On Tuesday, September 5, Syrian regime forces fought into Deir e-Zor city and broke through an Islamic State blockade of several government districts there for the first time in three years.
The advance followed months of steady territorial gains by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies in Syria’s oil-rich eastern reaches, the Islamic State’s (IS) heartland in the country.
Now the fight begins for remaining IS-held districts of Deir e-Zor city itself. It is likely to prove a long and difficult one. In Syria and Iraq, the hardline organization has proved itself resilient in urban warfare, and the SAA is fighting on multiple fronts.
But perhaps of equal importance to how the city is recaptured from IS is what happens the day after.
For years, IS has embedded itself in Deir e-Zor and co-opted the area’s deep-rooted tribal system, forming strategic alliances with certain tribes while sidelining—or massacring—others. Rivers of bad blood run through the eastern province.
“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, a researcher of Syrian tribes who received his Ph.D. earlier this year from the University of St. Andrews's Centre for Syria Studies in Scotland.
Haian Dukhan. Photo courtesy of Centre for Syria Studies.
Here, Dukhan discusses the historical relationship between eastern Syria's tribes and the state and the challenges facing the region when IS is defeated.
“Part of the tribal tradition is the need to take revenge in the name of the tribe,” Dukhan tells Syria Direct’s Orion Wilcox. “This problem is only going to become more complicated with the withdrawal of IS.”
[Ed. Click here to read Syria Direct’s full report on the Islamic State, tribal clashes and the fear of revenge killings in eastern Syria.]
Q: To start, let’s get a sense of what’s at stake here. Why should those following Syria closely care about tribal dynamics today?
Many people believe that the importance of tribal ties in Syria and elsewhere has been weakened in recent years by the dual tides of globalization and the settling of tribal people in urban areas. In a sense, this is true.
However, the collapse of the state in eastern Syria has strengthened these tribal ties once again, and many people have started to view their tribe as a refuge, as a source of protection. This is why tribal affiliation in Syria is more important today than it was before the war when the state was strong.
Q: Historically, what has been the relationship between the central state and Syria’s tribes?
In order to understand the context of what’s happening now, it’s important to understand how the Syrian government co-opted the tribes in the past. When Hafez al-Assad came to power, he himself came from a religious minority, the Alawites. So he realized that the Alawites could not rule the country by themselves. To consolidate power, he sought Sunni allies who were, generally, despised by the people 0f the cities. And these were the Bedouin tribes who occupy the rural areas of the country.
So, while the Alawites had a strong presence in the military and the intelligence services under Assad’s reign, so did the Shawi, or common tribes.
The word Shawi comes from the fact that these tribes raised sheep and goats whereas the noble tribes raised camels. The noble tribes, of course, despised the common tribes.
So, Hafez al-Assad created an alliance with these common tribes who inhabited the rural areas of the country and particularly Deir e-Zor. Specifically, the Ougeidat tribe from Deir e-Zor joined the army and intelligence services in large numbers.
The way the regime played it was that the Alawites served in large numbers in the Military Security while other minorities—Druze, Ismailis and Christians—held positions in Political Security and the Shawis—or common tribesmen—served in the State Security. Of course, many tribesmen, particularly from Deir e-Zor also rose in the military. For Deir e-Zor, Hafez al-Assad’s time was a period of economic growth and a period in which the province’s men rose in influence.
And it was a period of stability. As the state co-opted the tribes, the influence of the tribes fell, and this led to a reduction in tribal infighting.
This dynamic changed when Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar, came to power. Bashar started to pursue neo-liberal reforms. These economic policies focused on developing Damascus, Aleppo and the Syrian coast, but they marginalized rural areas like Deir e-Zor.
The number of tribal clashes really started to increase in Bashar al-Assad’s years. That was in part because the economic situation was in decline and in part because the patronage systems developed between Hafez al-Assad and the rural communities were weakened.
So within the ten years before the uprising, 2000 and 2010, there were clashes between the Bedouin and the Druze in the south and between the some of the tribes of Deir e-Zor and the Kurds in 2004. In the Jazira [Al-Hasakah] there were clashes between the Shammar and the Jabour [tribes], which was actually a large clash that led to the deaths of several people and the government actually had to deploy military personnel to come down the tribes.
