BEIRUT — Syria's Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed forces and an allied militia announced Wednesday they have removed the militia's commander from his post after his arrest this week led to intense clashes in the country’s east that have killed at least 32 people, including at least three civilians.
The clashes spread to several towns and villages in the province of Deir el-Zour and were the worst in years in a region where hundreds of U.S. troops have been based since 2015 to help in the battle against the militant Islamic State group.
The fighting erupted early Monday, a day after the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained the commander and several members of the Deir el-Zour Military Council, after inviting them to a meeting in the northeastern city of Hassakeh. The militia had been allied with the Kurdish-led force against IS.
The clashes pitted SDF members against the militia and some regional Arab tribesmen who had sided with the Deir el-Zour Military Council.
The SDF and the council jointly said on Wednesday that Ahmad Khbeil, better known as Abu Khawla, would no longer command the Deir el-Zour Military Council. He and four other militia leaders were dismissed over their alleged involvement in “multiple crimes and violations,” including drug trafficking.
Khbeil was also removed over “coordination with external entities hostile to the revolution” — apparently a reference to his purported contacts with the Syrian government in Damascus and its Iranian and Russian allies.
The latest round of clashes raised concerns of more divisions among the SDF and its allies in eastern Syria, where IS had once controlled large swaths of territory and where IS militants still stage occasional attacks.
On any day, there are at least 900 U.S. forces in eastern Syria, along with an undisclosed number of contractors. They partner with the SDF to work to prevent an IS comeback.
The fighting continued on Wednesday as the SDF captured the eastern town of Ezba after hours of clashes with local tribesmen who had sided with Khbeil's militia, two Syrian opposition activists said.
Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said SDF fighters set free several fighters who were captured by the tribesmen a day earlier.
Omar Abu Layla, a Europe-based activist who heads Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet that covers news in the region, said that if the latest fighting lasted long enough, the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, could take advantage of the chaos.
The Observatory said the fighting in the eastern province killed at least 32 people, mostly fighters on both sides but also three civilians, a woman and two children. The dead also include 19 tribesmen, six SDF fighters and four as yet unidentified people.