With much of the world’s attention on western Syria, especially the fighting in Aleppo, there has been less interest in eastern Syria, much of whose population is of Arab tribal background.
There is an increasing view that the Syrian regime and Russia feel that the conflict in Syria can be won militarily. Their focus for now is on the major western population centers stretching from Damascus to the Turkish border, and southwards to Jordan. However, for any victory to be complete the Assad regime will have to develop a strategy for eastern Syria as well.
Though there are virtually no more nomads in today’s Syria, the people of eastern Syria’s towns and cities are proud of their tribal heritage and frequently refer to aspects of their tribe in explaining their political behavior. This has been especially true since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. The different protagonists in the east—which includes the Deir al-Zor, Raqqa, and Al-Hassakeh governorates—have appealed to tribal identities to motivate inhabitants to join their cause, and the traditional leaders of tribes have often claimed that their entire tribe was behind them in declaring their allegiance to the opposition or the regime.
However, the reality was frequently quite different. Members of the same tribe often found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, and even the traditional leaders of the same tribe could be seen taking contrary positions—some supporting the regime in Damascus, others opposition circles in Turkey. This was due to the fact that, among Syrian tribes, localized identities—relating to neighborhood, village, or town—have often prevailed over broader tribal solidarities in determining actions on the ground.
Such a process of localization was already unfolding before the Syrian conflict began in 2011, though the war only accentuated it. This has allowed the regime, radical Islamic groups, the Kurds, and members of tribes themselves without leadership roles in their formal tribal structures, to advance their agendas within tribal communities.
This reality is why the regime’s reconquest of eastern areas will be no easy task. First, the regime’s major adversaries there are the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Islamic State. There is no unified opposition force, as in Aleppo, which the regime can besiege and defeat. And second, the localization of tribes means that the regime will have to navigate through a complex array of local realities in pushing to return to the area.
No 'Tribal Society' outside the state
The localization of Syrian communities of tribal background was long in the making. Since a central state authority gained territorial control over the areas where members of tribes live—a process that began under the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and was completed under the French Mandate in the 1930s and 1940s—there has been no “tribal society” outside the reach of the state.
As a consequence of this, members of tribes have been able to look beyond their tribal leaders, toward the state, to obtain protection and resources. Many members of tribes have used the educational, social, and political institutions of the Syrian state to integrate into urban society—becoming doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. This removed a central reason for their traditional dependence on nominal tribal leaders. In that sense they are virtually indistinguishable from their peers from urban and village backgrounds. By the time president Hafez al-Assad had consolidated power in the 1970s, leaders of a single tribe were often forced to compete against one another for access to the state’s patronage, including appointments to Parliament.
The effect of decades of such rule was demonstrated during the Syrian conflict when violence forced local communities to choose between various rebel factions and the regime. For example, the town of Buqrus in eastern Deir al-Zor governorate is populated by the Al-Busayarah tribe, many of whose leaders support the Assad regime. However, it is surrounded by towns whose residents come from members of the Al-Bushamel branch of the Al-Aqeedat tribe, whose members have sided with the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. When fighting between members of the Al-Busarayah and radical Islamic groups escalated in western Deir al-Zor province, Al-Busayarah tribal members in Buqrus, in order to protect themselves, highlighted their local identity, declaring that their primary allegiance was to Buqrus, not to their fellow tribesmen fighting the Islamic groups.
Putting down roots in tribal areas
In spite of this localization, many of the players in the Syrian conflict are looking to gain legitimacy for their political agendas by acquiring a veneer of tribal support among the local communities. The search for tribal partners has created competition within communities of tribal background. When one actor secures a local ally, this pushes others to mobilize different parts of the same tribe to shore up their own political project. For example, the competition between the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in the Deir al-Zor governorate has exemplified such competition. Each group rooted itself in towns and families of tribal background to provide a base for their piecemeal expansion. The result was to bring local communities into conflict with one another, often violently.
The Islamic State project appears to be more vulnerable than ever, yet the liberation of populations formerly under its control will hardly be the end of the story. Other political forces will try to fill the vacuum it leaves behind in eastern Syria. The plans of such forces will involve securing alliances with local populations of tribal background, while their adversaries will seek to do the same with other parts of the same tribe. The ensuing dynamics will determine the future of eastern Syria, and whether the region faces the same destiny as the western half of the country.