In recent months, the number of tribal meetings and formations has grown significantly in Syria, and all sides – including the Syrian regime, the revolutionary factions and the Syrian Democratic Forces – have made vocal demands to revive tribal affiliations.
Some supporters of the Syrian revolution believe that reviving tribal affiliations will contribute to social reform for a society that honours tribal traditions and customs, and thus could help reestablish some of the security that was lost in opposition-controlled areas. They also believe it could lead to reconciliation among different factions and help their fight against the regime continue.
However, others believe that these tribal gatherings will increase social divisions and foment tribal and regional prejudices – a development which would not be unwelcome to certain external actors and countries. They argue that tribalism could easily undermine the revolution and place it at the service of foreign agendas.
Meanwhile, the Syria regime is attempting to use tribal affiliations for its own ends.
The Syrian regime
The Syrian regime has arranged many tribal meetings inside the areas it controls, in an effort to use the tribes to its advantage, especially for its reconciliation efforts. The regime found that the tribes could play a major role in this process, and it is worth noting that all of the tribal meetings inside regime-controlled areas have included Russian officers.
Many tribal leaders were invited to Khmeimim Air Base to coordinate with them. The tribes in Deraa had a major role in coordinating with the Russian side regarding signing the reconciliation agreements that took place there.
The regime divided tribal loyalties within families: there might be an uncle who supported the revolution alongside most members of the tribe, while a cousin or brother supported the regime. This included the elders and families of major tribal sheikhs in Syria.
The Syrian regime, during the rule of both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, was able to develop a form of authority inside the tribes that controlled tribal issues and monitored the behaviour of their members, creating a miniature version of the Assad regime within each tribe.
The regime chose leaders for the tribe, not for their reputation or even effectiveness but to demonstrate the authority imposed by the regime on others. In this way the regime was able to force the tribes to do what it wanted, deepening a major rift in tribal community structures.
Many from the middle class and Sunni tribes got involved in the revolution as a way of overturning this arrangement, on the basis that toppling the regime could topple the ruling families of the tribe installed by the regime.
Major families of tribal sheikhs remained loyal to the regime, perceiving a threat to their power. They fought on the side of the regime as so-called shabiha militias, often killing their own tribe members if they joined the revolution.
This was what happened, for example, in Aleppo when the al-Berri tribe formed shabiha brigades that killed lower-class families in the tribe who had joined the rebels, as well as members of other tribes with lower social standing. They played a major role in damaging support for the revolution in Aleppo.
Although many of the members of tribes took up arms against the regime, they were not able to form large brigades like the non-tribal villages had been able to do, especially in Idlib and Aleppo. These brigades were able to lead the revolution in northern Syria and seize arms and foreign aid, and mostly operated from a position of regionalism and factional chauvinism. Tribal members joined only as individuals, without much influence in decision-making.
This explains why so many tribes from the countryside of eastern and southern Aleppo and northern and eastern Hama, as well as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, joined the al-Nusra Front and ISIS. These organizations did not operate on provincialism and factional partisanship, instead offering a wide-reaching ideology that could include all those who had been marginalized in the revolution.
They were grounded in a religious doctrine that fought provincialism and sectarianism and gave power and social prestige to those who joined the organization, and even offered more services than the revolutionary factions, which had arbitrary forms of administration and simplistic organizational management.
Most of the leadership of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and ISIS were tribal members who lacked influence in the major revolutionary factions, such as Saddam al-Jamal, Saddam el-Khalifa, Abdel Latif al-Faraj.
Meanwhile, Turkey worked to win over Syrian tribes and was able to embrace many of their leaders. It also helped establish tribal institutions by holding conferences such as the Istanbul conference, which led to the establishment of the Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans, whose headquarters is in Istanbul.
The tribes offer Turkey an expanded sphere of influence inside Syrian society by praising and promoting Turkish policies as well as through establishing tribal militias subordinate to Turkey. One such is Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which participated in Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, just as the tribes in the Idlib area had a role in arranging Turkish involvement through serving as a middleman between the Turks and HTS.
Turkey also benefits from gaining the tribes’ loyalty in the matter of Syria’s future, and has often affirmed to the Russians that it enjoys support from a large sector of Syrian society.
The Syrian tribes allied with Turkey see it as the only defender of Sunni Islam at a time that Saudi Arabia has appeared to give up on them.
Anyone who studies tribal society in Syria must notice the lack of Saudi influence on the structure of Syrian tribes, despite most Syrian tribes being an extension of Saudi tribes and having strong links with them, in particular with the Anazzah tribe, the tribe of the Saudi royal family. In losing this influence, it has also lost much of its ability to push back against Iran in the region.
Syrian Democratic Forces
As for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they have been able to win a great deal of support from the Jazira tribes in the face of Turkish apprehension about their project. Many of the members of those tribes shifted from regime support to the SDF to fight ISIS, which had directly harmed their tribes.
HTS is also investing in the tribal sphere. During recent months, and at the same time as the tribal meetings held in regime-controlled areas and in their meetings in Turkey, meetings took place to form a tribal council in Syria close to the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government.
They were able to use the tribes’ local connections to promote the Salvation Government in matters such as paying taxes, collecting zakat, and helping the government resolve local disputes. Moreover, in what might be their greatest coup, HTS convinced the tribes to oppose reconciliation with the regime in Idlib.