Who Will the Tribes Back in Syria’s Civil War?

Tribes dominate the rich agricultural belt that is now a huge prize in the battle for Syria. Can they affect the tide of battle?

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Civilians running away from the shelling by the Syrian Army in front of Dar al Shifa hospital, Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 03, 2012.

Abdel-Aziz Ghanem sipped his morning coffee in the shade of a gnarled fig tree, the many branches sprouting from its half-meter-wide trunk covering a fair expanse of the inner courtyard of his home. His wife joined him, as did his elderly mother in law, an effusively warm woman whose deeply etched laugh lines were a testament to her friendly demeanor, and whose once-fashionable tattoos – inked along her chin, forehead and the back of her hands – were a testament to her Arab tribal affiliations. “You see this land here,” Ghanem said, gesturing to his right and left, “it all once belonged to our clan, before the Ba’athists took it,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Ba’ath Party which has ruled Syria for the past five decades.

The land beyond the Ghanem’s high walls (some 150 kilometers from the Tal Abyad crossing at the Turkish-Syrian border) is like that in much of this part of Raqqa province; drought-parched sunburnt arable plains toasted a golden brown, spread flat like a low-pile carpet with a few gentle undulations. Villages, with their single-storey, flat-roofed homes, are dotted among the plains, the relatively large distances between them an indication of how sparsely populated – and vast – this area of northeastern Syria is. There were once trees here, the townsfolk say, before some of the small riverbeds and wells dried up, but few people under 30 remember that time.

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“It has been difficult being so close to our land and seeing others on it,” Ghanem said. Dressed in a crisply ironed beige galabiya (an ankle-length robe), and a checkered red-and-white headdress held in place by the circular double black cord known as the igal, Ghanem spoke proudly of his second-youngest son Abdullah, 25, who commands a unit of the rebel Free Syrian Army called Ahrar al-Furat (The Free of the Euphrates). Still Ghanem knows his son’s role, and his family’s historical grievances, have left many of their neighbors wary of the revolution – and what may come after it. “People think that because my son is in the free army we will take this land back by force,” he said. “We won’t. One day we will go to court for it.”

Raqqa province (located along the northern bank of the Euphrates River), along with the neighboring provinces of Hasaka and Deir Ez-Zor are collectively known as Al Jazira, the vast eastern stretch of Syria that extends from the Turkish border in the north to the Iraqi border in the east. Despite a years-long drought, Al Jazira remains Syria’s agricultural backbone, producing cotton, wheat, pulses and other crops, as well as a key source of livestock, and it is home to much of the country’s oil and gas reserves.

Yet despite its economic importance, its population of Arab tribes and Kurds have long been disenfranchised. (Kurds were only granted the right to full citizenship last year as part of Assad’s belated reforms issued months into the now 18-month uprising.) Many of the region’s sons have immigrated to the Gulf, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond for economic reasons. Infrastructure common in other parts of the country is generally lacking here. There are no street lights, for example, along the entire stretch from the Turkish border to the Ghanems’ village – not because the power is out, but because there are no lampposts along the side of the road. Still, it is the region’s water woes that hurt the most. Despite Raqqa’s proximity to the Euphrates, many people here say that its waters were diverted to reach well-connected landowners in other areas to the west, closer to Aleppo.

Given all of this, Al Jazira would seem like kindling to any fiery anti-regime revolt, but that hasn’t been the case across the region. While parts of Hasaka have long demonstrated, and Deir Ez Zor is a veritable war zone such is the ferocity of the fighting between the regime and its opponents, Raqqa has – until recently – been an oasis of calm, safe enough to soak up the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from Deir Ez Zor and other parts of Al Jazira.

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The reasons are many and varied, but put plainly, some people benefit from the regime and it’s simply not in their interest to see it fall. For others, it is the devil they know–and know how to deal with. Some tribes in Al Jazira, especially in Raqqa, remain allied to the regime. Others have broken away from it. There is strife within some tribes, sometimes even within the same clan, as some stick with Assad and others oppose them.

