One of the most understudied aspects of the Syrian conflict may be the role of the bedouin communities. Al-Badou, a word linguistically related to Badiya, or desert, has historically referred to tribally-organized and livestock-herding Arab communities descended from the ancient tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. While the wandering bedouins of old have mostly been consigned to history, or at least to the social and geographic periphery, their cultural heritage lingers. Kinship ties through tribe, clan, and family still matter greatly in many of Syria’s Sunni Arab rural areas and recently urbanized communities.1

Bedouin or bedouin-descended populations dominate the sparsely inhabited desert that stretches from Homs, Hama, and the Qalamoun region in the west to Palmyra, Raqqa, Hasakah, Deir Ezzor, and the Iraqi border in the east. Tribal communities are also well established in the Aleppo countryside in the north, in parts of the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus, and in the southern Houran region, as well as in cities throughout Syria, to which rural populations have migrated in search of jobs and education over the past few decades.

Incidentally, nearly all of these regions have become prominent battleground areas in the current war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Syrians with tribal backgrounds featured very prominently among the early demonstration leaders, armed rebels, and military defectors in 2011 and 2012, and by all accounts they remain disproportionately well represented in today’s insurgency. But President Assad has also played the tribal card, recruiting select bedouin groups into his armed forces and appointing tribal sheikhs to positions of influence in the government.

Professor Dawn Chatty is the former director of the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford. An internationally recognized expert on the subject, she has studied Arab bedouin culture and tribalism for decades, with much of her work focused on Syria and Lebanon. She has kindly agreed to talk to Syria in Crisis about these subjects, to help us gain a better understanding of the role tribes and tribalism play in the Syrian conflict

Professor Chatty, could you give us a brief historical background of Syria’s bedouin communities?

As you know, Syria is about 80 percent arid land. The desert regions are called the Badiya. Then there is the Maamoura, which are the semi-arid belts between the agricultural regions and the deserts, where you can graze herds of sheep and goats. Sheep and goat herding has been going on in those areas for at least a couple of millennia.

We know from modern sources, including reports put together by the German diplomat-spy Max von Oppenheim in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that the herders included some very important tribal groups. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Ottoman Empire brought stronger government to the Middle East and many of those tribes began paying tribute to Ottoman governors based in the major cities, like Aleppo and Damascus.

The Ottomans left it at that and things didn’t really change until the end of the seventeenth century, or in the eighteenth century, when another group of tribes moved north from the Arabian Peninsula. No one knows exactly why this happened, but the likely reasons include a major plague and the rise of the Wahhabi movement in today’s Saudi Arabia. The new arrivals largely belonged to two big tribal confederations, the Shammar and the Aneza. Most of the Shammar crossed over the Euphrates and although they do play a role in northeastern Syria, they have historically been more prominent in Iraq. The Aneza tribal confederation, which I will focus on here, instead spread out in the Syrian Badiya. It includes tribes like the Hassana, the Ruwalla, the Ageidat, the Fedaan, and the Sbaa. Many of these tribes, from both the Aneza and Shammar confederations, have preserved strong ties to the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudi royal family is in fact descended from the Hassana and they have kept this connection alive by marrying into each others’ lineages. The same thing goes for the Ruwalla, who have married into the House of Saud more than once.

Anyway, it took about a hundred years for the camel-herding Aneza and Shammar tribes to displace the sheep-herding tribes and push them closer to the cities. The camel-herding groups typically ended up being more powerful and independent of the Ottoman authorities in the cities, so they were known as the “noble” tribes. The Arabic word is asil. The sheep-herding tribes that lived on the periphery of the cities and had agreed to pay taxes to the Ottoman governors were classified as non-asil or “common” tribes.

The arrival of the asil tribes created a security threat for the Ottomans, who now had to negotiate deals with them in order to protect trade routes and the pilgrimage to Mecca. For example, the Ruwalla got lots of money to protect pilgrims passing through their areas. 

How did these tribes cope with French rule and with Syria as an independent republic?

The French ruled Syria from 1920 to 1946. They were determined to pacify the tribes, not only because they took part in nationalist uprisings like the one in 1925–1927, but also because they constantly fought against each other and made it difficult to develop the country. The last major tribal war took place in the mid-1950s between two non-asil tribes, the Hadidiyin and the Mawali, during which they tore up Syria’s railway lines.

