Tribal ‘Blood Ties’ and Syria’s Civil War – interview with Haian Dukhan
Based on bloodlines dating back centuries, tribal networks in Syria have long been influential on the ground, but their role in the civil war is often overlooked. Syria Deeply spoke with an expert on the issue to learn more about how tribal dynamics have factored into Syria’s civil war.
Bashar al-Assad’s neglect of Syria’s tribes was a significant contributing factor to the uprising in 2011, according to an expert on kinship groups across the country. Since the rebellion turned violent, these tribes have also had to adapt in the face of shifting loyalties.
“The tribal powers played a major role in supporting the uprising in its early days,” said Haian Dukhan, a Syrian academic pursuing a PhD on the relationship between Syria’s tribal networks and the state at St Andrew’s University in Scotland. “It was this group of people who came out in the early days of the uprising to protest against the Syrian government. »
Dukhan is the author of « Tribes and the Islamists in Modern Syria: A Short Introduction » and has contributed several analyses on the Syrian situation to the international affairs magazine Global Politics. He explained that from the 1916 Arab revolt against Ottoman rule to the 2011 uprising, Syria’s tribes have been influential players on the ground due to the strength and extended nature of their kinship networks.
Moreover – in a way similar to Iraq and Afghanistan post-U.S. invasion – as the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war, tribal affiliations in many areas made up for the absence of state structures. Some even created their own militias. Tribal leaders are continually courted by militant factions on the ground, the Islamic State among them, and by governments across the globe because of the command they hold over extended family networks across the country.
“Blood ties are powerful,” Dukhan said. Syria Deeply asked him about their role in the buildup to the uprising and in the five-year civil war.
Syria Deeply: Could please you give us an overview of Syria’s tribal network and the power they had on the ground before the uprising began in 2011?
Haian Dukhan: The Syrian community, especially in the rural areas, is composed of tribes. And when I say tribes, I’m talking about kinship connections. This is not something that’s restricted only to the Sunni Arabs. There is a tribal composition within the Kurdish, Alawite and Druze communities, as well. When it comes to the Alawites, their religious identity is stronger than their tribal identity. The same applies to Druze. As for the Kurds, their ethnic identity is stronger. So that means the strongest tribal identities lie within the Sunni Arab community, particularly in three parts of the country. You have al-Jazirah, which is to the northeast part of the country and includes parts of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh. Then you have al-Badiya, which is a semidesert that includes parts of Homs, Palmyra and Hama. The third region with a strong tribal presence is the province of Hauran, basically the countryside of Daraa, which includes areas dominated by three main Syrian tribes: al-Zaoubi, al-Hariri and al-Masalmeh.
What really matters to us is the period 1970–2000, in which Hafez al-Assad came to rule Syria. This is an important part of Syrian history when it comes to the tribes because he [Hafez al-Assad] realized the Alawites could not rule the country on their own. They are a minority of about 10 percent, and that’s why he created an alliance with the tribes who were marginalized and despised by the country’s urban population. So from 1970 to 2000 the tribes rose in power. It was not only the Alawites holding all the military and security positions, but also people who came from the Arab tribes.
Tribal leaders were given seats in the Syrian parliament, as well, and generally held about 8–10 percent of the seats. The tribal regions witnessed major developments, in terms of the opening of schools and hospitals. But the major shift came when Bashar al-Assad came to rule the country. He apparently did not understand how tribal dynamics work.
During Bashar al-Assad’s rule the tribal power bases started to contract. He started to rely more heavily on Alawites than on the tribes. During my research for my chapter on Bashar al-Assad’s relationships with Syria’s tribes, in many of my interviews, people from different tribes told me they had never benefited from the oil resources in their region. People from the coast replaced local oil workers. In other words, they were replaced by Alawites. Their areas were hit by the regional drought and the government never helped them in anyway. This drought led to the migration of nearly 800,000 people from the tribal regions in the eastern part of the country, like Raqqa, Hassakeh and the countryside of Homs, to the suburbs of the major cities. This led to the creation of new tribal areas in city suburbs, like al-Hajer al-Aswad in Damascus and Bab al-Amr in Homs. These areas are now largely occupied by people who came from the countryside, who moved along with their entire family and all their customs – they basically relocated entire communities. It was this group of people who came out in the early days of the uprising to protest against the Syrian government.
