Tribal disputes heat up in Syrian desert

In light of the ongoing war in Syria, the Syrian desert is also part of the crisis given its geopolitical and economic importance.

al-monitor A man shepherds sheep as the sun rises over the semi-desert region of eastern Syria, Nov. 11, 2010.  Photo by REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

tribes, syrian conflict, oil and gas, jordan, iraqi border security, is, hasakah, desert

Jul 8, 2015

The Syrian Desert is an area of geographical conflict given its location at the center of the country, its extension to neighboring countries and the struggle over oil fields.

The cultural and tribal diversity and underground resources in the desert — extending over about half the surface of Syria — turned the battle fought on its territory into a multifaceted war.

The desert’s surface goes beyond the straight border lines as delimited by the Sykes-Picot agreement. It extends over 518,000 square kilometers [200,000 square miles], and includes Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

Within the borders of the Syrian state, the desert reaches several provinces. It extends over the northeastern part of the Daraa province and the south of the Hasakah province. The desert also borders the eastern part of Homs and makes up 76% of Damascus’ surface. The desert is located in the southeastern part of Aleppo, on the borders with Raqqa and Hama. In all of the desert areas, the local communities and human resources must be developed and the underground and agricultural wealth must be invested.

The Syrian desert is a vital extension of the tribes that are present in its three countries. Despite the fact that the Bedouin community is trying to cope with the borders of the state, the fanaticism of tribes still has a stronger influence than geography or the ruling authority. Al-Tay tribe of Hasakah extends to Mosul in northern Iraq, and the Shammar tribe has a historical extension that reaches to Saudi Arabia.

The tribes’ situation in Syria changed with the evolution of the crisis. First, the opposition tried to attract them when [Syria’s] coordination committees called the protest staged June 10, 2011, “The Friday of tribes.” [The committees’ move] aimed at mobilizing the tribes of Jazeera, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Aleppo’s countryside. Thus, the tribes were divided between supporters [of] and opposition [to the regime]. Some formed an opposition tribal council of Syria and others formed councils that held meetings in Damascus to assert loyalty to the Syrian state.

Tribes became even more divided with the entry of armed groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS). The Abu Jamel tribe pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra, while al-Bakir tribe pledged allegiance to IS. This division led to tribal fights, just like in the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zor province, where the Abu Jamel tribe raided the houses of al-Bakir tribe on the grounds that the latter was sheltering IS-affiliated members.

One of the reasons behind the tribes’ division was the attempt to control oil fields to benefit from them. The tribesmen would protect these oil fields and facilitate their sale to armed groups and the smuggling of their [oil] to neighboring countries. This is how IS controlled al-Omar oilfield, which includes a gas plant and a power generation station.

The fiercest confrontation occurred between IS and al-Shaitat tribe, which controlled 21 oil wells. After Mosul fell into the hands of IS, the road was open for it [IS] to better tighten the noose in the Deir ez-Zor countryside. The takfiris thus launched a bloody attack on al-Shaitat tribe.

The Syrian desert was part of the war on oil routes and fields. In 2010, the Ministry of Oil and the General Petroleum Corporation announced the development of seven regions for oil fields located in Raqqa by sending letters to global companies to increase productivity in these fields.

Syria has three basins that produce underground wealth. The first is the Syrian part of the Iraqi basin, which runs southeast of Turkey and reaches the Arabian Gulf. Karhouk, al-Sweidiya and Rmeilan oil fields constitute the northeastern part of the basin in Syria. The daily production of al-Sweidiya field reaches 116,000 barrels. The second basin is the Euphrates basin, whose estimated oil reserves reach 480 million cubic meters of producible gas. And the largest gas basin the country, Palmyra, constitutes a quarter of Syria’s area.

With this, the desert constitutes the main passageway for oil and gas export pipelines from different countries in the region. The suggested Arab gas pipeline to Europe passes through the desert, as well as Lebanon and Egypt. The oil pipeline path starts from the Kirkuk field in Iraq and reaches Baniyas Port in Syria.

In the conflict over Kirkuk’s oil, the Israeli occupation government is trying to open a line from Mosul to the Port of Haifa through Jordan. IS’ control of geographical sites between Iraq's Ramadi and Syria's Palmyra obstructs any project to transport oil between Iran, Iraq and Syria. This points to the ongoing war to control al-Shaer [gas] field in the eastern Homs countryside that constitutes an extension of the desert.

This conflict to control the desert has had an immediate influence on Syrian society’s identity and institutions. Armed groups targeted Syrian antiquities in Palmyra, destroying the most important sites in the desert. Moreover, the division and fights among tribes exclude them from the state structure.

In terms of gas and oil, the supply of Syrian citizens with oil derivatives plunged due to blocked transportation and communication, causing a crisis in terms of the supply of oil derivatives to houses and institutions. The economic sanctions that were imposed on the Syrian government also led to a drop in oil production and pushed companies to withdraw [their investments]. To add insult to injury, the armed groups smuggled crude oil and sold it for the lowest prices in the black market.

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