AMMAN: Residents of regime-held Suwayda province in Syria’s south are turning to centuries-old tribal practices to combat lawlessness, solve familial disputes and handle marriages in the absence of an effective civil authority, residents and local leaders on the ground tell Syria Direct.
Suwayda is Syria’s southernmost province, hemmed in between opposition-controlled Daraa province to the west and rebel-held Outer Damascus to the east. The Syrian government controls the majority of the province—which is just under twice the size of Rhode Island—as well as the highway connecting Suwayda and regime-held Damascus.
Pro-opposition media outlets and local news pages often report on lawlessness and crime in the Druze-majority province. In an effort to investigate further, Syria Direct spoke with nearly half a dozen sources on the ground in Suwayda—whose political leanings range from pro-opposition to self-described “neutrality”—all of whom describe a lack of centralized authority to maintain law and order in the province.
This absence of sulta—the Arabic word for “power” or “authority”—is leaving behind a power vacuum filled by leading families and tribal authorities.
“The regime is in control of Suwayda, but it is entirely absent when it comes to dealing with crime,” says 55-year-old Sheikh Abu Hilal Yusuf a-Sharani, a religious leader from Suwayda’s Druze community and self-described as politically neutral. Religious and social leaders have “lost faith in the government,” says a-Sharani.
The Druze are a religious sect native to Jabal al-Arab, a mountainous region in southern Syria. In 2010, the Druze comprised an estimated 90 percent of the province’s 375,000 residents, according to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy report from last year.
A storefront in Suwayda city in July 2017. Photo courtesy of Noura al-Basha.
Suwayda province today, although controlled almost entirely by the Syrian government, is in a state of lawlessness, says local civil affairs lawyer Thaer Matar. Kidnappings, robberies and petty crimes are common occurrences in the province. [For more on Syria Direct’s reporting about kidnappings in Suwayda, click here.]
“Without effective governance, it’s only natural that we’re seeing the resurgence of tribalism,” a-Sharani tells Syria Direct. “There is no other choice for us if government institutions are unable to carry out their duties.”
A centuries-old institution
Tribal courts, a term describing a network of sheikhs and community leaders who preside over civil affairs such as marriage and inheritance, as well as mediate familial disputes, provide an alternative for Suwayda residents unable—or unwilling—to approach government channels for assistance in civil and criminal affairs.
In Syria, tribal courts are not a new phenomenon, but rather a centuries-old institution for maintaining order that pre-dates the borders of modern Arab states. Still, there is no written, codified book of tribal laws, says Madar Hamad al-Isad, a Deir e-Zor native residing in Turkey and the official spokesperson for the Syrian Tribal Council, a pro-opposition committee comprised of tribal leaders across Syria.
“There are customs that have been known for hundreds of years,” al-Isad told Syria Direct in an interview about tribalism in Syria. “Tribal law is not written; rather it moves from judge to judge orally. In every tribe, there is someone picked to solve disputes and issue judgments.”
The practical application of tribal law varies regionally and is based on religious and social factors. In Suwayda, any resident can petition tribal authorities for rulings, regardless of religious background, Suwayda city notable and Druze sheikh Abu Talal Darwish told Syria Direct.
“Tribal courts have existed since society formed [here] in Jabal al-Arab,” said Darwish. “The tribal court is, as its name states, run by the sheikhs of tribes. Each family in Suwayda designates a notable figure to represent them.”
The primary role of tribal authorities in Suwayda is often not issuing edicts and rulings, but rather intervening in tribal conflicts to prevent bloodshed between large families, the sheikh said.
Notables from the community, religious leaders and tribal sheikhs act as interlocutors when familial disputes arise, said Darwish. After six years of civil war in Syria, rifts between major tribes in the country’s south have only worsened, he said.
Darwish pointed to a recent major case. Last August, 17-year-old Katherine Mazhar was kidnapped and murdered by members of a rival family in Suwayda. Shortly after her disappearance, a video surfaced on the internet that appeared to reveal the identities of three men who participated in the kidnapping.
In early September, the bodies of the three men were found near one of the main traffic circles in Suwayda city. All had been tied up and shot to death. Authorities discovered a note at the scene with the names of each man, along with a message warning all those who would “betray honor” that they would share the same fate. The note was signed “the Mazhar family.”
These murders “were not [the result of] tribal rulings—there were no judges or witnesses,” Darwish told Syria Direct. “The role of tribal leaders, in this case, was limited to pacifying the situation afterwards.”
Sheikhs and other tribal authorities dispatched mediators to both the Mazhar family and the families of the killed men—an attempt to ease tensions between the two families.
The initiative “was well-received,” said Darwish. “Two of the families issued a statement acquitting those who had killed their sons in order to preserve unity between the tribes of Suwayda.”
“This is what you might call a tribal ruling,” said the sheikh.
In recent years, one of the driving factors behind social and cultural shifts is mandatory military service within Assad’s forces, which thousands of young men seek to avoid for a variety of reasons that include undefined stretches in the army and deployment to the most dangerous frontlines in Syria. For young men looking for a way out, tribal law in Suwayda offers a possible substitute.
“There are tens of thousands of men who are wanted by the regime—who cannot even enter a government building” because they fear arrest for evading the army, a-Sharani told Syria Direct. “However, in tribal law there is a solution for this […] that doesn’t require any government oversight.”
In Suwayda’s tribal tradition, the bride and groom gather with a sheikh to sign a marriage contract—an agreement between both families setting a dowry and finalizing the marriage.
Once the contract is signed, the couple is culturally, socially and religiously married, allowing them to live together and start a family without violating Suwayda’s conservative social norms and without interacting with any government institution.
Samar Jamal is a newlywed who lives with his wife and young son in the western Suwayda countryside. Two years ago, Samar was serving in the Syrian Arab Army when he was injured by a landmine.
Military service is compulsory for Syrian men. After Samar’s injuries healed, he never returned to his post, and is currently wanted by the regime. If caught by the government, he could find himself arrested and later fighting on the frontlines against rebel forces.
“I couldn’t go to the courts to get married—I was too afraid of getting arrested,” Jamal told Syria Direct.
Jamal and his fiancée reached out to Druze sheikhs from his tribe, who married the couple according to the sect’s religious rites.
Today, Samar and his wife face a new issue: legally registering their son’s birth. To add their child to their civil registry, the couple must visit a regime-run court, where tribal marriages are not recognized. For Samar, the tribal solution was only partially effective.
Syrian Tribal Council spokesman and sheikh, Mudhar Hamad al-Isad, agrees.
“It’s not possible for civil law to be discarded entirely,” the tribal leader told Syria Direct. “Tribal customs are just a complement to it.”
“When there is cooperation between the government and tribal judges, we can fix most of the issues that are happening in rural areas, in desert regions and in cities,” said al-Isad. “This is why we hope that there can be cooperation between both parties.”
In Suwayda, such cooperation has yet to take place between local tribes at the government level, said local sheikh a-Sharani.
“The future of tribal rulings depends on whether or not the government continues to be absent when it comes to performing its duties,” he told Syria Direct.
“There is no other choice for us in Suwayda except to use tribal laws if government institutions are unable to carry out their responsibilities.”
Original reporting by Noura al-Basha and Samer al-Halabi. This interview is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.