Syria’s Tribes Will Rise Again: An Exiled Chief Remains Unbowed

The leader of the 1.2 million strong Baggara believes in an eventual resurgence despite the Assad regime’s systematic destruction of the underpinnings of tribal society

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Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa USA

A Free Syrian Army fighter stands on a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo, Syria on Oct. 2, 2012.

Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the Baggara tribe from Deir Ez Zor, and a former member of parliament representing the province, was one of the first prominent tribal leaders to publicly defect from the regime in January.

Despite having tribal ties to Iraq, Sheikh Nawaf fled to Turkey, on the advice of Al Baggara’s tribal chieftain in Iraq. “He told me Iraq wasn’t safe. His son had been detained, and he wasn’t in a position to help me. The Iraqi regime is close to the Syrian regime,” the sheikh told TIME in a meeting in Istanbul where he is now based. “There is great pressure on our tribal brothers in Iraq, how can we ask them for help when they face real threats?”

(PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

Al Baggara has about 1.2 million members, and extends from Syria into Iraq. It is one of the largest tribes in Syria, and like many of the other confederations, its bloodlines transcend national boundaries and extend into the millions of members. Al Egaidat is believed to include some 1.5 million people and has kinship links to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A small tribe would number anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000. These tribal confederations are massive potential sources of power, mini-states if you like, whose transnational tribal bonds can be tapped into to forge channels of communication and access to foreign powers in the region, especially in theGulf. But it isn’t quite that easy.

Sheikh Nawaf had opposed the Assads for years, and was slapped with a travel ban shortly after the end of his 1988-90 stint in parliament. He’d been interrogated 76 times in the span of two and a half years. His 77th interrogation was to prove the worst, and his last. He was detained in late July/early August 2011, held for 72 days (a month a half of which was spent in solitary confinement, in a space 2 meters by 1.5, in total darkness, then transferred to a slightly bigger cell where the lights were kept on 24hours a day).  He was eventually released, he says, on the condition that he appear on Syrian state television to praise the president and urge his tribesmen to give Assad’s reforms a chance. “I was forced at gunpoint to say these things,” he says.

In Turkey, he formed a body known as the Free Tribes, which in April morphed into the Tribal Council.

Sheikh Nawaf says that the Ba’ath “dismantled the power of the tribes from the inside” by sidelining people like him. “The regime spent decades sidelining the tribal sheikhs and put obstacles between the sheikhs and their people,” he explains. “The sheikhs’ role and position within his own clan changed. His authority and influence was diminished, and that role was taken over by [state] security, by those within the clan that had ties to the intelligence services, and to those who could solve the problems of their clansmen. They took on a bigger role.” In effect, the Ba’ath created new forms of class structure.

Still, Sheikh Nawaf is confident that the old wayswill prevail. “These obstacles the Ba’ath placed between us and our tribesmen are artificial,” he said. “The sons of the tribes, many of them are playing the regime’s game at the moment, but when the time comes, they will be ready todefend their people against this corrupt regime. It is in their blood.”

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