With the announcement on 9 October of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s operation targeting SDF-controlled areas, along with America’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria and Turkey’s agreements with Russia and the US, the Arab tribes of Syria have again come into the spotlight. Parties to the conflict eager to fill the vacuum that will be left by the US withdrawal have started reaching out to tribes to try and win their friendship and build alliances.
The response from Arab tribes in the north and east of Syria has been mixed. Those in al-Hasakah governorate are split between support for the regime, for Iran and for Turkey. Meanwhile, the decision of US troops to stay behind to protect the oil fields east of the Euphrates has worked in the favour of tribes in Deir ez-Zor that refused to allow Assad, Iran and Russia to enter their lands.
Arab Tribes in al-Hasakah
Arab tribes in al-Hasakah can be divided into three groups. The first has called for the establishment of a ‘Syrian Tribal Mobilization’ under the auspices of Damascus and Moscow. The second is loyal to the Iran-backed Baqir Brigade. The third supports the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria.
‘Syrian Tribal Mobilization’
Last month, Sheikh Nawwaf Abdul Aziz al-Muslat of the Jabour tribe hosted over 3,000 tribal representatives for a conference at his father Abdul Aziz al-Muslat’s villa in the town of Tell Brak in al-Hasakah.
Nawwaf’s aim was to invite the tribes to form an army called the ‘Syrian Tribal Mobilization’ to re-establish stability in the region. He claimed it would enjoy the full support of the regime, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Kurds.
This came days after his visit to Damascus, where his close associates confirmed he met with President Bashar al-Assad. who gave him the go-ahead to organize and mobilize the tribes to regain control of the area under the authority of the Syrian state.
The conference, held on 26 October under the protection of the SDF, was attended by dignitaries from the tribes of Jabour, Albu Najad, and Luhaib. There was a notable absence of guests from the tribes of Deir ez-Zor – such as Uqaydat and Baggara – who declined their invitation, seeing it as a declaration of loyalty and support for the regime.
Participants emphasized the need to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity and stand with the Syrian army to confront Turkish aggression, but did not address the mechanisms through which the ‘Syrian Tribal Mobilization’ would be formed.
Sources in attendance at the conference confirmed that the cost, which topped $125,000, was covered by pro-regime businessman Baraa Katerji. Proceedings were apparently intended to include a ‘pledge’ to Assad and the announcement of the tribal army’s formation, though these were left out due to the boycott of the conference by many tribes.
The Baqir Brigade: Iran’s arm in al-Hasakah
Iran is also making expeditious efforts to gain a foothold among tribes in al-Hasakah through its military arm, the Baqir Brigade. The latter is composed mostly of fighters from the Baggara tribe, which Tehran succeeded in winning over by appealing to their descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad.
Scores from Baggara villages and towns have responded to the invitation from Baqir Bridge leader Khalid al-Mara’i to join his ranks through financial incentives of up to 150,000 Syrian pounds as a monthly salary for each fighter.
Delegates are selected from the Baggara tribe, particularly the clans of Albu Ma’eesh and Albu Sheikh, which are spread out across dozens of villages. Their task is to collect lists of names of potential recruits and prepare them for transfer to brigade training camps. The residence of each delegate acts as a temporary headquarters until facilities for the official headquarters are completed.
The Baqir Brigade in al-Hasakah is overseen by 15 leaders from the governorate who had previously served in its ranks. They now comprise the core of the organization and are preparing the first batch of volunteers at the camps in Homs and Ayn Issa, north of Raqqa. Those who enlist do not bear any special insignia, instead donning the uniform of regime forces.
Today, the Baqir Brigade holds sway over the tribes of Aleppo and a large part of the city and its countryside. It represents Iran’s first proxy in the area and is made up mostly of members of the Baggara tribe in the governorates of Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor.
