Syria’s US-Backed Kurdish Forces Hope to End Weeklong Clashes with Militia in the ‘Next 24 Hours’

by Braxton Taylor

DEIR EL-ZOUR, Syria — Syria’s U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces on Tuesday pushed deeper into the last stronghold of Arab tribesmen who have taken up arms against them in eastern Syria. A spokesperson said they hoped to end the dayslong clashes there in the “next 24 hours.”

The fighting, which broke out eight days ago in the oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour along the Euphrates River, has so far killed at least 50 people, including several civilians, and wounded dozens. Hundreds of U.S. troops have been based in eastern Syria since 2015 to help battle the Islamic State group.

The violence has pitted the Syrian Democratic Forces against the tribesmen and former allies of the the Arab-led militia known as the Deir el-Zour Military Council. It was sparked by the arrest last month of the militia’s leader, Ahmad Khbeil, better known as Abu Khawla, accused by SDF of “multiple crimes and violations,” including drug trafficking.

SDF spokesperson Farhad Shami told The Associated Press that the Kurdish-led forces have cleared three towns in the province previously seized by the militia. “What’s left is (the town of) Ziban,” he said. “We are hoping to end tensions there in the next 24 hours.”

Shami said some 100 armed men are estimated to be in Ziban, along with suspected cells of the Islamic State group. Now rivals, the SDF and the militia were allies in the war against IS.

A Britain-based opposition war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the leader of a pro-Iran Arab tribe fighting against the SDF had called on his tribesmen and others to “free Deir el-Zour from the despicable Kurds”.

The Syrian government in Damascus has criticized the Kurdish-led SDF for its close alliance with the United States in the war against Islamic State militants and for forming what authorities describe as an autonomous enclave in eastern Syria. Meanwhile, Turkey and Turkish-backed oppositions groups in Syria’s northwest routinely clash with the SDF.

Ankara claims the SDF is allied with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency within Turkey since 1984 that has killed tens of thousands of people. Ankara has declared the PKK a terrorist group.

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Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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