As a result of all this, the eastern rural parts of Syria felt neglected. So, for example, during my research, I interviewed a number of people from Deir e-Zor who claimed that, even though their region has abundant oil reserves, their economic fortunes declined during Bashar al-Assad’s time in power. And they used this as a way to explain why many tribes joined the uprising against Assad.
When the state started to withdraw from the east of the country, many of the tribes allied with some of the Islamist groups that arose there. One such alliance is that between the Ougeidat tribe and Jabhat a-Nusra [currently known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham]. Nusra actually put the Ougeidat in charge of some oil fields in Deir e-Zor.
When the Islamic State came to Syria from Iraq, they also allied themselves with some of the local tribes, and here is where the tensions started to rise between the tribes.
Of course, the regime has continued to co-opt the tribes to a certain extent. Many tribal leaders are close to the government. One example is Ahmed a-Shlash who to this day recruits men from his tribe, the Albu Saray, to fight alongside the government in Deir e-Zor.
Q: I know that many people are interested in Syria’s eastern tribes because of their relationship with the Islamic State. Can you talk about how IS succeeded in forming bonds with Syrian tribes?
The Ougeidat tribe, which is one of the largest tribes in Deir e-Zor, is really a coalition of tribes that united in the 17th and 18th centuries to fight the Shammar tribe, which is a noble camel-riding tribe originally from the Arabian Peninsula. Historically, there had actually been conflict between the tribes that now make up the Ougeidat but the common threat of the Shammar tribe made them unite.
So whenever the state becomes weak, these old feuds rise to the surface. Some tribes of the Ougeidat sided with IS while other Ougeidat tribes sided with Jabhat a-Nusra.
Also, members of the Shaitat clan are not going to forget what happened to them and they will seek revenge. [Ed. 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.]
And there are also members of tribes who are fighting with the regime who will seek revenge against those tribes that sided with the Islamic State.
IS has used the historical animosity between the Shammar and the Ougeidat to scare the Ougeidat. So one issue people have with the Kurds moving south into Arab-majority lands is that the Shammar are fighting alongside the Kurds. So that creates conflict. I saw a video once of an Ougeidat sheikh bragging that his tribe had not allowed the Shammar tribe to conquer Deir e-Zor in the 18th century, so you see these old conflicts sort of rising up after 200 years.
Q: How strong are these ties and what impact will they have on the ongoing fight against IS?
For the Islamic State, as a group which relies heavily on foreign fighters, alliances with tribes allow the group to gain legitimacy and support among local communities. IS has co-opted many tribal leaders by offering them access to resources and positions of authority. In this way, IS developed marriages of convenience with the tribes.
Ideology also plays a role. At the beginning of the conflict people were saying that the tribes were not very religious and that the Islamic State would not be able to radicalize them. This was wrong.
Today, IS has been in these areas for several years and they’ve been conducting religious training and preaching their ideology among the people. So, I would say that it will probably be difficult to counter this ideology that IS has instilled among the people there, and it will take a long time.
We also have to remember that many of the youth in Deir e-Zor didn’t join IS for ideological reasons but rather for practical ones. For those who couldn’t go to Turkey or escape in other ways, joining IS was the only option. Now, fighting for IS is these young men’s livelihood. That means that now, there are not only ideological ties between IS and these communities but also economic ties.
Q: We know many tribes have young men fighting on just about every side of the conflict, so what is the potential for intra-tribal violence?
Of course, part of the tribal tradition is the need to take revenge in the name of the tribe. And this problem is only going to become more complicated with the withdrawal of IS. There is going to be conflict over resources such as oil.
There is a concept called Arf, or tribal law. There will be tribal leaders who will attempt to calm down members of their tribes and negotiate solutions to tribal conflict. So by applying Arf, there may be a way to mitigate tribal conflict but the question is who is going to reach out to these leaders and whether they still have any influence. And there is also the problem that there are so many weapons in eastern Syria now and the chaos that goes along with that.
But nevertheless, 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.
It will be very important to send messages to the tribes that there will be some sort of amnesty for the tribes.
Another issue is that many of the tribes who are currently fighting alongside IS previously fought against the regime, so they are unlikely to give up on IS if the regime is their only alternative. So if there is a way to provide assurances to the tribes in Deir e-Zor that there region will have some autonomy—that they will not be directly ruled by Bashar al-Assad—then this might go a long way toward convincing them to give up on the Islamic State.