Tribes and tribalism in the Syrian revolution

Most of the research conducted so far into the Syrian uprising is focused on the sectarian element of the conflict, forgetting that there is a tribal dimension to the conflict as well.

On 18 July 2012, after Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha was assassinated in a bombing in Damascus, Fehd Jassem al-Freij was appointed by Bashar al-Assad as his successor. It has been overlooked that al Assad appointed a Sunni Muslim with a tribal background at such a crucial point in the conflict. Another question that comes to mind is what has made Mohammad Said Bkhaytan and many other officials with Sunni tribal backgrounds so loyal to the Syrian regime thus far? And why is it that army officers with renowned tribal backgrounds have not been defecting?

Most importantly, what is the nature of the relationship between the Syrian regime and the tribal Sheikhs and how has this relationship manifested itself in the current uprising?

Arab tribes in Syria retained their solidarity networks and held to their belief in the ideology of a common lineage, as well as the importance of marriage and alliances despite the fact that they have been driven from nomadism to sedentary agriculture or a settled life in the outskirts of cities. Tribe is a term that may be used loosely to describe a localised group in which kinship is the dominant form of organisation, and whose members consider themselves culturally distinct from the rest of the population in terms of customs, dialect or language, and origins. Syrian tribalism, which has remained a strong political force throughout the twentieth century, has not on the whole been based on pastoralism or nomadism. Politically active tribes were more often settled people than pastoral nomads. The Arab tribes in Syria have participated in and been affected by local and global forces and have also contributed to change, historically and at present.

In some provinces, like Raqqa, Hassaka, Dar'a and Deirezzor, tribes make up a much bigger proportion of the population, and tribal values pervade much of the Syrian countryside.  Over the past few decades, people like al-Freij, Bkhaytan and Nawafe al-Fares (the defected Syrian ambassador to Iraq) have helped to establish the regime’s legitimacy and ensure its stability. After securing power in 1970, the authoritarian regime of Hafez al-Assad attempted to maximize its coalition through a combination of ideology, patronage and populism, whilst attempting to control the opposition through a mix of concession and repression.  By establishing alliances with particular tribes and their leaders, Hafez al-Assad was able to maintain control of large areas of the Syrian Steppe. As much as Hafez al-Assad relied on his relationship with the Alwaites in filling all strategic military and security positions, he also relied on certain tribes to infiltrate the military and state institutions. He paid acute attention to the tribal and sectarian backgrounds of his top ranking commanding officers. The ties between the tribal leaders and the Syrian regime are mainly expressed through relationships of patronage and clientelism. The sheikhs had to announce their fully loyalty to the president, ensure security and stability in their district, and settle disputes in the traditional way. In return for their duties, sheikhs received financial aid, light arms and ammunition, communication devices, vehicles and other logistics from the regime and occasional exemption of their sons from the military services.

In addition to being appointed in the military and security services, tribesmen began to emerge as important players in the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Presidential Offices.  The Presidential appointment of the Minister of Agriculture and the Ba’ath Party Regional Command, as well as some senior positions in the Ministry of Interior have frequently been awarded to certain tribes. Tribal representation in the Syrian parliament has shifted from 7% to 12% and today 30 of the 250 “elected” members of the parliament belong to the Arab tribes. According to Sheikh Nawaf al-Basheer, Chief of al-Bagara tribe, who escaped to Turkey a few months after the beginning of the uprising in Syria, Hafez al-Assad spent decades side-lining the traditional tribal sheikhs by creating new system of a chiefdom of newly appointed Sheikhs who had close ties to the intelligence service. By doing so, he hoped to internally dismantle the power of the tribes by placing obstacles between the Sheikhs and their people. Despite its national slogans of “no sectarianism” and “no tribalism”, the Syrian regime institutionalized tribal and sectarian ties to maintain its control.

The Regime’s policies towards national unity, through the homogenization of tribes and ethnicities have failed and these policies are feeding the conflict taking place inside the country right now. Apart from playing the sectarian card in his game of creating balances and gaining more allies, al-Assad has played the tribal card in the Kurdish region too. Thousands of people, mainly from Shammar and Tay tribes, have been encouraged to settle in villages built over Kurdish fertile lands in order to challenge the status quo of the region, which have traditionally had a Kurdish majority. In 2003, the regime used a network of clients from the Arab tribes to suppress the Kurdish uprising. It is reported that the armed tribesmen from Shammar tribe have participated in the military operations led by the regime forces. This big divide created between the Arab tribes and the Kurds in al-Hasakeh was clearly manifested later in the uprising. During a conference for the Syrian opposition held in Cairo in 2011, the Kurdish parties ended up withdrawing after a wrangle with the Council of the Syrian Arab Tribes in which the latter refused a Kurdish suggestion to abolish the “discriminatory” projects initiated by the Syrian regime on their lands.