The French tried to deal pragmatically with the tribes. They kept some of the agreements from the Ottoman era and adjusted others. Huge tracts of land were registered in the names of big tribal leaders, after tribes had acquired these territories under Ottoman rule, so now they moved into the role of landowners. There were also special laws and rules for tribes. For example, the nomads—which included most of the asil tribes at the time—were allowed to bear firearms, although it was understood that they would not bring their guns into the cities. The French also set aside nine seats in the Syrian parliament for representatives of certain powerful tribes. Some tribes also continued to extract resources from the authorities in the same way as before, by agreeing to keep their areas stable and secure, in return for which the French paid subsidies to the tribal sheikhs. The Ruwalla, for example, negotiated a deal to protect the Syrian stretch of the Tapline, a now-defunct oil pipeline that ran from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

After independence in 1946, the power of the tribes began to wane. The nine tribal seats in parliament were reduced to six, at the time when Syria adopted its 1950 constitution. Of these six seats, four were reserved for specific tribes: two Aleppo mandates were assigned to sheikhs of the Mawali and Hadidiyin, a leader of the Shammar confederation from the Jazira region in the northeast got one seat, and a Damascus mandate was reserved for the Hassana.

When then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of Syria, during the 1958–1961 merger of Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic (UAR), all special laws for tribes were abolished. The only tribal privilege that survived the UAR was the parliamentary quota.

In 1963, the Baath Party seized power in Syria and decided to launch a big land reform. The tribal leaders lost their holdings and much of the land was distributed to poorer bedouin families in small parcels, as a way of trying to get them to settle and abandon nomadism in favor of agriculture.

The first twenty or thirty years of Baath Party rule were quite dramatic for the bedouins. A lot of the old leadership was basically lost, since tribal sheikhs could no longer afford to generously distribute gifts and patronage in the way expected of them. The relationship between members of a tribe and its sheikhs was transformed from one of political authority to one of moral authority. This meant that only tribal leaders with personal charisma and a sense of right and wrong and knowledge of tribal laws were able to maintain influence as leaders.

The Hassana tribe in the Homs region is a prime example. In 1946, its leader, Trad al-Milhem, was succeeded by his son Tamer, who died in 1998. Tamer’s oldest son, also named Trad, had been killed in an unfortunate shoot-out in 1979. The Hassana leadership therefore moved to one of his younger sons, Abd al-Ilah al-Milhem, who had that right kind of charisma to take over the leadership. Nowadays, people do not even say to you that they’re a Milhem or a Hassana member, they will say that they follow Abd al-Ilah. That’s very typical. Ruwallas will tell you they follow the Shaalan family, which is where the leadership lies now, not that they are members of the Ruwalla tribe.

So what do tribal ties mean in Syria today?

What I’m looking at is the segmentary lineage ideal, which is essentially a blood relationship up to the fifth generation—a social link through which you stay connected to the descendants of your grandfather’s grandfather. Tribal genealogies beyond that point tend to be fictive, because people swap and change to reflect current political allegiances. But kinship ties and charismatic leadership within this extended family are still extremely important for these communities.

At the same time, terminology and identities have changed a lot and words have different meanings to different people. When bedouins speak of their own origins, they’re proud to self-identify as a bedouin—but when other Arabs use the word, it’s very often in a pejorative sense.  

In Lebanon, many I spoke to wanted to be called ashairi, from the word ashira, which means a bigger tribe, whereas qabila was used to mean a confederation of smaller tribes. Some wanted to be called arab. But in Syria, when you call someone arab, it means the bedouins who are very poor and do seasonal work in agriculture for a living. When I went from Lebanon to Damascus to ask bedouin friends what I should call them—you know, whether they preferred ashairi or arab—they said, “No, no, no, we’re bedouins!” So, the terms have changed and so have people’s identities.

How many bedouins are there in Syria today and is there still real nomadism?

I think maybe 12–15 percent of the total population, but it depends on what you mean by that. Some have stopped self-identifying as bedouins although they preserve some version of the social structure. Many of the people who still self-identify as bedouins are settled in cities. Even though they may have a few sheep, they are no longer economically dependent on herding livestock.

Nomadism exists, although I prefer the term mobile herding. The exclusively nomadic lifestyle is very rare now. Almost all self-identified bedouins have a home somewhere, if only for the winter. Others are fully settled but still keep livestock and hire herders to move their animals in spring, and there’s definitely a cultural attachment to herding.

I’d say maybe 20 percent of the people who self-identify as bedouins are actually herding large enough numbers of livestock to create a viable income—this was before the war, of course. Perhaps another 50 percent kept some sheep around their home or allowed them to be group herded. For example, a group of brothers could hire someone to move a flock that belongs to seven or eight different people. 
The Baath Party is formally opposed to tribalism and nomadism, but Syria’s rulers have often turned out to be quite pragmatic when ideology clashes with social reality. How have Hafez and Bashar al-Assad dealt with the bedouin communities? 

Many bedouins were forced to settle in the 1960s, during the period of major land reforms under the Baath Party. That was before Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, but it continued through the early years of his reign. 

For the next couple of decades, Syrians from these communities wouldn’t identify publicly as bedouins, but of course their social origins had not changed. Many moved into the cities and took up new ways of life. So you had bedouins from the villages around Salamiya east of Homs, for example, who moved to Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, ending up in particular districts. The Baba Amr district in the southern suburbs of Homs City was one such place. It was largely populated by people who self-identified as tribesmen belonging to the Hassana or the Mawali.