The issue of land plays a role. Once-moneyed landowning tribal clans like the Ghanems say they have the deeds – some dating back to the Ottoman era – that prove they own vast tracts of land confiscated from them in a series of redistributive land reform measures that predate the Ba’ath Party’s rise to power in 1963. It started with the 1958 agrarian reform legislation which came into being during Syria’s brief union with Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s Egypt, the law confiscated property from large feudal owners and redistributed it to landless peasants and others. (The late Abdel-Nasser is still widely despised by many of Raqqa’s traditional tribal leaders.)

The Ba’ath continued the policy with a number of expropriation laws. “The Ba’ath distributed land to people allied to the Ba’ath, so their loyalty was to who? Even though many of these people were members of our tribe, their loyalty was to the Ba’ath,” says Omar Ghanem, Abdel-Aziz’s 60 year old cousin. “Their concern, maybe their number one concern now, is that if the regime falls the lands will return to their rightful owners. We want our rights and will seek them through the law. Our revolution is for justice and dignity, not for the land, but if the law can return our land, why not?”

The Ba’ath’s social policies in the region weren’t confined to land reform. They also in many cases broke the traditional pyramidal tribal hierarchy, weakening the considerable power of the tribal chieftain at its apex (whose word was once law), by elevating many other lower members whose power came from their close ties to the Ba’ath and their ability to get things done for their clansmen using those ties. In effect, the Ba’ath created new forms of class structure. “These acts made it clear to people that if you wanted things done you had to use the people in the tribe the regime recognized and worked with, not the traditional leaders. The power and influence within the tribe shifted,” says Faraj, a 33-year-old member of Al Walda tribe, of which the Ghanem clan is a part of. “They created hundreds of these sheikhs in each family, so the authority and influence of the traditional sheikhs was lost,they were sidelined.”

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The Al Walda tribe numbers several hundred thousand members and is largely confined to the banks of the Euphrates. It is considered relatively small compared to some of the other tribes in the area, whose bloodlines transcend national boundaries and in some cases extend into the millions of members.

In the Ghanems’ home, some two dozen men are seated on the floor, discussing the day’s news. Some are looking at photos on a laptop, black-and-white images of Al Walda’s forbears, recalling their storied past. There are photos of an ancestor banished to a distant land for opposing the French, and pictures of others who were members of some of Syria’s earliest parliaments. There are also newer, color photos of the tribe’s recent dead, men who died fighting Assad’s regime including Abu Hamza, who formed Ahrar al-Furat, the FSA unit Abdel-Aziz Ghanem’s son Abdullah now heads. Abdullah defected from Assad’s army in February, from his station in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, after learning that his cousin Bassem had been killed in the same neighborhood the month before fighting with the Farouq Brigades of the FSA.

Not all of the Ghanems are with the FSA. Abu Bassem, the father of the dead Farouq fighter, has lost faith in the FSA his son fought with. “Why did my son die in Homs? We are not from Homs,” the 54-year old tells other members of his clan gathered at his home. It is more than just the anguished pain of a father mourning a child. “It changed from a revolution to armed gangs. The good ones die, look what we are left with, this so-called free army. So-called, that’s what I think of them. There is no accountability.”

“You were cowards, you are cowards!” counters another member of the clan. “Before there was FSA, could you leave your homes and speak?” Abu Bassem stands up, goes to a corner of the room and pulls out a rusty Kalashnikov from a pile of blankets. “I bought this from Iraq in 2004, along with 60 bullets. I haven’t used it yet, but I will – not now, but its time will come. We need clean people, we need clean men, we need accountability. People who yesterday clapped and cheered for Bashar are today clapping and cheering for the free army. Who will they clap for tomorrow? This is the definition of terrorism, when you feel the need to keep your gun near you when you sleep and you don’t know your enemy from your friend.”

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