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Raqqa’s Arab tribes navigate ‘uneasy calm’ under SDF rule

A sheikh from the a-Sakhba tribe reads out a statement […]

13 November 2018

A sheikh from the a-Sakhba tribe reads out a statement a few days after al-Huwaidi’s assassination. Photo courtesy of the Raqqa Civil Council.

AMMAN: Basheer Faisal al-Huwaidi had just walked out of the buildings of Raqqa Civil Council in downtown Raqqa when he was shot dead in his car, allegedly killed by two bullets to the head from a pistol equipped with a silencer.  

The prominent sheikh’s sudden death earlier this month triggered an outcry from local tribal leaders in the province, who held the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) responsible for the murder and called for a total boycott of SDF-run institutions across Raqqa province—though IS later claimed responsibility for the killing.

Al-Huwaidi’s assassination comes at a time when Raqqa, a year after the collapse of IS, still faces on-off attacks—often claimed by or linked to the hardline Islamist group—including IED explosions and gunfire targeting SDF fighters manning checkpoints in the province. On November 4, a car bomb also killed one civilian and injured several people in central Raqqa city.  

But the assassination of al-Huwaidi also tells a larger story about the complex web of sprawling tribal networks that much of Raqqa’s governance structures rely on. Throughout the Syrian conflict, tribes have become deeply intertwined in power struggles between local and regional actors, with allegiances constantly shifting depending on potential wins.

While experts tell Syria Direct that major unrest is likely not forthcoming, the open dissent against the SDF in the wake of al-Huwaidi’s assassination exposes the fragility of these clientelist relationships. Some expect to see more tensions in the future as local actors try to mobilize tribes to their advantage.

‘The tensions were there before’

Following a brutal US-backed offensive against IS and its self-proclaimed capital that ended last fall, the Kurdish-majority SDF established the Raqqa Civil Council to administer the city and outlining province. At the same time, they delegated 20 of the seats in the council to representatives of local Arab tribes.

Some observers suggest the SDF has until now been relatively successful at maintaining relationships with the Arab tribes, which make up some 90 percent of Raqqa province’s population.

But recent unrest has begun to challenge that status quo.

The day after al-Huwaidi’s assassination, residents attending the funeral ceremony reportedly kicked out representatives from the SDF who’d come to pay their condolences from the site.

Photos and videos of the incident showed a crowd of local men scattered amongst their cars and pick-up trucks, somewhere in the middle of the beige-brown desert landscape, with their eyes fixed on a vehicle darting along the horizon—said to be carrying the departing SDF representatives. Some threw stones at the fleeing vehicle.

“Raqqa is boiling,” Syrian pro-opposition news outlet Baladi News proclaimed days later, describing how tensions and antagonism towards the SDF were on the rise.

Raqqa residents drive out an SDF delegation from the site of al-Huwaidi’s funeral ceremony earlier this month. Video courtesy of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

A prominent sheikh from the al-Afadleh tribe, al-Huwaidi was also the tribe’s representative to Raqqa Civil Council. Despite this position, however, he was known by the local community to be an outspoken critic of the SDF.

That fact has led some to directly blame the SDF for his murder, despite IS publicly claiming responsibility for the attack shortly afterwards.

In statements released in the days following his assassination, a handful of local tribal leaders accused the SDF of killing al-Huwaidi due to his “rejection of the occupation of Raqqa.”

Others blamed the SDF and the international anti-IS coalition for their failure to protect civilians amid deteriorating security conditions across eastern Syria.

“When any civilian is killed, I think the responsibility lies with the military authorities who are in control and who are there to protect the civilians,” says Abu Abdallah, a member of the al-Mujadama tribe—one of the handful of tribes that have called for a boycott of the SDF.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Abu Abdullah requested that his real name be withheld in this report for fear of reprisals from the SDF.

It is not the first time Raqqa has witnessed tensions between Kurdish-majority SDF and local Arab population since the fall of IS.

While many residents at first welcomed the SDF in the wake of the collapse of IS, some have since then become critical of the SDF’s remaining presence in the area, accusing them of harassment, arbitrary arrests and forced military conscription of young Arab men from the local population. And in June, the SDF clashed with formerly allied Arab rebel faction Liwa Thawwar a-Raqqa, resulting in the arrest of some 200 fighters from the faction, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Even so, Abu Abdallah says, it is the first time he has witnessed such direct, open antagonism towards the SDF.

“The tension…was there before the assassination,” he says, “[but] despite the fact that a lot of young Arab men have been killed previously in various incidents, no statements had been issued until now.”

In statements released after the assassination, tribal leaders called for the “return of Raqqa to its people.”

“Things won’t calm down…unless the SDF’s PYD militias leave all areas of Raqqa province and hand it over to its people,” al-Asaad, spokesperson for the Turkey-based High Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans says, referring to the political wing of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that constitutes the main component of the SDF.

