In eastern Syria, fears of revenge killings, tribal clashes after defeat of Islamic State

AMMAN: In Syria as in Iraq, the Islamic State is waning. As of summer 2017 the group has lost more than 60 percent of its territory. Urban warfare and US-led airstrikes are tearing apart its de facto Syrian capital in Raqqa city. Farther east, regime forces are driving an offensive into Islamic State heartland along the Euphrates River in Syria’s Deir e-Zor province. There, the group will likely make its last stand.

For disparate Syrian and international groups, the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) is vitally important. But what happens the day after IS is defeated, as residents look to rebuild and reconcile with the past?

The outside world often views the fight against IS in broad and simple terms—a fight against a nihilistic terrorist group. But for Deir e-Zor natives, both at home and in exile, the battle is far messier, and far more personal.

In Deir e-Zor, IS is not merely an invading, alien force. Since conquering the oil-rich, eastern desert province in 2014, IS has successfully exploited the region’s tribal order, co-opting local tribes with cash, weapons and positions of authority.  

These local tribesmen are the self-declared Caliphate’s foot soldiers. They fight in IS’s battles and police restive towns and villages under its control. They are also former neighbors, co-workers and classmates.

Today, as IS steadily loses ground on multiple fronts in Syria and Iraq, local tribesmen from Deir e-Zor tell Syria Direct that some of those forced into exile or who have watched their friends and family members killed by IS see an opportunity for retribution against the organization’s local collaborators following its defeat.

The desire for revenge, combined with the absence of a strong, central authority to settle disputes—along with the dilution of tribal authority, first by the Assad regime and later by IS—sets the stage for revenge killings and tribal score settling following the terror group’s eventual military defeat.

‘Betrayal’

Sitting in a small town just north of the Turkish border with Syria, Abu Mujahid a-Sharqiya checks his phone, trawling the internet and contacting friends and relatives. He is following the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.

It has been roughly three years since a-Sharqiya, a man in his twenties, fled his home in a remote village of Deir e-Zor for Turkey after the Islamic State took control.

When IS took control of Deir e-Zor province in 2014, a-Sharqiya’s tribe allied itself with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the hardliners. They lost, and, along with other fighters, were largely forced out of the province.

IS forces simply had too much firepower, including American-made weaponry stolen from Iraqi army bases during the capture of Mosul. They also had local support. While many of Deir e-Zor’s larger tribes, like a-Sharqiya’s, fought alongside the FSA and Jabhat a-Nusra, others sided with IS.

These smaller tribes and clans viewed joining IS as a way of getting even with the region’s stronger tribes who had gained power and wealth following the withdrawal of the Syrian government from the country’s east. They fought alongside IS’s foreign and Iraqi fighters to expel the rebels and their tribal allies. Then, they looted the defeated tribesmen’s empty villages.

Sources for this report asked to remain anonymous and did not mention tribes by name for fear of inciting conflict between them.

Three years after fleeing his home province, a-Sharqiya says he hasn’t forgotten the “betrayal” of these IS collaborators.

“We had to flee our homes because the Ansar decided to take up the sword of the Islamic State,” a-Sharqiya tells Syria Direct, sarcastically using IS’s term for its Syrian tribal allies. Ansar is an Islamic term which translates as "the helpers," a reference for residents of Medina who took in the prophet Muhammad and his companions after their flight from Mecca in the 7th century.

“But when the terrorists are gone,” a-Sharqiya says, “those tribes are the ones who are going to have to flee.”

‘They exploited our tribalism’

The Islamic State thrives in chaos, adapting to local environments and making effective use of pre-existing fault lines and grudges.

In 2004, Abu Musab a-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of IS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, openly called for a sectarian war against Shiites in order to “awaken the inattentive Sunnis.”

More than a decade later, IS’s leaders pursued a similar strategy to attract fellow Sunnis to fight against the Alawite-led regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Daesh always exploits social conflict,” says Rami Assaf, a lawyer from Deir e-Zor currently living in Turkey. Assaf is a member of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, a pro-opposition legal organization, and has worked on cases for people from his home province, including cases involving tribal issues.

Assaf, along with other exiled residents of Deir e-Zor, says that in the religiously homogenous communities of eastern Syria, IS looked to exploit other social fault lines.

“In Deir e-Zor we don’t have sectarianism, so instead they exploited our tribalism,” says Assaf. This is not a new strategy. Decades before IS arrived, then-President Hafez al-Assad brought historically marginalized Deir e-Zor tribes into the fold of the state. Members of these smaller tribes—known for sheep herding and called Shawi—served in the army and intelligence services and rose in prominence.

While many individual Shawi tribesmen attained positions of power in the government, the state’s support for their community writ large would prove fickle. Under the neo-liberal reforms of Hafez’s son Bashar, investment shifted from the energy-abundant, but sparsely populated, east toward the urban centers in the country’s west. Shifting central-state priorities, along with an intense five-year drought, pushed the rural communities of eastern Syria into poverty.

When the revolution broke out in 2011, Deir e-Zor’s larger tribes allied themselves with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist factions fighting the regime, and in return obtained control over land and oil refineries. Many Shawi tribesmen, accused of pro-Assad sympathies, were left out in the cold.

Three years later, an internal conflict between IS and Syria’s rebels engulfed opposition-held territory across the country. In need of local allies, IS courted eastern Syria’s once-again marginalized Shawis, providing their leaders with cash and positions of power in exchange for loyalty.

“Daesh played the tribes off of one another,” Ahmed Ramadan, a reporter for the pro-opposition Furat Post tells Syria Direct from exile in Turkey. “They would raise one tribe up over another.”

“When tribal sheikhs would get close to Daesh, they would receive benefits,” he adds.

