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Clan conflicts in Syria: Seeds of revenge grow under the ashes amid attempts to renew customary law

Years of war and shifts in the balance of power in Syria have left a deep mark on Syria’s clans, contributing to more frequent conflicts, complicating traditional authorities’ reconciliation efforts and laying the groundwork for future acts of revenge.


9 December 2022

PARIS — In the eastern Deir e-Zor town of Ghranij, a 25-year vendetta was put to rest last month. Through efforts by a number of clan sheikhs and notables in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled area, on November 10 the al-Khalifa al-Nayef and al-Aghdab al-Hamada families of the al-Shaytat clan finally agreed to a reconciliation agreement. 

But even as one ember of clan conflict was extinguished in Deir e-Zor, another was ignited in Inkhil, a city in the regime-held northern Daraa countryside, hundreds of kilometers to the southwest. There, a young man, Rami al-Waked, was killed on November 7. His family laid blame for his death with “evildoers and bandits from the al-Doukhi family” in a statement

“The family of the murder victim, Rami Awad al-Waked, and the entire al-Eid family, declare that everyone who took part in the treachery is a legitimate target, and everyone who harbors one of the criminals is an accomplice,” it concluded. 

The identities of Rami’s individual killers were not known, but his family accused young men from the al-Doukhi family because of what began as a recent dispute between children from the two families, and turned into a brawl between young men. Ultimately, fighters from a military group commanded by Abdul Hakim al-Waked—affiliated with the 8th Brigade led by former opposition commander Ahmed al-Awda—attacked and beat a young man from the al-Doukhi family. After that, Rami al-Waked was murdered. 

In the wake of the killing, the al-Waked group burned down more than 10 houses and a marble factory in Inkhil that belonged to the al-Doukhi family, whose members left the city for an unknown location.

These two incidents—one of clan reconciliation, the other of conflict—are examples of the clan dynamics at work in Syria, as well as the role of traditional authorities in a shattered state. They are among 46 incidents of clan disputes and reconciliations Syria Direct tracked from the start of 2022 to the end of October. The individual parties at conflict were documented in 29 of those incidents, which took place in northern and eastern Syria. 

Together, they paint a picture of how clan disputes arise and are resolved, through sheikhs, traditional elders and clerics, in accordance with religious rulings and prevailing clan customs and traditions. 

More than 11 years after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, some clan sheikhs today are trying to update tribal customary law and rulings in accordance with the country’s current situation and the repercussions of more than a decade of war.  

Causes of clan conflict

Years of war and shifts in the map of military control in Syria have left a deep impact on the country’s economy, society and security. As a result, clan fighting and disputes have escalated, in a country where—in most provinces—clans are a fundamental pillar of society.  

Proof of that, in the eyes of Sheikh Hassan al-Khamri, from the al-Walda tribe’s al-Nasser clan, is the nature of clan issues and disagreements he has worked to resolve with other sheikhs and notables in the area of Tabqa city, where he lives in Syria’s northern Raqqa province. These included “a dispute that developed into a murder because of one person’s support for the regime, after his killing was authorized [ihdar al-dam], because he was a pro-regime thug [shabih] as the factions see it,” al-Khamri said.

Al-Khamri and other notables have worked to resolve other deadly disputes, such as one murder “as a result of a disagreement over land and property, and another after Free Syrian Army factions left the area and the Islamic State came in, and killings took place under the pretext of unbelief and apostasy,” he told Syria Direct. After IS was later expelled, clan disputes “significantly increased,” al-Khamri added. 

In the Daraa countryside city of Inkhil, Abu Ali, a local notable, attributed an increase in clan disputes in southern Syria compared to before the war to “uncontrolled weapons, which are easily accessible to everyone.” There is an “absence of law,” he said, alongside “people’s poor psychological state, especially young men, as a result of the war and its negative effects.” 