Most of the research conducted so far into the Syrian uprising is focused on the sectarian element of the conflict, forgetting that there is a tribal dimension to the conflict as well. The spark of the Syrian revolution started in Dar’a, which is a predominantly tribal area. A tribal delegation went to meet Atif Najeeb, the head of the political security branch in Dar’a, to request the release of children imprisoned for writing anti-regime slogans on the wall of their school. In a traditional gesture, they took their headbands off and placed them on the table, saying they would take them up again when the matter had been resolved. (6) The headband is the symbol of manhood and chivalry in tribal traditions. Therefore, when making a request, tribesmen would traditionally take off their headband expecting the other person to reply positively. By way of response Atif took the headbands of the senior tribal leaders from the table and threw them into the rubbish bin. In response to this disrespectful behaviour, the first demonstration to take place in Dar’a was organised by networks of tribesmen from al-Zu’bi and al-Masalmeh tribes. Therefore, “Friday of the Tribes” is held in recognition of Syrian tribes participating in protests against the Syrian regime.

While many Sheikhs and their tribesmen benefited from the regime, the majority of the tribes were at the bottom of Syria’s social ladder in terms of most indicators of socioeconomic status: high rate of illiteracy; no access to modern health care; and almost no alternative for work they had previously depended such as sheep and camel raising. Dissatisfied with their political and economic marginalization since the arrival of the Ba’ath party 50 years ago, displaced tribesmen residing in Syria’s most resistant cities (Dar’a, Homs, Hama, Palmyra & Deir Ezzor) created an activist network that was keen on becoming part of a protest movement since its early days. Baba Amr district, which was heavily bombed and destroyed by the Syrian regime forces, was mainly inhabited by tribesmen who organised a mass anti-Assad protest. As the regime escalated violence all over Syria, the peaceful movement started to become violent. Army officers started defecting and the opposition groups, including certain tribes, were forced to move into military action in self-defence against the brutal Syrian regime.

Syrian tribal leaders announced the establishment of the Syrian Arab Tribes Council in Turkey in 2010, which aimed at activating tribes in the Syrian uprising. Conferences of Arab Tribes were held in Istanbul and Cairo and statements were issued in which they expressed their support to the revolution with "all their forces." A founding member of the Council, Abdulallah Tamer Melhem, said that a large number of the fighters in the Free Syrian Army belong to the Arab Tribes. Moreover, opposition tribal leaders like Nawaf Al-Fares from Elgaidat tribe (the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq), have come out against the Syrian regime after fleeing to Turkey or Jordan. Maher al-Neimi, from al-Neim tribe defected from the Regime army to later become the spokesman of the Free Syrian Army. Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the United States Department of State, announced that the US is working with the Syrian tribes in order to achieve a political transition of power in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, relied on the patronage networks he created among some tribes to suppress the uprising.

Although many important tribes like Al Neim and Bani Khaled sided with the opposition, certain tribes like Hadidyn and sub-groups that have emerged within other tribes, have supported the regime. Tribes from both sides have formed military groups that have either participated in the military operations led by Asaad or joined the Free Syrian Army in attacking Assad’s forces. The regime tried to mobilize certain cities and regions by invoking tribal identity on a moral level. The regime started periodically holding “tribal conferences” in Homs, Tartous and al-Raqqa in which Sheikhs of tribes were asked to issue statements of loyalty and pledge of support to Bashar al-Assad. They were asked in front of the state media to encourage their tribesmen to refuse to join the rebels and to condemn western and Arabian Gulf interference in Syrian internal affairs.

Tribal Sheikhs were asked to meet the Russian ambassador and present him with gifts after Russia’s veto against the Security Council resolution condemning the regime massacres. Moreover, they were also asked to meet with the UN Secretary General's envoy Kofi Annan to denounce the “terrorist acts” that target innocent people rejecting the economic siege imposed on Syria.”

Now as the regime in Damascus is on the brink of collapse, the new government in the post-Assad era will have to be very well prepared for their tough meetings with the giant of tribalism. Instead of confrontational strategies with traditionally influential segments of the society, the new government will have to widen the social structure by incorporating traditional tribal groups through a political reform based on constitutional legitimacy. 

About the author

Haian Dukhan received his BA in English Literature from Al-Ba'th university in Syria in 2003. He worked with the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture, the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Syria for several years. Having obtained an MA in International Development from the University of East Anglia, his current research interests deal with with tribal political systems and social and political exclusion of tribal people in Syria, with fieldwork experience in Palmyra (a world heritage city in Syria). He is currently studying for a PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews/Centre for Syrian Studies.