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Analysis: Division Defines Syria’s Tribes and Clans

Though all parties to the Syrian conflict have tried to take advantage of tribal identities, shifting loyalties and social changes often mean tribal kin are in conflict with each other, writes Syrian journalist Akil Hussain.

Written by Akil Hussain Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A member of the Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC), a coalition of Arab tribes and fighters that belongs to the broader US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, stands by the group's flag during an announcement in the town of Shadadi, south of Hassakeh. AYHAM AL-MOHAMMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Though between 60 and 70 percent of the Syrian population belongs to a clan or tribe, according to pre-2011 estimates, the enormous transformations that Syrian society has undergone in the past seven years have diminished the influence which clans and clan culture have on private and public life.

As the conflict intensified, however, all parties saw an opportunity in reviving these identities, hoping to secure support from areas with the largest clan presence.

Upper Mesopotamia (northeastern Syria) contains a significant tribal presence. The largest tribe in the area is Jubur, followed by Tayy, Bakara, Anazzah, Shammar and others. Since the beginning of the revolution, these tribes have been divided between regime loyalists and opponents, including the self-administration declared by the Kurds. The most prominent Arab tribes in the area that joined the Kurds are the al-Sanadid Forces, led by a sheikh of the Shammar tribe.

Yet in the south, all of the attempts to build another similar force have failed (with the exception of the ongoing Army of Free Tribes initiative backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which is active in the area of Lajat, where the Bedouin identity is still preserved to a large extent, as opposed to neighboring Hauran and the Golan). Indeed, clan and tribal identity in these areas has all but faded away, despite the fact that the main center of the al-Naim tribe, one of the largest Syrian tribes, is located in the south. This is largely due to the expansiveness of this tribe. This tribal weakening has led to the increased prominence of major families, according to an analysis by journalist Muid Abu-Zaid, from the province of Daraa.

In the Syrian desert, the dominant tribes are Mawali and Hadidiyin, in addition to the Bani Khalid and al-Sakhana clans, whose leaderships have been split in their loyalty since 2011. The splits have occurred along the lines of their prior relationships with the regime. Meanwhile, the majority of the public has remained neutral, due to the lack of any real involvement on the part of these leaders since the beginning of the military conflict in the area.

As Upper Mesopotamia changed hands between the regime, the opposition and ISIS, it is only natural that clan members in the area made displays of loyalty to the side that controls their land. The loyalty of clan members has thus repeatedly changed from one side to another, and battles have even been fought between members of the same clan, which would have been previously unimaginable.

This fluidity in loyalties is another characteristic considered by many researches to be a part of clan culture. Many examples can be found in support of this perspective in the area of the Euphrates (Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and the southeastern Aleppo countryside), where the most famous tribes are Akidat, Qays and Bakara, and the most important clans are Dulaim, Shaitat, Albu Saraya, Albu Chabur, al-Boleel, al-Namis, al-Butush and al-Asasna.

At the beginning of the revolution, most of the members of clans in the Euphrates region rose up against the regime, except for the province of Raqqa, where huge protests broke out in Deir Ezzor and the eastern Aleppo countryside, before many young men in the area joined the Free Syrian Army. Yet, as expected, most clan elders in the area sided with the regime due to the privileges that they had previously received from it.

Subsequently, when ISIS gained control of the area, many fighters, elders and clans who had not left joined the organization. This was before some of them joined the Kurdish self-administration – such as the Deir Ezzor Military Council, and Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa before it – whereas others returned to the ranks of the regime, the most prominent figures being the sheikh of the Bakara clan and the ex-opposition fighter Nawaf al-Bashir.

For their part, the pro-opposition clan groupings expelled from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, such as the Revolutionary Commando Army and Thuwar al-Sharqiyya, continued their activity in the neighboring areas, such as the Syrian desert and the Euphrates area in northeastern Aleppo. Others maintained their loyalty to Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham.

For seven years, the revolution caused a storm to tear through Arab clan society, the vast majority of which are followers of Sunni Islam. At the same time, it represented an opportunity for clans of other ethnicities and religions, such as Kurdish, Turkmen, Alawite, Druze and Christian clans, to bring back their presence into the public sphere.

Due to common threats or new sources of support, these clans came alive again, with the Kurds receiving support from the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and Turkmen being supported by Turkey. Ankara today is working to assemble a large bloc of pro-opposition clans into a unified group that can be relied upon as an active ally.

Against this backdrop, the General Conference of the Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans was held in Istanbul on 10-12 December 2017, followed by two conferences of the representatives of internal opposition clans in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib a few days thereafter.

Not many are optimistic about the likelihood of Turkey gaining much from these efforts, unless it succeeds in finding solutions for the traditional competition and sensitivities that govern the relationships between these clans – and even within them. Amid this Turkish-backed initiative, tribal fighters led ongoing battles in the eastern countryside of Hama. During these battles fighters from the Mawali tribe and the Heeb clan, the backbone of the clan forces fighting for the regime in the area, confronted opposition fighters, including those belonging to the same tribe or clan.

This article was originally published by Chatham House and is reprinted here with permission.

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