‘Blood for blood’: Murder, retribution killings mire Syria’s eastern desert as tribes avenge Islamic State-era abuses

Deir e-Zor tribal leaders meet with the SDF in August. Photo courtesy of SDF media.

AMMAN: Marwan was out buying vegetables for his grocery shop in his eastern Deir e-Zor hometown of Abu Hardoub three months ago, when a man suddenly approached him with a gun pointed in his direction.

It was a moment that, perhaps, was a long time coming. Four years ago, when he was just 15 years old, Marwan joined the Islamic State (IS) as the hardline group took over much of Syria’s eastern desert—including his sleepy hometown that lies within an eastern bend of the Euphrates River, close to the border with Iraq.

A teenager, Marwan nevertheless played no insignificant role in helping enforce the hardline Islamist group’s violent rule over Deir e-Zor, according to his older brother Othman who did not join the fighters. After joining, Marwan took part in a patrol, Othman says, that shot and killed a local man accused of owning an internet router—a device banned under IS’ strict interpretation of Islamic law. A young child who was present was also killed during the shootout, Othman recalls. Both brothers’ names have been changed in this report for security reasons.

The victim’s family never forgot the brutal killing and now, years later, here was one of the relatives pointing a gun at Marwan in the middle of the street. He shot Marwan dead in broad daylight, Othman tells Syria Direct, “blood for blood.”

Othman is among half a dozen sources who tell Syria Direct they are seeing a string of revenge killings across rural, tribe-dominated Deir e-Zor as family groups seek to avenge the brutal rights abuses wrought by IS over the course of its rule.

Though official numbers are unknown, the killings are evidence of the deep social scars left behind by IS rule that threaten to mire Deir e-Zor’s tribal system for years to come, even while the hardline Islamist group is eradicated from the vast majority of what was once its Syrian “caliphate.”

Alliances and massacres

When IS stormed Syria’s oil-rich Deir e-Zor province in 2014, it did far more than simply invade the rural towns and villages that line the Euphrates. As it dug in, the group exploited local tribal structures to solidify its rule, forming strategic alliances with some tribes while brutally suppressing others.

A purported photo from the 2014 Shaitat massacre, featured in a Euphrates Post video.

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

The deal paid off for IS, but won the group enemies in the long-term—both for itself and for its local tribal allies.

In August 2014, the Shaitat, a local clan in southeast Deir e-Zor, rebelled. In response, IS brutally suppressed the uprising—and to make an example of the tribe, marched more than 700 young Shaitat men into the desert where fighters filmed themselves decapitating and shooting tribesmen.

Following the massacre, members of several IS-aligned tribes allegedly looted the abandoned homes of Shaitat families who had fled the province for safety.

The murders of the Shaitat tribesmen remains one of the largest documented mass killings committed by IS to date.

But IS has now been almost entirely eradicated from Syria after two massive military campaigns last year by Syrian government forces and its allies, as well as the US-led international coalition and majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), drove the group out of its self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Only an empty patch of Deir e-Zor desert and a handful of embattled villages near the Iraqi border remain under the group’s control.

Another, isolated, pocket of desert some 400 kilometers southwest in Syria’s Badia region is also under IS control.

Since the group’s all but total defeat in Deir e-Zor, residents and observers are seeing a burgeoning rise in exactly the type of violence that they feared would follow IS rule: retribution killings.

“We don’t have any exact statistics, but [the killings] vary from one area to the next,” says one SDF-aligned mayor in rural Deir e-Zor who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.  

“People see someone who previously abused them now walking around town without anyone holding him accountable [for his actions],” the mayor tells Syria Direct. “They want to get what’s ‘rightfully theirs’ by taking matters into their own hands.”

‘More killing’

At times, the killings don’t even target alleged former IS members—but instead fulfill what some residents interpret as part of a tribal legal code that can condone violent retribution.

A purported video from the Shaitat massacre, featured in a Euphrates Post documentary.