For some, chaos is an opportunity. “In the insecurity during the war years, especially after the settlement [in southern Syria between opposition factions and the regime in summer 2018], some have found a chance to take revenge, settle scores and vent their hatred,” Abu Ali said. 

In some cases, young teenagers have settled old scores, taking advantage of widely available weapons after the Syrian revolution broke out to commit revenge killings in response to murders that “took place when some of them were not even born,” he added. 

Sheikh Hawas al-Jassim (Abu Kassar), who represents the Deir e-Zor town of Baghouz and its surroundings—where IS made its final territorial stand in 2019—and serves as the secretary of the Bukamal Jazira Clan Assembly, said there has been a “major defect in leadership of the clans, east and west of the Euphrates, since the events began” in 2011. 

Before the revolution, there were “major clan authorities who held sway over influential figures, and any dispute was responded to and resolved by the established clan methods, whether through custom [al-urf], the Sharia or traditions—but [these authorities] no longer exist today,” he said.

In Syria, “clan shrinkage,” as al-Jassim put it, has contributed to an increase in clan conflicts. While once “sheikhs and notables used to control members of the clan, now there is chaos in clan leadership,” he said, alongside “foreign hands from neighboring countries playing with the clan authorities, trying to control the sheikhs in order to undermine stability and prevent clan cohesion.” 

As a result of this rupture, “clan revenge killings are being done in an arbitrary and barbaric way, in the absence of a truly deterrent authority,” al-Jassim said. “This has given a green light to the youth, who do not listen to authority or the clan.” 

Syrian journalist and blogger Sultan al-Kanj, who focuses on Syrian clan affairs, divides the causes of clan conflicts into two categories. One category is subjective causes, those related to clan structure. The other is external causes, those related to the environment created by local authorities in Syria’s four areas of influence: the Syrian regime, the SDF, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA). 

As clan structure itself relates to revenge killings or tribalism, “a person takes revenge, and does not stay silent about his rights, which is a feature of bravery in clan societies,” al-Kanj told Syria Direct. To act otherwise could “be considered cowardice, so he has to adopt the clan vision and behaviors, without which he could fall into social problems, such as refusal to marry him.”

Competition between different clans, a single clan or individual members leaves people “prepared for any minor incident or fight,” al-Kanj said. In various parts of Syria, some clans “have brought their disputes into the local authorities, through clans joining military factions or parties to the conflict that are hostile to their opponents.” 

Weak local authorities and an abundance of weapons has contributed, since 2011, to “an increase in conflicts of a clan nature,” the journalist said. “When everybody carries a weapon, any small disagreement could turn into fighting, and one killing births another, through what is known as tha’r.”

Rising tribalism

In clan communities, sheikhs and elders usually act as a safety valve, and they play the main role in ending conflict by forming a clan delegation to go to the victim’s family. “The sheikh of the victim’s clan gives incentives for the family of the deceased to negotiate to resolve the dispute and for the payment of blood money [al-diya] in the case of bloodshed,” said Sheikh Ramadan al-Rahhal of the al-Walda tribe’s al-Ali clan. 

The sphere of conflict can widen to a third clan, however, due to what is known as “cutting the face,” taqtia al-wajh. In that instance, the killer seeks refuge with another clan, and a sheikh or notable from that clan brings the individual and his family under his protection [al-dakhala] “as a form of clan tradition,” al-Rahhal said. It then becomes the responsibility of the host that no member of the killer’s family is attacked by the family of the victim. 

“If something happened to those under his protection, he has the right to sue the family of the victim under Arab [tribal] law and demand his rights after they cut his face,” he added. “In some cases, that develops into a new conflict.”

During the war in Syria, the country saw “a significant return to tribalism, and an increase in the sense of clan belonging,” al-Khamri, from the al-Nasser clan in Tabqa, said. That is “a natural reaction given the rotation of controlling authorities and an individual’s search for a sense of security by joining a gathering or bloc that protects him.” 