“Raqqa is in a state of turmoil.”

Raqqa tribes ‘divided and fragmented’

While residents report increasing tensions in and around Raqqa, Haian Dukhan, a researcher on Syrian tribes at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, believes it is unlikely that any major unrest is in store against SDF authorities in eastern Syria.

“[The tribes] are divided and fragmented,” he says. “I don’t think that they all would be able to lead some sort of a large revolt against SDF.”

Not all tribes have taken a stance against the SDF following al-Huwaidi’s assassination. The a-Sabkha tribe, for example, was originally reported to be among the tribes that had called for a boycott of the SDF, but later issued a statement rejecting the reports as rumors.  

“We condemn this filthy crime, the goal of which was to instigate strife and to undermine the stability of Raqqa city,” said one a-Sabkha tribal leader, in a video showing him reading out a statement in front of a large, yellow SDF flag.

The a-Sabkha statement, posted to the Raqqa Civil Council’s Facebook page, also expressed thanks for the “sacrifices of the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

Differences are not just tribe to tribe, according to Ahmad a-Raqqawi, a member of the al-Afadleh tribe.

Despite belonging to the same tribe as al-Huwaidi, a-Raqqawi says he does not identify with the policies of his tribe’s elders.

A-Raqqawi currently works for an SDF-backed institution, and he does not intend to leave his job despite the call for boycott.

“They accused me of treason because I work with SDF,” he says, requesting that his real name be withheld in this report for fear of reprisals from local tribes.

At the same time, he says, despite tensions and violence in the days following the assassination, “Raqqa is [still] a normal city.”

“We have not returned to the kind of tribal fundamentalism that prevailed before the days of Islam,” he says, referring to tribal laws based on vigilantism and “eye for an eye” principles.

SDF so far ‘successful’ in co-opting tribes?

Although the SDF made tribes central to the foundation of the Raqqa Civil Council, appointing 20 tribal representatives early on, some local tribe members say that the purpose of their inclusion was merely a cosmetic measure to justify SDF rule in the area.

“They’re just a facade” says Raqqa resident Abu Abdallah, adding that “ a lot of the tribal sheikhs who [work] with the SDF aren’t good for anything except issuing statements.”

“[The SDF] only appointed the sheikhs to win the tribes over,” he argues.

Despite this skepticism, Dukhan argues, this strategy of co-opting local tribal leaders has until now been “successful.”

The SDF, however, are not the only ones turning to tribes to attempt to stabilize their position in eastern Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, local and external actors have successfully mobilized Raqqa’s tribes according to their own interests.

In a recent article, Dukhan argued that the allegiance of the tribes to different parties historically has been determined by pragmatist patronage relations—access to land on which livestock can graze, representation in local governance institutions as well as employment opportunities.

“It’s all about preserving [the tribe’s] interests,” Dukhan tells Syria Direct.

It has not been uncommon for tribal leaders to change their loyalty throughout the different phases of the war, pledging allegiance first to the Syrian government, then to the Free Syrian Army followed by ISIS and only to end up under the banners of SDF.

And the fight for the loyalty of tribal leaders could be far from over.

“There’s a chance that we will witness much more of these kinds of tensions in the future as external actors seek to mobilize tribes to their interest,” Dukhan says, adding that “attempts from different parties to destabilize Raqqa [by] using the tribes” will likely continue.

The prevailing uncertainty suggests that eastern Syria could be at a crossroads, with regional powers all trying to get a stake in the future of the region.

Turkey, for instance, has long considered the Kurdish YPG to be a major threat immediately on its borders largely due to the group’s links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a leftist political and paramilitary movement that has for years clashed with the Turkish state.

Repeated shelling of YPG positions along the northern border, particularly around Kobani, in recent weeks have increased fears of an impending Turkish-led offensive on SDF-held areas east of the Euphrates River.

Should such an offensive be launched, Turkey could try to win the favor of local tribes and utilize them to their advantage, Dukhan argues.

“[If the tribes] see that things are tilting against the SDF…and that Turkish-backed forces are able to take these areas back, then they will most probably give up [on] their support to the SDF.”

At the same time, despite previously stating its intention to pull out of Syria altogether, US President Donald Trump’s administration has since committed to staying in eastern Syria with the aim of pressuring the Syrian government and its allies.

“If they continue to receive support from the US and their allies, the SDF will probably manage to control these areas for a long period of time,” concludes Dukhan.

Composing the majority of Raqqa province’s population, the Arab tribes of the region will likely play a key role in these future trajectories.

Al-Huwaidi’s assassination may not lead to all-out clash between the SDF and eastern Syria’s tribes. But it has left Raqqa resident and al-Afadleh tribe member Mohammad Othman, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from the SDF,  fearful of a situation that remains “very tense.”

“An uneasy calm hangs over Raqqa,” he says.

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