Syria Deeply: I know that in areas like Daraa, tribal dynamics played a crucial role in the beginning of the uprising. Could you explain how tribal powers played a part in the early days of the revolution?
Haian Dukhan: The tribal powers played a major role in supporting the uprising in its early days – although there are many young civil society activists who would say that tribal connections did not play any role. Let’s take the singer Abdel Naser Saroud as an example. He is from the countryside of Homs, in Bab al-Amr, and his songs played a major role in the uprising. In all of his songs about the uprising, he plays on the theme of al-nakhwa, which means « solidarity » in Arabic. He was trying to reach out and activate the role of the tribes, and did so by addressing tribes like Nuim, Fawaira, Aneza and Baggra.
Even in Daraa in the early days of the protests, part of the spark of the revolution was connected to tribal dynamics. Atef Najib, the head of political security at the time, mistreated a tribal delegation that went to visit him. In a tribal gesture, they had removed their headbands expecting him to respond positively, but instead, he turned and threw them in the dustbin. He humiliated them. And that’s why, later on, protestors in Daraa and across all of Syria began using the slogan al-mot wla al-mazaleh (« death over humiliation »).
Dignity is something very deeply rooted in the tribal community, and the Syrian government unfortunately forgot that. If Hafez al-Assad had still been in power, something like that would have never happened. Bashar al-Assad and his intelligence apparatus did not know how to deal with the tribes – in contrast to his father, who knew how the game had to be played.
Syria Deeply: How has that relationship played out throughout the crisis? What has the role of Syria’s tribal networks been in the civil war?
Haian Dukhan: Basically, a lot of these young people who came out in the early days of the uprising encouraged their tribal relatives in the countryside, and that’s why the uprising was stronger there than in the cities. Blood ties are powerful. During many of my interviews in the countryside, people said that in the early days of the uprising, they could go anywhere in the community and hide with relatives. Anyone trying to escape from security services would find open doors with tribal relatives willing to protect them. But in big cities like Damascus, no one would be willing to do that. The tribal ties aren’t there.
That’s on the domestic level, but there is also the regional level. The tribes in Syria are connected by blood to tribes in the Arab Gulf, places like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A lot of them have Saudi or Kuwaiti passports. There are large numbers of tribal youth working in the Gulf. These people were sending money to their relatives in Syria. And at certain stages, Saudia Arabia has clearly supported tribal leaders in Syria. For example, Ahmad al-Jarba, a prominent Syrian opposition leader who belongs to Shammar tribe, was supported by Saudi Arabia because the ruling tribe there, Aneza, has ties with the Shammar tribe. They are connected in terms of kinship.
Syria Deeply: What’s the relationship between the armed rebel factions and Syria’s tribal network?
Haian Dukhan: Many tribes have formed their own militias to fight against … well who they fight against largely depends on where they are located. You can’t make blanket statements in this case. In each region, connections play an important role. For example, in the northeastern part of the country, the Shammar tribe has a militia that is fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. In Deir Ezzor, the al-Bagharat tribe has announced its allegiance to ISIS, although its leader is based in Turkey and did not approve this allegiance. He has lost much of his power and prestige. This is a common phenomenon among many of Syria’s tribes. So now, you have Western countries trying to hold meetings with the tribal leaders to help them mobilize people to fight against ISIS – this is not possible. You still have kinship ties there, which is very important but it is also significant to note that many tribes have new, young leaders, who still believe in the importance of the tribes but have lost respect for their tribal leaders because many of the original leaders have been bribed by the government. Many tribal leaders have lost respect.
It all depends on geographic location. In Hassakeh, you have the Kurdish factor. In Deir Ezzor, you have the oil factor – which is huge. In the south, Jordan is playing on tribal dynamics and has a hand in the armed insurgency there.
Syria Deeply: How have tribal networks interacted with ISIS?