Underscoring this dynamic, al-Rahhal said, is that “incidents of a clan nature increased in Raqqa after the Syrian crisis by up to 75 percent” compared to before the war, he estimated.

Al-Jassim, in Baghouz, agreed. “The rise became more pronounced after 2019, following the expulsion of IS from the area,” he said. An increase in clan conflict put “great pressure on the clan sheikhs and those working for good in the area.”

The most recent conflicts “have revealed some acts that are inconsistent [even] with the previously established civil laws,” according to al-Khamri, including “an increase in the revenge killings, taking up arms and the large number of individual disputes that devolved into clan fighting.” He also pointed to “the emergence of inciting groups on social media and social phenomena alien to the community, such as drug use and its resulting problems and illegal criminal acts.” 

Renewing the clan covenant

Syria’s clans are used to “taking measures of the truce [al-atwa], delegation [al-jaha] and reconciliation in most cases,” al-Khamri said, “but their importance increases in major cases, such as those related to honor, killing, cutting the face and violating the sanctity of the home.” In those cases, “urgent measures” are needed to “limit conflicts and stop reactions,” because “failure to follow customs could lead to further problems and complications.” 

Reconciliation procedures begin with “preliminary contacts,” after which a truce is approved and the members of the clan delegation to negotiate the reconciliation are chosen, the sheikh said, beginning to describe the process. “The delegation elder contacts the sheikh of the victim’s clan, or representatives of it,” and the relatives of the victim are pressured “until they accept the principle of conducting a reconciliation.”

When the mediators feel there is intent to reconcile, “they tell the perpetrator’s clan, so it in turn makes the necessary arrangements,” al-Khamri said. The reconciliation body, made up of notables and elders, is formed, and “contacts the other notables to determine the place and time of the assembly.”

Generally, when the case is adjudicated, “an arbitration committee is formed of members who are capable and competent to fulfill the rights of, and who have credibility and trust among, the two disputing parties,” the sheikh said. In some cases, “the two sides agree to litigation through a religious arbitrator, who judges according to what God has revealed in the Holy Quran.” And sometimes, the disputing sides accept a solution agreed upon by clan mediators.

At the end of the process, a deed of reconciliation is agreed upon between the perpetrator and victim, or the victim’s relatives, including an agreed-upon sum of blood money. The perpetrator is brought in, the two clans shake hands, guarantors are appointed for the reconciliation and the deed of reconciliation is reviewed and finalized with the signature of both parties before witnesses. “The deed of reconciliation is the written document regarding the procedures to end the case through the clan, and [documents] the forfeiture of all personal and civil rights before the courts,” al-Khamri said. 

Today, decisions reached during clan reconciliation processes are “published online, in newspapers and by tribal governing councils,” and amount to “a contract stipulating the end of the dispute and state of hostility and conflict between the two parties because of the crime,” al-Khamri concluded. 

Clan reconciliation processes are based on “Islamic law, as the primary solution that the two opposing parties cannot go beyond, as well as some customs and traditions,” Sheikh al-Jassim said. The agreement is made “in the presence of Sharia committees from the fabric of the clan, who have sufficient expertise and knowledge to resolve the disputes,” he added. 

However, social changes in Syria today make it necessary to reconsider the current body of clan customary law and traditions governing reconciliation and associated processes, according to al-Khamri. For example, with the increased population of Syrian cities, customs such as jalwa, in which five generations of relatives of a perpetrator are exiled from a community in response to a serious crime, means “demanding the evacuation of more than 2,000 people sometimes,” he said. 

Clan leaders, including al-Khamri himself, are making some attempts to reconsider long-held practices and clan customs to “update this covenant.” The clans in Raqqa and Tabqa have held multiple meetings, out of which a sub-committee was formed, made up of “clan sheikhs themselves, jurists, clerics and some notables” tasked with “proposing and drafting an amended clan charter, and presenting it to the sheikhs in joint coordination meetings in Raqqa and Tabqa,” he explained. 

