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Tribal violence haunts northeastern Syria

The de facto authorities controlling northeastern Syria stand idly by as tribal violence escalates, leading to casualties and tension in the area.
A member of the border guard force loyal to the Syrian Democratic Forces looks from a position in the countryside near the town of al-Hol at construction work on a concrete border fence erected on the Iraqi side, Hasakah province, Syria, March 29, 2022.

Tribal clashes in northeastern Syria have been on the rise since the beginning of 2022 as a result of disputes and acts of revenge witnessed in the cities and towns where Arab tribes are widespread in the governorates of Hasakah, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

According to data collected and published April 28 by SyriaTV, a pro-opposition Syrian television network based in Istanbul, Hasakah province ranked first in the number of deaths resulting from armed tribal clashes and acts of revenge, with 12 people killed in total since the start of 2022.

Casualties were reported in the cities of Qamishli, Amuda, Markada and Hasakah.

Deir ez-Zor province ranked second, with six people killed in separate incidents during the same period.

As for Raqqa province, two cases of murder have been recorded since early 2022, the first under the pretext of revenge, and the second as a result of an armed clash that erupted between two families in a popular market.

The Eye of Euphrates Network, which covers developments in the eastern region of Syria, reported April 30 that four people were killed and seven wounded in less than 24 hours during fighting in Deir ez-Zor province. The fighting, as per the newspaper, erupted between two families in the town of Abu Hamam in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor on the grounds of an old dispute dating back to 2020.

Ibrahim al-Hussein, a journalist belonging to al-Shaitat clan who hails from Abu Hamam, told Al-Monitor that the high number of killings is either grounded in simple disputes that evolve due to the use of weapons, or on acts of revenge in the clan community.

Hussein said the recent bloody dispute in Abu Hamam came in revenge to the killing by unidentified gunmen of the sons of one of the two warring families back in 2020. 

He noted that the uncontrolled spread of weapons and drugs in the area lead to higher crime and murder rates and are yet another reason for clan conflicts. This situation, he continued, spreads fear among other families not involved in the fighting, leads to the killing of people unrelated to the disputes or to the blocking of public roads, with each warring side despoiling the property of the other.

Tribal clashes sometimes last for a few days and lead to a complete curfew in the area where violence is taking place, without the intervention of any third party to solve it. Such clashes, he added, also affect members of one of the two fighting clans who have nothing to do with the problem. 

Hussein said that active groups in various specializations have recently launched awareness campaigns in order to educate the members of the tribal community about the need to hold only the perpetrator of any crime or violation accountable, away from any kind of collective assaults that cause the killing of innocent individuals.

Clans and tribes in northeastern Syria are divided in their loyalties to several parties controlling areas and villages in northeastern Syria. On the one hand, Syrian government forces and allied Iranian militias and Russian forces control the areas west of the Euphrates and some areas in the Qamishli countryside, while the Syrian opposition forces supported by Turkey control the Ras al-Ain area north of Hasakah and Tell Abyad. 

The other areas, which include large parts of the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Hasakah and parts of Aleppo, are under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

In light of these divisions, the clans are either loyal to SDF forces, to the regime or to the Syrian opposition.

As clashes among the divided tribes escalate, the controlling forces, namely the SDF that controls the largest part of northeastern Syria, have remained neutral without intervening to end the tribal violence. 

Anas al-Shawakh, political researcher specializing in the affairs of the eastern Euphrates area at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor that clans were previously considered a competing and alternative ruling system for the Syrian authorities. The Syrian authorities would sit idly by whenever tribal clashes erupted in order to achieve gains once the clash came to an end, he said.

He noted that the situation is no different today for the de facto authorities, especially in the areas under the control of the SDF, which consider the tribes a competing candidate in the areas where Arab tribes are widespread. The constant tension between the clans creates a suitable ground for the SDF to establish their control in the region.

Shawakh said that the SDF forces are also working on attracting loyal clans by allowing them to play a major role and supporting them both socially and financially. They even released a large number of Islamic State members through clan mediation, without any trials, to boost the role of the sheikhdom before the clan members.

He added that with the increasing disputes resulting from the lack of a legitimate local authority capable of protecting its citizens, people have been referring to clans to solve their disputes, which they believe provides them with some kind of protection and safeguards their rights. However, Shawakh believes that the clan system results in continuous conflict situations.

Despite the divisions plaguing tribal sheikhdoms, the multiplicity of their loyalties and their low influence on their members who are spread in different parts of Syria, Mudar Hammad al-Assaad, spokesman for the Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans, told Al-Monitor that he is counting on tribal elders, dignitaries and clan members in northeastern Syria to calm the situation, resolve conflicts and promote civil peace in areas under the control of the Syrian regime and the SDF forces, especially with the recent increase in tribal clashes.

He asserted that his council is in constant contact with the elders in those areas.

Assaad said that the lack of confidence in the official courts and judiciary amid nepotism exacerbated clan problems, leading individuals to restore their rights in any way possible.

This, according to Assaad, is also due to the decline in the clan’s role and the division plaguing its elders after the government forces and SDF forces appointed elders who fit their interests, exploited the violence and created divisions within the tribal community, all the while providing tribes with weapons, support and financial resources, which negatively affects Syrian clans and tribes.

Muhammad al-Sukari, researcher on Syrian affairs based in Gaziantep, attributed the tribal clashes to the corruption of the authorities in Syria and said that these exploit the tribal strife to strengthen their control over Syrian society.

He told Al-Monitor that the permanent fighting among tribal members is the product of the system that was prevailing before the revolution and that was reinforced after the revolution due to chaos. Sukari believes that there is great division within the Syrian clans due to the state of political polarization between the opposition, the Syrian regime and the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

He said that there are at least three tribal councils affiliated with these forces and that each clan is represented in these councils, with each party claiming to be the legitimate representative of the clan. With time, he added, this will undoubtedly lead to the elimination of the clans’ customs and traditions, at the expense of political positions. However, he clarified, this does not infer that clans in Syria will lose their importance.

Sukari concluded by saying that there are attempts at preserving the composition of the tribal community, without clashing with it, to prevent interference in the tribes’ internal customs so long as these do not harm the public interest. This, he said, brings to mind the understandings that took place between the Syrian clans and the regime about special tribal customs continuing to prevail in return for a continuous security dominance by the regime.