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Periscope Depth 09/07/23: Kurdish Autonomy Under Pressure in Iraq and Syria

Author: Tom Freebairn

September 07 2023

On Sept. 6, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the largest U.S-backed armed group in Syria, announced an end to its military operation in the tumultuous Deir Ezzor region in eastern Syria. The announcement came after days of fighting with several Arab tribes following the arrest of a local Arab military commander associated with the SDF. Ahmed Khbeil, also known as Abu Khawla, was the leader of the SDF’s Deir Ezzor Military Council, which oversees the Arab-majority region, and a ranking member of the influential Bakir tribe. Abu Khawla was accused of drug-trafficking and collaboration with the Iran-backed Syrian regime to oust the SDF from the area. Ninety people were killed and more than 100 injured in the fighting.

Meanwhile, in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) tensions boiled over into violence between residents of the disputed city of Kirkuk following the central government’s proposed return of control of the Kirkuk Operations Command Headquarters, a key military facility, to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP operated its peshmerga militia out of the building before its withdrawal from the city following 2017 clashes with the Iraqi military. Some residents, particularly Arab and Turkmen groups, have opposed the KDP’s return, leading to protests and violence. Iranian-backed militias exploited the opportunity, parading through the city and killing at least four Kurds. The oil-rich city’s status has been a major dispute between the government and the KRI.

Despite the end to the SDF operation in Syria and intervention of security forces in Kirkuk, the tensions reveal cracks in the foundation of the two major Kurdish autonomous regions in the Middle East. While the SDF downplayed the role of Arab-Kurdish divisions in its crisis, many grievances among the primarily Arab locals of Deir Ezzor have gone unresolved since the area’s liberation from the Islamic State. Similarly in Iraq, tensions between Kurds and the Arab central government have simmered since the end of the Saddam Hussein era. Kirkuk has become the focal point of the division.

The SDF and KDP have looked to the U.S. for support, acknowledging the immense influence Washington has in the stability of the Kurdish regions. The KRI and SDF are the last two significant pro-U.S. bastions in Iraq and Syria, vital to ongoing counterterror and anti-Iranian operations. The U.S. has deep concerns about the extension of Iranian influence in the region, through proxy militias and the regime in Damascus, as well as the proliferation of the Islamic State and similar groups. U.S. support is a key assurance, but not a replacement for peaceful resolution of longstanding social and political issues. Both the SDF and KRI must address mounting local concerns, or risk ruling by force alone, a prospect that would only breed discontent and push key U.S. backers to distance themselves. Failure could erode Kurdish sovereignty, potentially creating a breeding ground for anti-Kurdish and anti-American sentiments.


“Military operations against pro-regime Arab tribes ‘complete:’ SDF,” Azhi Rasul, Rudaw Media Network (Erbil, Iraq), Sept. 6, 2023; “Kirkuk in chaos as KDP return draws protests,” Julian Bechocha, Rudaw Media Network, Sept. 2, 2023.

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