The next step is to hold meetings with influential local clans to present the amended body of rules and practices “and take opinions and proposals” from elders. Finally, “we’ll hold a meeting of the clan sheikhs with the local media to announce the new covenant, distribute it to the area’s clans and announce it is being implemented and abided by,” al-Khamri concluded. 

Customary laws followed by Syria’s clans “are not a constitution—they are like a law that everyone must recognize,” journalist al-Kanj said. “Clan rulings have significantly contributed to ending conflicts, because they are consensus-based legal provisions, and the clan community agrees upon them.” 

These provisions are detailed, prescribing a specific punishment and amount of blood money for each incident of murder. Under clan custom, the penalty for premeditated murder differs from murder in self defense or mutilation of a body, al-Kanj explained.

The Syrian regime has historically “recognized and invoked” clan law, forming “clan committees to decide on some issues,” al-Kanj said. Today, this approach is being repeated in parts of Syria outside control of the central state by de facto authorities, which “recognize clan laws and form committees of notables to rule among people,” he said. 

Legally, “Syrian courts are not bound by clan deeds of reconciliation,” Suleiman al-Qurfan, the former head of the Syrian Free Lawyers Association, told Syria Direct. “The Syrian constitution does not oblige the judiciary to invoke clan deeds, and it is left to the discretion of the trial court to adopt or disregard them.” 

But it has been customary for Syrian courts to “include the deed in its rulings if there is nothing in it contrary to public order,” al-Qurfan said. “That is, the courts adopt the reconciliation if they are convinced of it, and implement it in the form of a ruling.” In that case, the court considers the deed as “forfeiting personal rights, and the litigants’ claims in the lawsuit are limited to what was stated in the ruling clauses of the deed.” Still, the rights of the public “remain in place, and the court rules on them according to the facts of the case,” he added. 

Damascus uses the clans

With the collapse of the “state system” in Syria in the wake of the revolution and the presence of four de facto authorities in the country, “these authorities started to rely on clan and shabiha loyalties in their forces, formations and military structures,” according to Sakhr Faisal al-Ali, a researcher on Syrian clan affairs living in Germany. 

Since 2011, the Syrian regime has relied on “clan factions, sheikhs and areas in order to secure state institutions and the passage of fuel, weapons and so on,” he told Syria Direct. In that context, Damascus “supported certain clans at the expense of others, which fuels clan conflicts.” 

For example, Damascus backed the Qaterji family from the al-Naim tribe in Deir e-Zor, and made them clan sheikhs “to control clan decision-making [both] within the clan and its areas in eastern Syria, to support regime activities,” al-Ali said. The same scenario was repeated by “supporting individuals from the al-Bashir family [in Aleppo and Deir e-Zor] of the al-Baqara tribe, setting them at odds with members of tribes that reject regime presence in the area,” he added. In a third case, Damascus “supported the al-Berri family in Aleppo against other families from the al-Baqara tribe in the city to achieve militia interests for the regime and Iran.” 

Tehran followed the same policy of winning over clans in Syria. Iran backed some tribes and clans “such as al-Baqara, al-Boushaban, al-Berri and al-Asasneh in some areas,” the researcher said. This policy “resulted in the creation of a state within a state,  and led to any disagreement between one tribe and another—or between a tribe and regime military and security institutions—developing into armed clashes and clan conflicts.” 

But while the regime uses Syria’s clans, its security forces are slow to intervene when clan conflict erupts, as was recently the case in Inkhil. Abu Ali, the local notable, said that since the summer 2018 settlement returned regime control, Damascus’ forces have only intervened “once clan fighting has [already] taken place, with the resulting killing and burning of homes and property.” 

In the early November dispute between the al-Eid and al-Doukhi families, Abu Ali said, once the fingers of blame were pointed at the al-Doukhi family “the police and security should have encircled the homes of the accused and arrested the perpetrator, but they preferred to stay away until the outburst of anger was over, then started to investigate the incident and search for the culprit.”

