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MEMO in conversation with Omar Abu Layla

Watch out interview with the CEO of the Syrian news outlet Deir Ezzor 24

The Syrian revolution broke out 10 years ago after the Assad regime security forces kidnapped and tortured some boys and then proceeded to crack down on peaceful protestors. The violence escalated, with the resultant ongoing civil war.

Omar Abu Layla, a Syrian refugee based in Germany who founded and runs the news network Deir Ezzor 24, spoke to Middle East Monitor about his feelings at the outbreak of the revolution. His brother, who was later arrested and imprisoned by the regime, and has effectively been forcibly "disappeared", first told him of the protests when they erupted.

"It was unbelievable to see," he said as he recalled the sense of euphoria felt by many at the time following decades of repression. Everyone was united with the goal of getting Assad out, no matter which community they were from, Muslim or Christian, Arab or Kurd.

"It was a great time from 2011 till 2014," explained Abu Layla. "[This was] the best period of the revolution before the other military groups entered the revolution." It was in 2014 that Daesh declared its so-called "caliphate" and took over swathes of Syria and Iraq, while other extremist groups — including some affiliated with Al-Qaeda — also emerged.

Contrary to the popular narrative that Assad fought against Daesh and opposed it from the very beginning, Abu Layla mentioned that the regime helped and cooperated with the extremist group in order to counter the revolution and wipe out the credibility of moderate opposition groups. An example of this was the regime's release of thousands of extremists from prison who formed much of the Daesh leadership.

Abu Layla also expanded on the political and security dynamics of the eastern province of Deir Ez-Zor, which he pointed out is controlled partly by Iranian Shia militias and partly by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Iranian militias, he said, have control over the west bank of the River Euphrates which passes through the province, while the SDF and the international coalition control the east.

READ: Is it still possible to prevent the collapse of Syria?

According to Abu Layla, the SDF has two sides to it: one is a force for good and attempts to repair relations between local players, and the other deals with Assad and trades commodities such as oil with the regime. He warned that the SDF would be better off not dealing with Assad at all. "Assad will never listen to them [the Kurds], Assad will never give them any rights," he insisted.

As far as the increase in the number of assassinations of key tribal figures in Deir Ez-Zor in recent years is concerned, Abu Layla said that while the perpetrators remain unknown, he estimates that 60 per cent are carried out by the Iranian militias and 40 per cent by revived Daesh cells.

The aim of those assassinations, he said, is most likely to divide communities and tribes in the region, and is partly linked to the "Iranian project" that has been implemented in the province over the past few years. "It's very clear for all of us. If you ask a child, if you ask a woman, an old man… they will tell you the same answer: the Iranian plan since 2018 is to control the region from [the city of] Mayadeen to the border with Iraq."

That plan reportedly serves Iran's dual purpose of keeping Assad in power and establishing a land corridor through which it can transport arms and fighters. The area between Mayadeen and Al-Bukamal is "on a strategic route for them to bring any kind of support or any secret movement between Syria and Iraq."

The Iranian project in eastern Syria, he added, fits into Tehran's broader scope of establishing its hegemony in the region. "It is planning a new scenario in Syria similar to the scenario in Iraq." Tehran, he believes, wants Shia militias to dominate the political landscape. To that end, the Iranians in Deir Ez-Zor "use vulnerable civilians" by attempting to recruit them into Tehran-backed forces.

In recent months, however, there have been clashes between the militias and regime forces, signalling significant tensions within the ranks of the axis. Abu Layla was not surprised by such clashes which were "inevitable" due to Assad clearly being aware of the Iranian militias' power in the region. "They have enough military fighters, they have enough power, they have enough support even outside of Syria… the Iranians make their own decisions in Syria more than even Assad."

While that issue is still developing as Assad and his other ally Russia grow more aware of the Iranian militias' influence, Abu Layla said that they "cannot stop them until there's a national decision to kick them out of the region."

Overall, he lamented the situation in which the people of Deir Ez-Zor find themselves. His people want to be dealt with alone and as they are, concluded Omar Abu Layla, and not be controlled by any external groups.

READ: A decade on in Syria's war, Assad has no moral high ground to cling to

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