Hani, an elementary school teacher in the eastern Deir e-Zor town of Gharaneej, tells Syria Direct how he saw his 43-year-old uncle Ghassan shot dead in front of him by members of a rival family three months ago. He and his family members’ names have been changed for security reasons.

Ghassan’s alleged crime? Though himself a farmer who purportedly never took up arms, his son, Hani’s cousin, was—and remains to this day—a member of the hisba, IS' notorious morality police.

“There was more than one occasion when [my cousin] arrested people on flimsy accusations,” Hani says, “[including] people who were smoking, or had internet devices or were working to smuggle others out of IS territory.” It was a job that would earn him no shortage of enemies.

But as the hardline group retreated east towards the Iraqi border, Hani’s cousin followed. Ghassan stayed behind in their hometown of Gharaneej, to face his son’s enemies alone.

In March, they finally came—relatives of those arrested over the years by Ghassan’s son stormed the modest family home, shooting him dead in his garden, where he had been sitting with Hani just moments earlier.

And though Hani remains upset over his uncle’s murder, he says he holds IS “fully responsible” for the killing. “I warned [my cousin] many times about the [possibility] of punishments for his maltreatment of others,” he tells Syria Direct, “but he didn’t listen.”

“In our tribal society, retribution is something very normal since the old times,” Hani acknowledges, adding that he feels that there is currently a lack of any relevant legal authorities who can properly handle his uncle’s case. “I wish that the tribal dignitaries or the SDF commanders would get involved in order to end the issue of killing.”

As for his surviving family members, “we don’t have any intentions of retribution [for Ghassan’s murder],” Hani tells Syria Direct from Gharaneej.

“Responding to killing with more killing—that would be a mistake.”

Traditional tribal law ‘might not be enough’

Hani’s case raises questions over which party is responsible—or even remotely capable—of meting out justice amid the complex web of tribal disputes now arising in the wake of IS abuses.

Before the war, a traditional code of justice used by the area’s tribes, known as al-Arf, played mediator when disputes arose between opposing clans.

“If there had been, for example, an honor crime, then al-Arf was usually the most dominant factor in solving such a crime,” says Dr. Haian Dukhan, a researcher on Syrian tribes from the Centre for Syria Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

[Ed.: To read Syria Direct’s full interview with Dr. Haian Dukhan, click here.]

But there is simply no precedent for the kind of mass tribal bloodshed that occurred during the years of IS control, says Dukhan. “When you consider the large-scale massacres that happened during the war, I'm afraid that al-Arf is going to be dealing with situations it has never dealt with before.” Dukhan cites the Shaitat mass murders in 2014 as a particular concern, calling the killings a “form of genocide.”

Al-Arf on its own might not be enough to solve all these problems,” Dukhan says, adding that, if unaddressed, the instability could “allow groups like IS to appear again.”

“That’s because IS has always played on the differences between these tribes, and used the divide and rule to control these populations.”

So what else can possibly fill the void? Sources interviewed for this report, including the SDF-aligned mayor, say the US-backed, Kurdish-majority force is maintaining a careful distance from intra-tribal disputes in the areas under its control.

“Sometimes, [tribal] dignitaries from some of the areas gather to solve small problems,” says the mayor.

But for larger disputes involving murders and retribution, majority-Kurdish authorities “haven’t put forth any solution,” he adds.

“There are no organizations concerned with the issue of retributions. On the contrary, everyone wants the blood to spill heavily without any mercy.”

In Abu Hardoub, Othman says he “submitted a complaint” to local SDF authorities over the killing of his younger brother—the former IS recruit—in May. “An SDF patrol killed [the suspect] and arrested four people who helped carry out the crime.” Syria Direct could not independently verify information about the arrests.

“They are still in prison,” Othman says.

Like Hani, Othman says he also has no intention of carrying out retribution for the killing. “If we killed someone in exchange for the killing of my brother, it wouldn’t benefit anyone,” he tells Syria Direct.

“I know that would only sow discord.”

With reporting by Ayman al-Alaou in rural Deir e-Zor.

This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.