He further accused the regime of supporting and arming individuals in Daraa “to carry out dirty work—assassinations, kidnappings and robberies—in its policy of stirring up clan conflicts between families in the city and those to which these people belong.”

Relations between de facto authorities and the clans

In northeastern Syria, where al-Khamri lives, the Autonomous Administration (AANES) has formed “reconciliation committees and councils, and recently formed a council of elders made up of sheikhs and notables from the region to sit in on and resolve all issues and conflicts,” he said. The AANES judiciary and Justice Council takes up and implements deeds of reconciliations issued by clan leaders.

In his view, “there is cooperation and harmony between the AANES—in all its political, administrative, judicial and even military components—and the sheikhs and notables of the area, who have full authority and absolute freedom to break up and resolve all kinds of conflicts.” 

In addition to the reconciliation committees the AANES has helped form, which include a clan judge, known as a reconciliation judge or al-aarifa, alongside lawyers, sheikhs and notables, the de facto administration has formed a General Reconciliation Committee in Raqqa city, Sheikh al-Rahhal said. The body’s task is to “overcome difficulties and resolve clan problems after sheikhs and the reconciliation committees come to it when matters reach a dead end,” he explained. 

Additional efforts to eliminate infighting and quarrels in the area include “educational meetings and seminars, and integrating clan members through [political] parties, education and intermingling,” al-Rahhal added.

Sheikh al-Jassim, in SDF-controlled Deir e-Zor, agreed with the other two sheikhs’ reading of the situation in AANES territories. “The AANES supervises and closely monitors any disagreement or clan fighting, and communicates directly with sheikhs and notables,” he said. But it too “sometimes avoids interfering in clan fighting, except when asked,” al-Jassim added, “so as not to cause tensions between it and one clan on account of another clan.”

And while clans hold sway in the Deir e-Zor countryside, formal judicial authority is absent. “There is no real judiciary or rigorous courts dealing with these issues and deterring disputes in the region,” al-Jassim said.

But this does not mean the SDF does not exert “control over the clan component to some extent,” researcher al-Ali said. Local authorities used “the Shammar Sheikh Hmeidi Daham al-Jarba, who they appointed governor of the Syrian Jazira region [corresponding to SDF-controlled Hasakah province] in a utilitarian partnership between them,” he added. 

In the AANES-administered Manbij region of eastern Aleppo, the SDF managed to “dissolve clan factions, such as Jund al-Rahman and Suqour al-Raqqa, and demobilize a large part of their leadership,” al-Ali said. “They were contained in the SDF military system after being the military wings of some clans.” 

In SDF areas, clan leaders have played a greater mediation role than in regime areas, where their “role has become to achieve its interests,” al-Ali said. Still, “sheikhs are tools through which the de facto authorities seek legitimacy, or who they use in their interests and in the benefit of their political decisions.” 

In parts of northwestern Syria controlled by HTS, the hardline group has managed to build up “institutional and organized” experience in “dealing with the clans, but it is codified in a way that serves HTS in particular,” al- Ali said. The faction has been able to attract Syrian tribes through “figures it builds up, without the historical sheikhs,” he explained.

In late 2018, HTS formed the Council of Arab Tribes and Clans in Idlib—granting it representation with eight members in HTS’ General Shura Council appointed by HTS—as well as reconciliations within it. In March 2020, HTS established a second entity, the General Reconciliation Council, a competing body to resolve problems.

In other parts of northern Syria controlled by the Turkish-backed SNA, the military and political opposition seeks to “attract the clans to their ranks, with Turkish guidance and support,” al-Ali said. Accordingly, the Council of Syrian Clans and Tribes was formed in Turkey in 2017, then moved to Azaz city, in northern Aleppo, in December 2020. 

