Tribalism and the Syrian Crisis

The resurgence of tribes and clans has been an outcome of the Syrian crisis, explains Tareq al-Abd.

al-monitor Syrian refugees and local residents carry the bodies of Syrian refugees during their funeral in Ramtha Jan. 17, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Majed Jaber.

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tribalism, syrian crisis, syrian

Jan 18, 2013

Prominent tribal figures have become omnipresent in Syrian opposition meetings, at a time when the regime is also hosting meeting after meeting for these same leaders. All of this is transpiring amid fears that societal unity will once again become fragmented, opening the door to tribal clashes in the worst possible scenario that could face Syria.

Tribal influence has returned to the forefront of the country’s political scene. Although their presence on the ground fluctuates between weak in some areas to effective in others, the impression is that Syrian society still longs for the old days of tribal friction and polarization, despite the fact that cohesion between some of them has played a positive role in avoiding disputes. As a result, there is a new drive to monitor the country’s tribal communities, their influence and relationship with the regime, be they for or against the current government.

Syrian tribes

The Syrian tribes are spread throughout all the regions of the country, from the extreme northeast in the plains of al-Jazira and the Euphrates river valley, all the way to the Badiya desert, Homs, Hama and the Damascus countryside, as well as the southern regions of Hauran and Jabal al-Druze. All these tribes are interconnected and have relationships with neighboring countries, especially Iraq and Jordan, with some tribes even claiming ties in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, many inhabitants of Mount Lebanon still retain a strong connection to their places of origin in southern Syria and maintain good relations with their relatives there, while others have Turkish ancestry, such as the Abazaid clan in Daraa.

Some tribes express pride in their ancient Arab lineage, as is the case with Bani al-Marouf in the Jabal al-Druze and most tribes of the Hauran area, from which a great number of clans descend such as Mekdad, Abazaid and Naim in addition to Msalmeh, Zahbi, Hariri and Rifai. The Mekdad clan, for example, traces its lineage to al-Mekdad bin al-Aswad, and considers itself nobility because one of its ancestors was a captain in the Ottoman Empire.

This tribe’s elders still possess letters sent by Sultan Abdul Hamid to captain Hussein al-Mekdad, and the clan is proud of its militant history, which goes back to the days of the Great Arab Revolt and its subsequent support of King Faisal following France’s mandate in Syria. The tribe also played a prominent role with Bani Marouf in Soueida, where Sultan Pasha al-Atrash launched the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, in which he relied on tribal solidarity. Tribes rose to defend one another, putting aside their old grievances and hostility.

This is what actually occurred when the French arrested many leaders from the region, subsequently exiling or executing them. This was the case with Adham Khanjar, whose death sparked the Syrian Revolt led by the Soueida and Daraa clans, from whence it spread to the remaining areas, until Hauran and more specifically the Balakhi clan took the reins after Sultan Pasha fled to Hijaz.

On another note, researchers and activists in Hauran see that southern culture is based more on family relations than on tribal allegiance, because tribes are composed of large numbers of people, whereas there are many families in the plains region that have tribal connections which cross borders but whose presence remains concentrated in areas specific to each one of them. This is accentuated by the region’s agrarian character, which greatly diminishes nomadic tendencies and expands the influence of the family’s elders, who solve internal problems, reconcile disputes between people or give aid to any distressed member of the expanded Haurani family.

Questions of who in the family was for or against the regime go unanswered in the Haurani community, out of which emerged many officials holding key positions in the modern Syrian state, such as Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, Prime Minister Wael al-Halaki, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad, Information Minister Omran al-Zahbi and former prime minister Mahmoud al-Zahbi. These men all rose to prominence in their capacity as citizens and not as members of a particular family or clan, which lends credence to the premise that Syrian society is cohesive, made all the more so by the region’s rural character, according to proponents of the “familial ties” theory, which they say is a trait that was maintained despite the advent of modernity to the area.

Tribalism, on the other hand. leads to destructive armed conflicts and never-ending feuds. The concept of tribal solidarity might be the only one that southern families took with them to the city, a concept that Hauran’s inhabitants point to when describing the uprising in the whole region against the regime. Everyone took to the streets without hesitation, before the Syrian crisis even erupted, to demonstrate and demand the release of some detained children. This solidarity also succeeded in thwarting any attempts to incite strife between them and their neighbors in the Jabal al-Druze, who reciprocated and snuffed out the flames of any possible conflict between themselves and the Hauranis.

According to activists in Soueida, society in the region is still divided between urbanization and nomadism. While the opinions of nomadic elders still carry weight, more urban areas also retain many of their original tribal customs and traditions. The area’s residents proudly maintain constant communication with their brothers in Mount Lebanon, the Druze leaders whom they greatly respect, particularly Walid Jumblatt and Wiam Wahhab. But opponents of this idea point out that Jumblatt’s calls for Syrian Druze to join the revolution has fallen on deaf ears, as did those of Wahhab for them to back the regime.

