The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) lost Raqqa. They then lost al-Mayadeen and now are rapidly being pushed out of their remaining territory in Deir Ezzor, my home province and the militants’ last stronghold in Syria.
But ISIS’s territorial losses have not translated into victories for civilians in Deir Ezzor. Many families, including my own, suffered every day under ISIS and continue to suffer at the hands of militants, the Syrian regime and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Today, hundreds of thousands of people are trapped between clashes on the ground and American and Russian airstrikes. There is violence everywhere.
Our corner of Syria has long been forgotten.
In 2011, when more than half a million people took to the streets of our province to join the wave of protests sweeping through the country, our fellow countrymen took little notice. This felt like a continuation of the government’s tendency to treat Deir Ezzor as an extension of Iraq, rather than as a part of Syria. For decades, the government took oil from Deir Ezzor, but gave nothing in return.
Despite this, we are proud of our victories. After the revolution began, we built humanitarian organizations and democratic institutions to advance our demands and resist tyranny and terror. Yet the community structures and services we built to govern locally cannot operate because of the continuing violence. ISIS, and the war against the group, risks obliterating any chance of local control.
By the end of the year, it is likely that ISIS as we know it will cease to exist in Syria. Pro-government fighters and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are closing in on them on the ground, while the U.S.-led coalition and Russia bomb them from the sky. Yet for hundreds of thousands of ordinary civilians, the terror continues as they flee from one place to another desperately seeking shelter and safety.
Civilians face difficult choices. One option is to remain in their homes in ISIS-controlled areas, often under siege and without access to basics such as food and medical supplies. These areas are also under relentless aerial attack. Those who stay risk accusations of being ISIS fighters themselves.
The second option is to uproot their lives and flee to SDF-controlled camps, where the conditions are horrific and enforced conscription is rife. Some children have been forced to fight for the SDF, and some have been sent to the front lines against ISIS. Under such conditions, some have made the difficult decision to return to ISIS-controlled areas, but in many cases, they are forced to return to the camps when the Assad regime aggressively bombs these areas.
In this desperate search for refuge, the people of Deir Ezzor have found only catastrophe.
Yet it can still get worse. We fear another ISIS might emerge. The continuous U.S. and British support for Kurdish forces controlling Arab areas may spawn a nationalist version of oppressive rule. The international community’s indifference to groups on the ground, which serves their own interests at the expense of local people, is translating into Kurdish rule over majority Arab populations. This is extremely dangerous and potentially explosive.
There is an alternative. The international community must support local groups and empower them to control these areas. These populations must have a leading role in the fight against extremists, provide local services and be represented in politics. Failure to support these groups risks leading to the creation of Arab nationalist resistance groups to rebel against Kurdish rule. This will only fuel greater local, state and regional instability.
The Kurdish struggle for freedom and democracy must be supported. But this has to be done in concert with, not at the expense of, the right of local groups to self-determination and governance. The current approach by the U.S.-led coalition to pit us against one another is not helping our struggle against extremism. The opposite is true: It is helping to incubate a future, possibly deadlier, successor to ISIS.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.