Turkey enjoys favourable relations with some of the Arab tribes and has formed alliances with many of their leaders, as well as helped to establish tribal organizations such as the Supreme Council of Tribes and Clans in Syria. Recently, it has been seeking to use these connections to expand its influence. Erdoğan has legitimized military action in northeastern Syria by claiming that local tribes themselves are pleading for Turkish intervention. This would include the al-Hasakah clans, which have been displaced from their villages by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
Turkey also continues to exploit loyal tribal military factions in its operations, such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which is now playing a major role in Operation Peace Spring.
Turkey’s next goal is to move loyal Arab tribesmen into the areas it has recently captured to create an Arab belt separating Kurdish areas in Syria from the Turkish border. This would constitute one of the most important demographic changes in the region in recent years.
Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zor
In contrast to the divisions among tribes of al-Hasakah, Arab tribes in the SDF-controlled areas of Deir ez-Zor have reached a consensus on their demands, refusing to let in the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, despite attempts by the latter to negotiate with them.
Rejecting the regime and coordinating with the Global Coalition
Since the beginning of October, there have been ongoing demonstrations in cities and towns east of the Euphrates in Deir ez-Zor, opposing regime forces and their Russian and Iranian allies while calling for the Global Coalition Against Daesh to protect the region.
The demonstrations prompted local Arab tribes, especially Uqaydat and Baggara, to hold several meetings to discuss the future of the region. One of these was held at the home of Jamil Rashid al-Hafal – leader of the Uqaydat tribe – in the village of al-Hariji, north of Deir ez-Zor.
These meetings focused on the need to defend the region from attacks by the regime, Russia, and Iran as well as reach out to the Global Coalition for help.
Support among tribes in Deir ez-Zor for coordinating with the Global Coalition increased after Washington recently confirmed it would remain in the areas containing oil fields in eastern Syria, a large part of which fall east of the Euphrates.
For now, the presence of US forces in the region provides security for the tribes. They remain anxious, however, about a sudden withdrawal – as happened in Manbij and various areas of al-Hasakah – which would leave them sitting targets for the regime and its allies.
Russia, despite local opposition to its presence in Deir ez-Zor, has in the past month been in communication with Sheikh Jamil Rashid al-Hafal of the Uqaydat tribe to negotiate and reach a settlement with local tribes.
Russia’s offer resembled the agreement it sponsored in southern Syria between the regime and the opposition. The deployment of Russian military police in the region would provide for the return of regime institutions, raising of the Syrian flag over government facilities and retention of light weapons by Deir ez-Zor Military Council fighters. It would also entrust the Russians with providing security, regularizing the status of dissenters with the Syrian state and ending the deadlock with opponents of the settlement in northern Syria.
The tribes have ignored Russia’s offer, after Washington asserted that its forces would remain to protect the oil fields in eastern Syria, strengthen their presence along the river belt in Deir ez-Zor and establish military bases in al-Baghuz, al-Basira and al-Ezba, as well as at al-Omar oil field.
Al-Bashir: Iran’s emissary to Baggara
Baggara chief Nawaf al-Bashir also put forth an offer to his fellow tribespeople stipulating an Iran-backed agreement with the Syrian regime. However, the tribe ignored the offer and reaffirmed its continued coordination with the Global Coalition for as long as it remains in the region.
Tribes opt for non-confrontation
Whatever scenario is imposed on the tribes will leave them with two options. The first is military confrontation with parties involved in the conflict. This is unlikely due to the disparity in capabilities, especially since the tribes lost most of their weapons during the period of ISIS control of their areas.
The tribal bloc in eastern Syria also lacks non-establishment political leaders, as they were expelled while ISIS and subsequently the SDF were in power. This prompted the return of more traditionally-minded clan leaders, whose dealings with external non-tribal forces tend to be peaceful and non-confrontational.
The second option is to reach a settlement with that party to the conflict to whom power in the region will eventually fall. While confrontation is unlikely to compel the tribes to negotiate, they may be willing to make concessions, for example, on taking up arms and holding demonstrations. This would give them a chance to raise the ceiling of their demands and improve the conditions of their surrender.