From Hauran and the Mountain we go to the country’s east, where many clans maintain close ties, from al-Hasakah to Riqa, Deir al-Zor and the Badiya desert all the way to the fringes of Aleppo and Homs. Some tribes even have ties with their counterparts in Iraq, especially those based around the Euphrates river. Prominent among these clans are the al-Jabbour, al-Obeid, al-Ouqeidat, al-Bakara, Anza, and Shamar, which came from Nejad and the Hijaz in the Arabian Gulf to settle in Iraq and the Jazira plains in Syria. These tribes played an important historical role in Syria, during both the French and the British occupations of Iraq and the northeastern part of Syria, and later during the Great Syrian Revolt. At that time, many important figures emerged, such as Fawwaz al-Shaalan in Syria, who acted as the mediator between King Abdulaziz and President Shukri al-Kuwatli or Ajil al-Yawer (the grandfather of former Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer, the first president to rule Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s fall).

The region’s inhabitants might be more prone to tribal fanaticism than their counterparts in the south. Tribal customs still prevail, especially in the countryside, which has begun to urbanize, but which still abides by many tribal concepts. This is mainly due to wide-ranging marginalization seen throughout the area, while cities seem to be in a much better state. The influence of tribal leaders there waned until is became nearly nonexistent, due to two main factors: first, the large number of different tribes, and second, the urbanization of younger generations.

Activists claim that this is why clans failed to join the revolution or back the regime in Deir al-Zor. Individuals on their own decided to join the large demonstrations that took to the streets in many parts of the region, without any intervention from tribal elders. Thus, it is very normal for members of the same clan to be divided between supporters of the regime, serving in the regular army, and opponents serving in the “Free Army,” without causing any tension within the clan. But if problems did arise, they remain confined to the families of the particular supporter or opponent without spreading to the rest of the tribe.

The regime or the opposition: Who will win the clans?

It wasn’t until the crisis was in its fourth month that anyone in the regime or the opposition considered playing on tribal sensitivities to mobilize clans in their favor. This occurred after organizers held demonstrations on what came to be known as the “Friday of the clans.” As a result, a concerted large-scale campaign was initiated to win over the clans and provoke them into bearing arms against the regime, which, in turn, strove to reinvigorate tribalism and set about organizing meetings with tribal elders, mobilizing them through the media in an attempt to portray the clans as pro regime. In parallel, a tribal presence was now mandatory at all opposition meetings. Yet neither of the two combatant parties realized the gravity of their attempts to reinvigorate tribal allegiances and feelings, which risked leading the country to perdition, according to local activists, who supposed that the opposition’s behavior aimed at forcing a repeat of the tribal crisis and its reliance upon the clans was but a “farce” that would only lead to horrors.

The desire of the opposition abroad was to reignite fanatic tribalism that would lead to tribal solidarity and armed rebellion. That same opposition also hoped that clan members would defect from governmental ranks and lead an armed revolt that would topple the regime. This scenario never materialized, for the “solidarity” that occurred in Hauran and spread to the rest of the country was the result of individual more than tribal efforts, as was the case for military defections, which were in no way motivated by tribalism, sectarianism or regional allegiances.

The foremost danger lies in the formation of armed militias by clans to fight against other clans based on their support for or opposition to the regime, which would surely lead the country into civil war. But if this was exactly the opposition’s aim, then what is the regime’s aim in mobilizing tribes?

An activist in Hasakah, viewed as the perfect example of a tribal society, replied that the regime had intentionally let tribal elders rule those areas since the 1970s in return for absolute allegiance. Some of those elders even became members of the People’s Council representing their districts as a reward for that allegiance. This model’s effectiveness was proven later on when Saddam Hussein’s regime tried to woo the tribes in the Jazira and instigate them to revolt against President Hafez Al-Assad, but failed. Its effectiveness was again shown when members of the clans formed a formidable bloc inside the armed forces, a development that the regime felt very comfortable with, to the point of conducting several meetings with tribal elders aimed at expanding their influence in order to quell any potential protest movements.

But this model seemed to lose its effectiveness this time around in most areas. For despite the presence of many clans completely loyal to the regime, especially in rural Aleppo, Riqa and Hasakah, their influence remains limited when compared to the larger clans whose elders have completely lost any authority over the young clansmen. They have also lost their influence over the clans that have abandoned tribalism in favor of agrarianism, therefore succeeding in sparing themselves from any tribal conflict. The end result is a society that seems bent on trying to avoid any disintegration of its cohesiveness, regardless of political, tribal or sectarian considerations. As such, it is a true rarity in the midst of this conflict, and represents the only common goal over which both supporters and opponents of the regime agree: preventing the revival of tribalism.

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