Tribalism and the War in Syria

Some thirty years ago at a conference in Princeton, Tahseen Bashir, the witty and urbane Egyptian diplomat and presidential spokesman, commented on Arab Middle East politics in a pithy sentence. "Egypt" he said "is the only nation-state in the Arab world: the rest are just tribes with flags."

Bashir died more than ten years ago but his witticism continues to apply to the state of Arab societies and politics today. The weakness and artificiality of the Arab states is apparent in the continuing turmoil in Syria. Except for Egypt, all these states, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Syria, were created by decisions made by Britain and France in 1916 and after World War I. They were carved out of the old Ottoman Empire.

Political rule in these states has been invariably authoritarian in the demands by ruling authorities and groups for obedience, but not necessarily autocratic because the continuing power of tribal and religious organizations has limited central rule. The continuing war in Syria has illustrated the inability of regimes to control the tribal organizations that have or want some form of political authority.

In a brilliant book, The Rule of the Clan, Mark S. Weiner has discussed the persistence of the clan structure in the world today, and the contemporary and historical societies organized around kinship groups, extended family or lineage groups that are largely autonomous from central government control. Loyalty and obedience to the clan or tribe may often override support for or loyalty to the political regime.

The Arab Human Development Report of 2005 speaks of the solidarity of family, clan, tribe, in Arab societies. This solidarity, it concludes, "implants submission, parasitic dependence, and compliance" in the Arab world.

It is therefore not surprising that tribes that have existed for centuries are often more meaningful for their members than the artificial states created by Britain and France. The Syrian tribes moved north from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century but their links and contacts with kinship of the same tribe in other states has remained in spite of the artificial borders created by the Franco-British Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

These borders may remain but they are porous. Members of powerful tribes are divided among the various countries and may owe little loyalty to their country of residence. The Shammar confederation has about five million members divided among Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria. Other tribes are divided in the same way among Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf countries: they include the Jabour tribe, the Aniza Bedouin tribe, ancestors of the royal Saudi family, the N'eim, and the Baggara tribes.

Relations in Syria between the tribes and political and religious authorities, the Assad regime, the Islamist rebels or the various religious groups, have fluctuated. Alliances are often temporary, based on current interests. The problem in Syria is that the Assad regime has now lost the support of many of the tribes, some of whom are more cordial towards the rebel Islamists (probably to avoid any retaliation in the future).

Two striking examples illustrate the dilemma for the Assad regime. One is the defection of Manaf Tlass, a general in the official Alawite-controlled Republican Guard. The Tiass family, whose patriarch Mustafga, a former minister of defense, also defected and left for France in 2012, had been a close ally of President Assad who relied on the family to guarantee the loyalty of the Sunnis in central Syria. In return for this loyalty and political support, the family and the home town of the clan, Rastan, received favors and patronage from the government.

The second case is that of Nawaf al-Fares, former Syrian ambassador in Iraq and long-time supporter of the regime. Fares, a Sunni, is a major figure in a clan, Al Jarrah, which is part of the Egaidat tribal confederation. The Egaidat claims a membership of 1.5 million across Syria, and has links with tribes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. At first al-Fares lent the support of his tribe to the regime in its fight against the rebels, but then changed his mind as result of government attacks that killed 350 people in the area of his tribe. His loyalty to his tribe was greater than loyalty to the regime.

Equally if not more important have been clashes between tribes and Islamic jihadist extremists. Such clashes became violent in 2006 in Anbar Province in west Iraq.

More recently, clashes have taken place in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. In March 2013, the Assaf clan fought with and killed leaders of the jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra in a dispute concerning an oil tanker. A further dispute occurred over the punishment of the killers: the jihadists wanted them tried on the basis of sharia law; the clan refused, arguing that doing this would violate tribal rules.

Another incident in the same province in December 2012 was the murder of a leader of al Nusra by members of the Egaidat tribe, the main tribe in the Deir Ezzor province, because he had ordered the death of a tribe member on the basis of Islamic law, overriding tribal rule. The Syrian state played no role in these disputes or in the attempts to settle them.

These clashes indicate that in strongly tribal communities, blood kinship and their values are accorded higher priority than the Muslim regulation and sharia law. National political rulers have used this behavior of the tribes to their own advantage. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein used tribes to fight against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, Hafez al Assad used tribes against the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in the massacre in Hama in February 1982 when at least 20,000 of those in the town were killed. His successor Bashar al Assad had relied on some of the tribes to help quell the uprising in Syria against him.

Presently, the tribes differ on support for the Assad regime or for the rebels. The U.S. Administration might be helpful in promoting the idea that the Syrian tribes might help achieve a peaceful transition of power in the country and end the possibility of Islamist control of the country.