Dukhan: When ISIS came from Iraq, there was a large conflict between al-Nusra and ISIS in Hassakeh and in Deir Ezzor. Al-Nusra controlled large parts of Deir Ezzor; al-Nusra’s founder, Mohammad al-Jowlani, comes from Shuhail, a village in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. Shuhail has a history of sending hundreds, maybe thousands, of its people to fight with the insurgency in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and of course was encouraged to do so by the Syrian government. So when ISIS arrived, there was a tribal conflict as each group tried to ally with the same tribes against each other. In the end, it was ISIS who succeeded in mobilizing the largest number of tribes because they saw it (ISIS) as something that represented the project of a state. It would provide them with services like food, water and so on.
They are using the carrot, but they are also using the stick. We all know the story of the Sheitat clan. When it was in charge of the area, al-Nusra had given control of some of the oil fields to the tribes to invest in their relationship with them. But when ISIS came, they wanted to strip the Sheitat clan of its oil fields. The Sheitat clan refused to accept that and sided with al-Nusra. But when al-Nusra lost the territory, ISIS punished the Sheitat clan by killing 700 of their men and displaced people from their villages as well.
Later on, when ISIS took control of the large parts of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, they established what is called a Tribal Affairs Agency in Raqqa, whose role has been to get all tribal leaders to announce their allegiance to al-Baghdadi. They continually released photos and videos of tribal leaders in different parts of Syria declaring their loyalty to ISIS and to al-Baghdadi. A lot of tribal leaders did this out of fear, and to protect their people. By killing off the Sheitat clan, ISIS wanted to set an example to all the tribes in Syria: if you stand against us, we will wipe out your tribe.
However, at the same time we have to admit there are many tribal youth who are influenced by the Wahabi ideology. And this has to do with the fact that during Bashar al-Assad’s reign, the government entirely neglected the eastern side of the country. It left it out of all development efforts – and the Islamist ideology filled the vacuum. There are about 500–600,000 people from the eastern part of the country living and working in Saudi Arabia. During Bashar al-Assad’s rule, they brought the Salafist ideology from Saudi Arabia back to Syria, in the form of booklets, DVDs, the building of new mosques and so on. Instead of development money coming from the government, a large amount of money was coming from the Arab Gulf to build mosques to educate people in the Salafist ideology. And this made a large number of these young people more accepting of ISIS ideology when it came to the country. We have to admit that not all adopted the ISIS ideology out of fear. A large number of tribal youth who accepted ISIS ideology because they believe in it.
But then you have the third and most important factor, which is the Syrian government – having a common enemy. So when these young tribal youth went on to the streets to protest against the Syrian government, the government responded with violence and repression. It killed many of them, and then at a later stage, it bombed their cities. So when ISIS arrived – it was an ally of convenience against the government and against the Iranian militias. ISIS for them was something that helped them to fight against a common enemy – the Syrian government.
Syria Deeply: Would you agree that the tribal alliance with ISIS is not only a part of their stance against Assad, but also part of the widening sectarian split in the region?
Haian Dukhan: Yes, exactly. They see that Iran is supporting a sectarian regime in Damascus or in Baghdad. But there are many factors shaping the issues on which the tribes are forced to choose. They have to choose between the lesser of two or three evils. For example, when the Kurds managed to capture a large part of territory in the north, they took revenge against the tribes. They burned villages and displaced people, which is something that’s been documented by plenty of human rights organizations. So when some tribes see that the Kurds are burning tribal villages after they take control of them, a lot of them will decide to stick with ISIS because at least ISIS hasn’t done that to them.
They are stuck between the Kurds, the government and ISIS. But for many, ISIS is an alliance of convenience for the time being, until they see that there is a government in Damascus that is compassionate to their needs.
Syria Deeply: So that’s the key to it, a change in government in Damascus?
Dukhan: Yes. It’s very important. A large part of Syria’s tribal community is worried, especially now with the international campaign against ISIS, that the Syrian government will fill the vacuum. And that once it is back in control of the country, the government will take revenge on them. There have been many examples of the Syrian government capturing territory held by rebels and taking revenge against the civilians, arresting large numbers of their children, bombing the area without carrying about civilians … They are worried that if ISIS loses, the Syrian government will fill the vacuum and that it’s going to respond with revenge against them.