For a long time the Syrian government wasn’t interested in or concerned with the bedouins. In the 1970s and early 1980s, I was allowed to work with the bedouins in Syria because they were not seen as a threat to the government, while some of my friends who wanted to study urban change or demographic issues—anything that smacked of politics—were denied permission. I was even able to book flights with military aircraft to go to Palmyra and meet with the heads of the big tribes. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that the fortified area I saw there was the infamous prison of Palmyra.

In the late 1990s, I was told by the minister of health in Syria at the time, Dr Eyad Chatty, that about one million or 4–5 percent of the population were bedouins. But then in the mid-2000s, his successor, Dr Maher Husami, actually told me there were no longer any bedouins at all in Syria. However, I also spoke to tribal leaders who I knew well, mainly around Salamiya east of Homs and in Damascus. They all agreed that a lot of Syrian bedouins had stopped self-identifying as such in the first decades of Baath Party rule, but then from the mid-1980s, self-identification as bedouin had started to grow more common again. That was at a time when Hafez al-Assad was trying to encourage Syrians from bedouin backgrounds who had moved to Jordan or Saudi Arabia to come back and invest in the economy. He was also trying to gather all Syrian minority communities under his umbrella and he looked at the bedouins as essentially a minority although they are ethnically and religiously Sunni Arabs, as is two-thirds of Syria’s total population.

If you look at the representation in parliament, there had always been the quota for bedouins. Six seats were set aside for representatives of particular tribes, which meant that around 3 percent of parliament was of bedouin origin. But what we saw happening during the later years of Assad family rule was that there were more and more representatives elected beyond those six, including from other tribes. In the 2010 elections, around 12 percent of the parliamentarians self-identified as being of bedouin origin. 

At the turn of the century, when Bashar al-Assad took over, the government began to encourage some of the so-called common tribes to take a more active role in the Baath Party. For example, by 2010, I had noticed that some of the leaders of the Mawali and Hadidiyin tribes were becoming very wealthy. These tribes were also present in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon during the years of Syria’s occupation of that region, and some of their leaders profited from that. Now they were using their wealth to transition into the Baath Party. 

How would you describe the role of the bedouin communities during the current conflict?

You have some tribes that are with the government and some that are with the opposition. Some government officials are recruited on the basis of their tribal support. The current minister of defense, General Fahd Jassim al-Freij, is a member of the Hadidiyin from the Hama region, and there are several other officials like him in the Baath Party, army, and parliament. On the other hand, I think much of the early armed uprising in Daraa, Homs, Deir Ezzor, and other places was a result of local tribesmen seeking to protect their neighborhoods. They either had weapons already or got access to them through their contacts abroad. 

Generally speaking many of the asil tribes in the Aneza confederation seem to lean to the opposition, although there are always exceptions to the rule. The common non-asil tribes are often split, because the government has for so long pitted different lineages against each other. Now you have rival groups within the same tribes that have chosen different sides in the uprising. It is never simple. Generally speaking, however, you can say that the Aneza tribes are historically close to the Saudi ruling family and have international networks that have made them less dependent on the Assad regime. Now that you have Saudi Arabia funding the opposition and sending weapons and so on, this has of course drawn many of them closer to the opposition.

Some tribal leaders moved into politics during the uprising. One example is Abd al-Ilah al-Milhem of the Hassana tribe in Homs. I mentioned earlier that he was a strong leader who had gathered Hassana members around him. In 2011, he was one of the first people to stand up in Homs and demand justice and rights. His allies set up a website and some of his cousins and others went to Saudi Arabia to seek aid and mobilize their relatives. He is an example of a modern tribal leader of a kind that has been very important in the uprising.

We’ve also seen tribal leaders set up organizations in Istanbul and in Jordan, where many Syrian refugees are from Daraa and come from a tribal background. Some prominent opposition leaders have also had a tribal background. Ahmad al-Jarba, for example, was the president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main exile leadership of the opposition, between July 2013 and July 2014. He is a tribal sheikh and a relative of one of the most important Shammar leaders in modern history, Ajil al-Yawar, whose grandson Ghazi al-Yawar was briefly president of Iraq during the U.S. occupation.

Nowadays, the tribal leaders in Syria seem to have retreated from overt opposition politics to some extent. You do not hear that much about them anymore. Even so, they are still very important in their communities and work really effectively at the local level. They run local committees that try to bring in humanitarian aid, organize the groups that pull people out of the rubble, and make sure that bakeries get flour. It is very inspiring but it’s hard to write about, because no one can go to these places and research them or report about it. But in some ways, I feel that they could be the glue to keep Syria together, when the day finally comes that Bashar al-Assad realizes he must sit down to negotiate.


Of course, tribalism also exists outside the Sunni Arab communities, prominently among Kurds as well as among religious minorities like the Alawites and Druze, but that’s for another article.