Since the reconciliation agreement with the Syrian regime was signed in the summer of 2018, the role played by tribes and civil society leaders in local governance in Daraa, in southern Syria, has significantly declined. But both traditional tribal leaders and new leaders—the latter representing not only their affiliated tribes, but also regions extending beyond their localities—continue to play a role in areas such as services, security, and social issues in their communities.
Before the 2011 revolution, the regime awarded tribal and community leaders government positions while keeping them under surveillance, and security officers rewarded them for reporting on their communities with favours such as helping to resolve their personal issues with state institutions. Meanwhile, the regime clamped down on leaders who remained outside its ranks, either by prosecuting their commercial activities and denying them work permits, or by pursuing them with its security agencies.
With the onset of the Syrian Revolution, the regime tried to force tribal leaders to help suppress the voice of protestors, causing many traditional tribal leaders to distance themselves from the political scene. This, along with the conflict itself, contributed to the emergence of a new class of leaders: military leaders who rose to prominence in their community by commanding opposition contingents, and civil leaders who did so by administering areas outside the regime's control.
Thus, the six years preceding the signing of the settlement represented a golden age for tribalism, and these new leaders were able to exercise limitless authority during the period of opposition rule in the region. But this was to change with the signing of settlement agreements.
The military campaign waged by the Syrian regime prior to the signing of settlements has led to the emergence of different areas of influence. Reconciliation areas are cities that the Syrian government entered without a settlement agreement or Russian guarantee, such as Inkhil, Dael and al-Harra, while settlement areas represent territory over which Damascus has regained partial authority – in some cases limited to the presence of offices for government services – such as Busra al-Sham, the city of Daraa, Tafas, Nawa and Jasim. The role of tribal leaders differs from one city to the next depending on the form of settlement reached as well as the city's relationship with Russia and the regime.
In reconciliation areas, pro-regime tribal leaders act in accordance with the directives of the security agencies, while new leaders – former members of the opposition – largely hide from view, many having been arrested by security agencies or assassinated by unknown perpetrators.
In settlement areas, regional differences depend on the military strength of the opposition group that negotiated the settlement, as well as the personalities of the new leaders and members of the negotiations committees. In Busra al-Sham, the role of leaders looks exactly like it did before the settlement and the same is true in the city of Daraa and in Tafas in western Daraa Governorate. While in Tafas and Busra al-Sham, military personnel predominate among the new leaders, in the Daraa al-Balad district, a services committee of tribal leaders helps to administer services alongside government institutions, and a negotiations committee, made up of both military and civilian members, handles security functions as well as negotiations with the government over detainees and the settlement.
Tribes and Services
The role of tribal leaders and new leaders in different areas depends on the type of agreement reached – reconciliation or settlement – and the strength of the local opposition forces that signed the agreement and remain in control of the region. For example, the case of Tafas differs from that of Busra al-Sham due to Ahmad al-Awda, former leader of a Youth of Sunna Forces faction which held control of Busra al-Sham. Al-Awda’s relationship with the Russian guarantor and the weight of his military faction have afforded Busra al-Sham privileges that are not available in Tafas. However, throughout the governorate, notables play a role in mediating between communities, the security agencies and service-related state institutions. This is either done through negotiations committees composed of tribal leaders and new leaders – civilian and military – or through their personal relationships with the state and influential officials.
Daraa’s services committee consists of tribal leaders and civil society notables from various neighbourhoods and tribes of Daraa. The committee plays an important role in overseeing the performance of service-related state institutions in the city, serving as a liaison between residents and these institutions. The committee also convenes regular meetings with the Daraa Governorate Council and the rest of the departments responsible for services in the city of Daraa, in order to improve the quality of service provision.
For example, the committee played a vital role in communicating with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in order to procure and monitor the operations of a waste management programme for the city of Daraa. Carrying out such a role was impossible for tribal leaders prior to the Syrian Revolution.
In the city of Inkhil in northern Daraa Province, which returned to government control without a settlement or any Russian guarantees, the position for new and traditional city leaders has not changed significantly since the period prior to the revolution. They conform with government authority and the will of the security agencies, staying within the bounds of social and service-related activities aimed at demonstrating cohesion between state institutions and the community, as is the official state narrative. For example, in the absence of any substantive government efforts to assist families harmed by the coronavirus, leaders from a number of tribes— such as al-Nasir, al-Wadi, al-Shibli, al-Zamil—launched a campaign to raise funds for poor families affected by the virus, by collecting donations from residents and traders. Members of the local council also took part and welcomed this initiative.
Government officials belonging to particular tribes in Daraa can also play a role in providing services to their cities and neighbourhoods. For example, one neighbourhood in the city of Inkhil received a transformer station through a tribal relation between its residents and an official in the Syrian Ministry of Electricity.
Tribes and Security
Tribal leaders play a significant role in security provision due to the lack of delivery on the part of Syria’s security agencies due to the agencies’ internal conflicts and their pursuit of an agenda that serves the regime’s Russian and Iranian allies. For example, the security agencies recruited former members of opposition factions in the city of Daraa, with the aim of having them carry out abductions and assassinations of opposition members. Fearing inter-tribal conflicts, Daraa’s tribes issued a statement proclaiming their unity against sedition and rejected the practices of local elements of pro-regime militias.
In eastern Daraa, clashes between the Russian-organized 5th Corps of Busra al-Sham and local factions from the town of al-Qurayya in the western al-Suwayda Governorate caused tribal leaders from both Daraa and al-Suwayda governorates to intervene and urge both sides to de-escalate.
Since the signing of the settlement, negotiations committees in Daraa have been engaged in ongoing negotiations regarding detainees, military service, the future of the settlement, and other sensitive issues concerning the fate of the region.
The regime is trying to restore its grip over regions where tribal leaders play a key role in the provision of basic services and security, threatening those who do not follow the government line. Although this ultimately limits the power of tribal leaders, the state’s decreased capacity and the absence of political transition in Syria means that their involvement in local governance is unlikely to change anytime soon.