Assassinations of Tribal Leaders Leads to Uncertainty in Iraq, Syria
From July 21, 2020 through August 12, an unknown organization has carried out the successful assassinations of three high-profile tribal leaders in eastern Syria. The instability in the wake of the liquidations has caused significant concerns amongst policymakers in regards to their impact on the historically volatile Iraqi-Syrian border.
The assassinations have occurred over a two week period. Thus far, they have claimed the lives of two al-Agidat tribal leaders and one al-Baggara commander in Syria's Deir ez-Zor (دير الزور) province. In all instances, unknown gunman engaged the targets and successfully escaped.
In the wake of the attacks, the United States Department of State released a statement expressing condolences to the families of the fallen. Shortly thereafter, demonstrations occurred in towns occupied by the constituents of the victims, with protests targeting both the killers and the ineptitude of local government leaders.
Although many in the American-led coalition have attributed the killings to remnants of the Islamic State, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that the assassinations were much more beneficial to the Syrian regime in Damascus. As natives of Deir ez-Zor have become more disenchanted with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) currently occupying the province, Damascus stands to gain if it can stage a successful propaganda coup in showing that the SDF can not ensure the security of the region's inhabitants. The Syrian government has been known to use local networks of operatives in Deir ez-Zor to stir up strife amongst the civilian populous. Such teams were used extensively at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, indicating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has no qualms in using clandestine methods to bring separated regions back under his control.
The assassinations may also be related to a recent deal between the Syrian Democratic Forces and an American oil conglomerate to develop and export crude oil in areas under their control. Given that the Syrian government has condemned the action as illegal and "colonial," it is not unthinkable that Damascus authorized the liquidations in an attempt to prevent the agreement from being carried out due to instability.
It is important to note that the SDF units in Deir ez-Zor are reportedly unorganized, corrupt, and inept according to a wide variety of non-government organizations, aid workers, and local residents.