Investing in clans serves “ Turkish political goals,” the researcher said, especially in an area where military factions are considered to be “military arms and wings of some Syrian tribes and clans.”

For example, the SNA’s Ahrar al-Sharqiya faction is a military wing of the al-Baqara clan. The Eastern Army faction is a wing of the al-Ukaydat and al-Boushaban clans, while the Suqour al-Shamal Brigade and other factions are arms of the al-Naim tribe. On the ground, this means that “as soon as any dispute occurs between two factions, the tribes and clans are involved in it,” al-Ali said. 

That is what happened in a May 2022 dispute that took place in Ras al-Ain city, in the SNA-controlled northern Hasakah province, between the Sultan Murad and Hamza Divisions on one side, and the Eastern Army on the other. “The infighting developed and became between the al-Ukaydat and al-Mawali clans. The al-Boushaban clan intervened to break up the conflict as a military force, while [SNA] military factions weren’t able to come in and break up the conflict,” the researcher said. 

Clans also come into play in tensions and disputes between the SNA and HTS. The SNA has used clans “to issue statements against HTS in northern Aleppo, and involve them in confronting it,” al-Ali said. On the other side, “HTS used the same policy, and forced the clans to issue statements in support of it, causing tension between members of a single tribe or clan.” 

Polarization among Syria’s clans has been apparent since 2017, as different parties vie for “political legitimacy,” while the biggest losers are “members of the tribes and clans,” he lamented. 

Syria’s de facto authorities can also aggravate fighting between clans, for example if the perpetrator of a crime joins a particular authority—such as the SNA, SDF or others—prompting the victim’s clan to “join an opposing party or competing faction,” journalist al-Kanj said. “This encourages larger disputes between the clans.” 

But while Syria’s four authorities—the regime, HTS, SNA and SDF—can drive conflict, they are also all participating in “forming committees to resolve problems with the notables and clans who are acceptable to both parties of a dispute, and the authorities abide by tribal custom,” al-Kanj added. 

And with authorities occasionally tipping the scales between different clans “to achieve their leaders’ interests or cover over their corruption or problems, they are thus, directly or indirectly, responsible for the development of clan conflicts,” the journalist said. 

The future of clan conflicts

In the end, it was a clan reconciliation process that resolved the 25-year dispute between the Khalifa al-Nayef and al-Aghdab al-Hamada families in Deir e-Zor last month. But the solution itself points to an underlying problem: clan disputes that do not wash away with time, but only with blood—or reconciliation. 

Clan conflicts play a “negative role” and threaten civil peace in the short term, but their greater danger is “in the long term, because they sow clan strife in the minds of future generations, leading to instability in the region,” Sheikh al-Rahhal said. And since 2011, with an increase in clan conflicts and weak efforts to limit them or reconcile between those in dispute, the danger of such conflicts has only increased. 

“Any fighting within a clan itself, or with another clan, is not a momentary fight, but rather a dispute that leads to fighting and then reconciliation,” al-Kanj said. Conflicts may later be resolved on the surface, but “this reconciliation is discord under the ashes, that will one day turn into new fighting.”

While some of the outcomes of clan conflicts appear “immediately,” on the whole they “cumulatively pave the way for future fighting, which leads to revenge killings, and widens the rift in the community,” the journalist added. They also give rise to social and economic problems, such as “divorces and property burning,” the latter of which is not compensated by blood money because it is considered a momentary outburst of anger.

Therefore, “every conflict or fight that happens today is like a social time bomb, foreshadowing a bigger problem in the future,” he said.

The silver lining, for Syria’s clan society, is that it is “cohesive, and has an appreciation for notables and sheikhs within the clan and outside of it,” al-Kanj explained. It has structures and mechanisms that can be effective, and figures who still hold the community’s respect. 

While clan conflicts have increased during the war years, sheikhs still have a major role to play in “stopping bloodshed, paying blood money, alleviating problems, burying strife and putting an end to revenge killings.” 

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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