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry released a report last March claiming that it “found no evidence to substantiate claims that YPG or SDF forces ever targeted Arab communities” and that displacement of local populations was done out of “military necessity.”
Fears of Kurdish rule and previous violations against Arab resident were nonetheless noted by Ahmad Ramadan, an activist with the pro-opposition media group Euphrates Post, who spoke with the Syrian Voice about the testimonies gathered for this report.
He was surprised to hear that residents are satisfied with the current situation, suggesting that they are afraid to disclose their true opinion.
He added that his own media team is in contact with residents who expressed discontent with SDF rule, although he did not provide the Syrian Voice with any further detail of that claim.
Shaheen al-Ma’anid, the Deir e-Zor shopkeeper, told the Syrian Voice that the SDF had asked a few families to leave the area because members had joined the Islamic State.
Those families were sent to the eastern Deir e-Zor countryside, where IS maintains control.
Al-Ma’anid added that he had not heard of any arbitrary detentions taking place since the SDF took the area.
SDF policies seek to win over residents
The apparently positive treatment of residents under the SDF led some to suggest that the Kurdish-dominated group is trying to win over residents who would otherwise be opposed to their presence.
Deir e-Zor in particular was a focal point of Kurdish-Arab tensions in 2004, when a soccer game between an Arab team from Deir e-Zor and a Kurdish team from Hasakeh province resulted in clashes that killed dozens.
The subsequent protests that took place in many of Syria’s Kurdish-majority areas are considered to form the last significant anti-regime uprising prior to those that occurred in 2011 at the start of the current conflict.
One civilian in the area, who requested anonymity, told the Syrian Voice that the presence of Kurdish forces in the province would have been considered highly unlikely not so long ago.
He said the SDF’s current policies in the area have therefore been “clever” and successful thus far.
According to another resident and family member of an SDF fighter, troops “received orders to treat the locals well and to assist them as much as possible.”
He added, “this could be to convince them to accept a military force with a different nationality.”
The resident asked that his name not be published, mentioning that many in the area consider fighting for the SDF a form of betrayal.
The military council of Deir e-Zor, an Arab military formation, nonetheless took part in the SDF’s operation against the Islamic State, according to Sharfan Darwish, a Kurdish commander in the SDF who spoke to the Syrian Voice’s Kadr Ahmad.
According to Darwish, there was no distinction between Arab battalions and the Kurdish YPG.
“All were united in the goal of eliminating the Islamic State,” he said.
Translated by Avery Edelman. Original Arabic article found here.