“They could go to the hisba, or Islamic State police prison, and have people released, or make deals with people Daesh considered apostates or foreign spies,” the journalist said. “They would be left alone.”

The fear of revenge against tribes who allied themselves with IS serves as a means of control for the group, says Ramadan. For the tribes fighting with IS, he says “it was a message that the tribes of those young men we killed are not going to forget, so you either fight with us—and dedicate yourselves 100 percent to this fight—or they will slaughter you.”

‘Long memories’

Upon taking power in Deir e-Zor in 2014, IS jihadists lost no time doing as they had done before in Iraq: co-opting local tribes, the region’s historical powerbrokers.

At the time, IS established a Diwan al-Ashair, or tribal affairs court, tasked with recruiting local chiefs—either through offers of wealth and influence or by promoting younger, more amenable, leaders to take their place—and to mediate disputes between clans.

Syrian tribal leaders attend a meeting with IS’s Diwan al-Asha’ir in 2014. Photo courtesy of ARA News.

In the short term, the strategy worked. IS recruited dozens of tribal chiefs, representing thousands of members. These now-Islamic State fighters came to represent the majority of the terror group’s foot soldiers in the province.

As the Islamic State built up its presence in the region, the group allied itself with smaller clans that lacked close ties to rebel groups or the Syrian government. When older, well-known tribal leaders refused to pledge allegiance to the group, IS appointed younger but popular tribesmen to key positions within its hierarchy, co-opting their relatives and sidelining the older generation.

Those sheikhs who joined were encouraged to send their sons to fight with IS and marry their daughters to the group’s commanders, further embedding the jihadists into the local society.

For example, IS leaders positioned Amer a-Rafdan, a young but prominent member of the Bakir tribe, as their “emir” in Deir e-Zor, offering him wealth and power in exchange for the loyalty of his tribe, the Ougeidat, a sub-clan of one of the largest tribal federations in eastern Syria.

The deal paid off for IS. Although a-Rafdan was killed in a US airstrike in July 2015, many Bakir tribesmen continue to fight alongside the group.

But IS also made plenty of enemies, both for itself and for its local tribal allies.

In August 2014, IS brutally suppressed a failed uprising by the Shaitat, another Ougeidat clan, in a small village southeast of Deir e-Zor city. To make an example of the plotters, IS marched more than 700 young Shaitat men into the desert where fighters filmed themselves decapitating and shooting the tribesmen.

Following the massacre, members of al-Bakir and another IS-allied tribe, the al-Qaraan, allegedly looted the abandoned homes of Shaitat families who had fled the province.

The killing of the Shaitat tribesmen remains one of the largest documented mass-killings committed by IS throughout its bloody history. 

Following the massacre, many Shaitat families fled Deir e-Zor, while others succumbed to IS pressure, pledging fealty to the group’s leadership in exchange for the right to return to their homes.

Today, the Shaitat are one of several Deir e-Zor tribes whose followers are fighting IS alongside an array of armed groups—ranging from pro-government militias to Kurdish Marxist groups—all with the hope of seeking revenge against the organization and its supporters. 

In its bid to maintain power over Deir e-Zor, IS has undermined a centuries-old system of law and order, sidelining tribal leaders responsible for keeping the peace and positioning itself as the principle powerbroker in the province’s tribal hierarchy.

For now, members of IS-aligned tribes can continue to oppress, displace and kill local residents with impunity, protected from tribal backlash by virtue of their relationship with the jihadists.

But with the impending military defeat of IS, and the absence of a functioning central Syrian state for the foreseeable future, a backlash is likely, though its severity and scope remains to be seen.

“I don’t care who takes power in the region after Daesh, these tribes will get their revenge, even if it takes 40 or 50 years,” says Deir e-Zor journalist Ramadan.

“In tribal areas people have long memories,” he adds.

Poison unleashed

Both the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime's Syrian Arab Army aim to take control of parts of Deir e-Zor province. So far, regime forces are closest to that goal after breaking through to the provincial capital last week.

But no matter who ultimately takes control, “I believe that in the period following the defeat of the Islamic State, there will be a period of fighting that will, unfortunately, be very difficult to avoid,” says Dr. Haian Dukhan, an academic and researcher of Syria’s tribes. Originally from Syria’s Palmyra, Dukhan received his Ph.D. earlier this year from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. (For Syria Direct’s full interview with Dr. Haian Dukhan, click here.)

The incidence and intensity of tribal clashes always increases when there is a “power vacuum” or a “weak central state,” says Dukhan. “This is what we are going to face when IS is eventually expelled.”

Even if Deir e-Zor’s tribes can be pried from IS’s orbit prior to the group’s defeat—a tall order—steps must be taken to mitigate the chances of tribal warfare when all is said and done, says Dukhan.  

One possible way to avoid future conflict may be to seek out remaining tribal leaders with influence on the ground to apply al-Arf, or tribal law, to settle disputes. Dukhan says there are remaining tribal leaders who did not align themselves with IS and retain influence in Deir e-Zor despite years of IS sidelining them.

“I can’t say their names because they are in IS-controlled areas or have family there,” says Dukhan, “but they are out there and could help keep the peace.”

The risk to the province moving forward, says Deir e-Zor lawyer Rami Assaf, is that “there will be no unifying project for the people of Deir e-Zor when IS is expelled.”

If that happens, “as soon as Daesh is kicked out of Deir, we’re going to be standing knee-deep in blood.”

“The leaders of Daesh knew they wouldn’t be able to remain in Deir forever, so they unleashed the poison of tribal conflict within our communities,” says Abu Mujahid a-Sharqiya from Turkey, where he waits, hoping to return to his home someday.

“The sad part is, they succeeded.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.