Kheder Khaddour is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Khaddour, who is a Syrian national, has done a great deal of research on the conflict in Syria, often analyzing issues that fall outside of the boundaries of mainstream coverage of the country. In March, he published a paper on developments in Syria’s northeastern Jazira region, titled “How Regional Security Concerns Uniquely Constrain Governance in Northeastern Syria.” He has also contributed regularly to Diwan, most recently publishing “I, The Supreme,” on how Syria’s regime has devolved some power over reconstruction, mainly to retain it. It is to discuss another recent paper, this one on tribal realities and their changing dynamics in eastern Syria, that Khaddour agreed to talk with Diwan.
Michael Young: What is the main argument in your recently released Carnegie paper, Eastern Expectations: The Changing Dynamics in Syria’s Tribal Regions, written with Kevin Mazur?
Kheder Khaddour: Eastern Syria is a stronghold of Arab tribes in the country. The tribe has long had an important political role in Syria, helping to manage those eastern territories. But since the end of the 19th century this role has always been directly connected to a central authority, limiting the latitude of tribal members to define their own fate. With the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the power of tribes to politically mobilize their members—whether in favor of the regime or against it—or to protect themselves from radical movements such as Al-Qaeda diminished even further.
Most tribes have preserved their structure over the course of centuries. This means that the hierarchy of families in the tribe has remained intact and the sheikhly family—from which tribal leaders are chosen—has continued to play a part in leading the tribe. Tribes have also remained in the regions that they have historically inhabited. However, the political role of the tribe has been fundamentally transformed, and the most important reason for this is the deepening relationship between tribes and the central authority. From the time of the late president Hafez al-Assad and continuing to this day, tribes have allowed the regime to penetrate their ranks in order to mobilize them politically for the regime’s own purposes.
MY: There is a misconception that outside actors can reach an understating with tribes by coming to an agreement with tribal leaders. You say that’s untrue. Why?
KK: Yes, tribal leaders, or sheikhs, are a crucial part of the tribal structure, and this continues to have symbolic and material importance when it comes to the tribe itself. Yet tribes are not based upon individual sheikhs, but on the historical inheritance of the sheikhly family. This means that not all members of a tribe necessarily support the sheikh, even if sheikhs do have groups of tribal members that do support them.
This phenomenon of the “supporters of the sheikh” existed before the Syrian uprising, but gained in relevance after it began. It strips the sheikh of the ability to lead because it gives other members of the sheikhly family the capacity to gather supporters around them. This makes it easy for outside political players to penetrate the tribe by integrating different members of a sheikhly family, who pretend to represent the tribe politically, into their own political projects. In reality, no sheikh can represent all of his tribe, only some members of the tribe.
MY: Why were radical Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State able to make significant inroads into tribal areas in eastern Syria?
KK: Radical groups were able to expand and occupy tribal regions for a number of reasons. This may seem counterintuitive, but the first reason is the low level of religiosity in areas inhabited by tribes, which meant that tribes were unable to rally against radical groups. We can compare this with the campaign waged against the Islamic State by factions in Aleppo at the beginning of 2014. Religiosity in Aleppo has a long history and set of rules, and therefore it was easier for local society to mobilize against the Islamic State. In fact, the Islamic State’s ideology did not succeed in regions of Syria that had a long tradition of religiosity prior to 2011. At the same time, the regions inhabited by tribes are ones in which religion plays a marginal role in social life, so that there was no concerted resistance to the Islamic State’s ideology—mostly because of ignorance of religious affairs and the weakness of religious authorities.
A second factor is that radical groups entered areas inhabited by tribes after the latter had already been divided by factional conflicts over natural resources, such as oil, and after the emergence of new, younger leaders who had rebelled against the older generation of tribal leaders. These struggles within tribes themselves—occurring before the arrival of the Islamic State—exhausted local communities, so that the Islamic State was seen by some as bringing stability.
A third factor favoring radical Islamic groups was the localization of the tribe and the localized nature of the Syrian conflict. As violence became a more widespread feature of the uprising, many local communities in Syria’s east were increasingly cut off from tribal members living elsewhere in the country and organized to defend their towns or neighborhoods. This gave rise to what we can call a tribalism without tribes. Individuals were mobilized based on their background as members of a tribe, but by local actors, not by sheikhs at the top of the traditional tribal hierarchy who were acting in the name and interests of the broader tribe.
The final important factor is that many of the leaders of jihadi groups are from tribal backgrounds themselves. We can see this in the the regional and tribal references that come up in their names or aliases—for example Al-Qahtani, Al-Adnani, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qureishi. This gives them additional value to some members of tribes, creating a sense that the radical groups are “Arabs like us”—the term “Arab” being used here in the historical sense of having come originally from the Arabian Peninsula.
MY: As a follow-up to the previous question, there have been reports that the leadership of the Islamic State has fled Raqqa and is heading towards Deir Ezzor governorate, the area covered to a great extent by your paper. Given your knowledge of tribal relations in the area, what might interest the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor, and how do you anticipate its future there if these reports are confirmed?
KK: Raqqa has taken on symbolic importance as the Islamic State’s capital in Syria. However, Deir Ezzor is the most important city in eastern Syria, having been the administrative and economic center of the region since 1870. If we compare Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the former does not have the same strategic importance for the Islamic State. In 2014, the Islamic State famously proclaimed the dissolution of the Syrian-Iraqi border and the establishment of Wilayat al-Furat (the Province of the Euphrates), comprised of Al-Qaim in the western part of Anbar governorate in Iraq and Al-Bukamal in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.
That said, the Islamic State has a tough road ahead in making inroads into Deir Ezzor. If the Islamic State were to lose the areas it controls in Deir Ezzor, what would remain of the group? The city and the area around it have been difficult to control during the uprising. In summer 2014, the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra fought a costly and bitter struggle to gain control over Deir Ezzor. But even then the eventual victory of the Islamic State was not total. The Syrian regime until today maintains a presence in part of the city of Deir Ezzor, as well as in its military airport. The regime has invested considerable resources to maintain this foothold, deploying forces from the Republican Guard and other elite units there because it understands Deir Ezzor’s strategic importance.
MY: Finally, what does the future hold for the tribes in Syria’s east?
KK: For all the references to the western, more densely populated part of Syria as “useful Syria,” the country’s east is “useful Syria” in another, more literal, sense. Anyone who rules over the region gains substantially. This was the case for a long time, and will continue to be in the future. The region is home to major oil and gas resources. It remains Syria’s breadbasket. And it is located along the frontier with Iraq, with its economic potential and security risks.
With respect to tribes, tribal structures cannot mobilize members of tribes en masse. Tribes require external support to do so, but this external support always comes with strings attached. The actors aiding in tribal mobilization, whether a central authority or radical groups, have their own agendas. And their instrumentalization of tribes contributes to separating tribal leaders and tribal members by making their relations more transactional, with some tribal leaders acting as brokers for the services of tribal members on behalf of external parties.
Today we are also seeing tribes without any real leadership, with individuals sharing a tribal identification but with no unified, legitimate leadership structure. This situation provides fertile ground for external political players to further use tribes for their own purposes. Because tribes have been enmeshed in relations with a central power since the 19th century, ending the manipulation of Syria’s east by outside actors will not happen until the situation at the center is resolved, in the context of a broader resolution of Syria’s conflict.