REYHANLI, Turkey — “It was a blessing that the crops were so high at the time,” Abu Ali Othman from the Shaitat tribe in eastern Syria told Al-Monitor in early July 2015.
There has been very little international coverage of the mass killing of his fellow tribesmen at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) a year ago, when as many as a thousand were slaughtered following an insurrection.
A US Delta Force raid that killed Abu Sayyaf — a senior figure in IS’ illicit oil and gas activities, key financier and Tunisian national — in mid-May 2015 in eastern Syria briefly spotlighted the area near the valuable Al-Omar oilfields, but little attention has been given to the tribes therein.
A number of the Shaitat tribe’s members who managed to escape told Al-Monitor in a series of meetings in the border area and Istanbul that they had tried to facilitate better-targeted airstrikes. By conveying the exact geographical coordinates and other information to the coalition on key IS military sites, they said, they had hoped that greater progress could be made.
Now, they said, negotiations are underway for civilians to be allowed back to their homes, given a paucity of other choices and a seeming inability or unwillingness on the part of the international coalition to take timely measures to defeat the jihadist group.
Had it not been summer, the death toll among his tribe after it rose up against IS in August 2014 would have been considerably higher, Othman said. Many of the men had hidden in the tall crops of the fertile Euphrates River Valley surrounded by desert for 20 days or more prior to escaping using a variety of subterfuges.
The Shaitat tribe is believed to count anywhere between 70,000 and 150,000 members. Most of them live in Deir ez-Zor province’s Abu Hamam district, commonly referred to among Syrians simply by the name of the tribe itself.
Between 800 and 1,000 people, mostly men, are thought to have been killed early August 2014 in retaliation for an anti-IS uprising. The revolt was conducted mainly by civilians after various rebel groups including local Jabhat al-Nusra fighters had withdrawn the month before, Othman said.
Abu Ramadan, who like many prefers to be called by a nom de guerre for security reasons, is another member of the tribe who worked in humanitarian services in the province and escaped in the same period. He told Al-Monitor that he had repeatedly urged the international coalition to conduct airstrikes on his tribal homeland.
“After the tribal uprising and the ensuing massacre, Abu Hamam has been used as a ‘closed military zone’ for IS with only foreigners and Shaitat members that have joined the ranks of IS fighters,” he said. He claims that there are no civilians currently in the area.
However, negotiations are underway between the tribe and IS for mostly women and children whose male relatives have escaped or been killed to be allowed to return to their homes, he said. In the overcrowded surrounding towns, there are rumors that they will be allowed back into the Abu Hamam district in the coming months.
In nearby Kishkiyeh and Granij, he said, the population was allowed to return some months after the massacre. They came home to find hundreds of bodies in a mass grave. Those in Abu Hamam, however, known for their intractability and rebelliousness, have not, he told Al-Monitor.
Abu Ramadan told Al-Monitor he had repeatedly conveyed information to the international coalition so that even his own home could be targeted. He says it has become a nerve center for IS military activities.
He was unable to get his two wives and seven children out of the area until June, after they spent almost a year staying with relatives in a town close to Abu Hamam.
He said that he had made the decision for his family to risk the journey after his 6-year-old started imitating IS fighters, putting a knife to his 6-month-old brother’s throat.
Al-Monitor spoke to one of his wives in Reyhanli, near the Turkish-Syrian border, where she and his other 18-year-old wife as well as their children managed to escape.
She said that she had hid the children as much as possible rather than have them go to IS schools for the past year. For more than two years prior to the extremist group’s arrival they had not attended classes, either, after it became clear that the Syrian regime was targeting educational facilities in opposition-held areas. The woman’s 10-year-old daughter can neither read nor write as a result.
The women wore brightly colored scarves and clothing in the meeting with Al-Monitor. They said that though some women from the area had worn niqabs even prior to the arrival of IS, most had not, and that girls as young as 3 were prohibited by the transnational jihadist group from leaving their arms above the elbow uncovered.
Abu Saleh, the leader of the area's Jaafar al-Tayyar rebel group — which had fought IS for over half a year prior to agreeing to leave in July 2014 after IS pledged to leave civilians alone and only set up checkpoints — told Al-Monitor, “In six months, everyone there will be IS.”
The commander was among those involved in negotiating with IS prior to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pullout in July 2014, a move he said was due to a lack of weapons and other supplies as well as the takeover of Mosul the previous month and subsequent IS transfer of major weaponry to the area. He said, “They will not only be afraid of IS; they will support it.”
Since leaving the area, Abu Saleh’s group has been working in other parts of rebel-held areas despite a lack of funding, he said. Some of his men were involved in the taking of Tell Abyad alongside other FSA members that he claims were there to calm the Arab-majority population, given their distrust of the Kurdish groups leading the offensive.
“But there was no real fighting there," he noted, adding that in the border town that received a great deal of media attention when it was retaken last month, IS “simply withdrew.”
Abu Saleh implied that there was some sort of conspiracy behind the lack of progress against IS in the eastern regions, a common accusation among those from the area, and expressed perplexity as to why the Kurdish militias enjoyed such strong support from the West but the mostly Sunni Arab rebel groups did not.
Even though the international coalition know where the targets are, airstrikes often hit close to the spot indicated, if at all, he told Al-Monitor with evident frustration, noting that some locals convey exact geographic coordinates at great risk to themselves.
“We fought for seven months with no outside help before IS took our homes," he said. “We just want the international community to be honest with us about their intentions.”