The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The killing of prominent Arab tribal leader Sheikh Bashir Faisal al-Huwaidi has serious implications for the US and Kurdish administered part of Syria, in which Raqqa is located. That administration of Syria has many enemies and remains fragile.

The killing of prominent Arab tribal leader Sheikh Bashir Faisal al-Huwaidi, on November 2 in the city of Raqqa, has serious implications for the US and Kurdish administered part of Syria, in which Raqqa is located. The Sheikh, a prominent member of the Afadlah tribe, had emerged as a prominent member of the Raqqa Civil Council. The council is the body established by the de facto Kurdish authorities in the area east of the Euphrates to administer the predominantly Arab city of Raqqa.

The Islamic State organization were quick to claim responsibility for the killing.  This is not the first time that the organization has targeted officials of the Syrian Democratic Council – which is the US-backed ruling authority east of the Euphrates, consisting of Syrian pro-US Kurds and Arabs. On March 15, Omar Alloush, a Kurd who played an important liaison role with the US in Raqqa, was shot dead. IS maintains active cells within the Arabic-speaking communities in this area, and within similar communities in adjacent western Iraq. The border is porous and the Iraqi side is poorly policed by the Iraqi authorities, making IS activity in that area less problematic.

The jihadis of IS have a clear interest in targeting officials and those close to the de facto SDC administration. Islamic State would like to destroy attempts by the SDC to build an atmosphere of normality in Raqqa and other majority Arab areas of Raqqa and Deir a Zur provinces. Their hope is to build new clandestine paramilitary structures among the Arab population, in order to launch a renewed insurgency at the appropriate time.

Leaders of Arab tribes associated with the SDC, meanwhile, were quick to condemn the killing. Several tribes issued statements expressing their sadness and anger at the murder. A statement read by Sheikh Ayed Barakat al-Hadi, Sheikh of al-Mousa Al-Zaher clan, read:

“Sheikh Bashir Faisal al-Huwaidi…was the best support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, to liberate al-Raqqa and its countryside from the abomination of black darkness to the forces of evil, IS.  Thus, those forces exploited the recent Turkish moves and the threats of the regime and its allies to destabilize the north and east of Syria and the democratic project to build a democratic Syria, forgetting that the Syrian people in general and the people in al-Raqqa in particular have sufficient awareness and insight to distinguish the right from falsehood.”

This reaction was not universal, however. Members of the Arab al-Sabha tribe, another important group in this area, accused the Kurdish YPG of the killing, and called for a boycott by the Arab tribes of the authorities in Raqqa.

Clearly, the intentions of those who carried out the killing is to erode the confidence of the tribes in the ability of the SDC authorities to govern and the longevity of its rule.

Analysts have long expected that the Assad regime and those around it will seek to spread disorder in the 30% of Syria that is ruled by the Kurds and the US. This area contains over 80% of Syria’s oil and gas resources and the regime is keen to lay its hands on it.  The abortive attempt to seize the Conoko gas field by a combined force of Russian military contractors and Arab tribal militia in February of this year, however, showed them that a conventional military takeover was impossible, as long as the US remains committed to the area. On that occasion, the force was decimated by US artillery and air power.

An alternative strategy would be to try to render the area ungovernable through fomenting insurgency.  Reconstruction in Raqqa has been slow and partial. A visit by this author to the city in April revealed that large areas of the city remain in rubble, and IS mass graves are still in the process of being exhumed even a year after liberation.

The Assad regime and its allies have a long history of making use of Sunni jihadis – see Assad’s support for the Sunni insurgency in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.  This use takes place regardless of supposed ideological differences between the ‘secular’ Syrian authorities and the jihadis.  The possibility of a regime/Iranian/Russian hand behind the latest violence should not therefore be ruled out. Turkish involvement is also plausible. Ankara is known to have maintained relations with jihadi and Islamist forces within Syria and certainly has an incentive to act against the SDC, which it regards as a front for the PKK.

The point to bear in mind is that the Kurdish/US ruled part of Syria has many enemies and remains fragile. To Turkey, it is a terrorist-controlled entity. To Assad/Iran/Russia, it is a part of Syria that must be returned to rule from Damascus. The long-term intentions of the US remain somewhat unclear regarding this area. There has been no official US reaction to the killing, as yet.

It is therefore likely that there will be further similar acts to the killing of Sheikh Bashir Faisal al-Huwaidi in the period ahead, and probable that the tempo and intensity of acts of violence may increase in Raqqa and other non-Kurdish majority areas currently under SDC rule.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Bigstock


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