Shifting Sands: Arab Tribal Political Realignment in Northeastern Syria

02 November, 2019

Cover Image Caption: Members of the SDF attend a funeral for an Arab SDF combatant killed in eastern Deir-ez-Zor in June 2019.  Image courtesy of AFP.

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Executive Summary

Nearly every military and political reality in northeastern Syria has been upended in recent weeks by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from border areas, the memorandum of understanding between Russia and Turkey to implement the Turkish ‘safe zone’, and the military agreement between the SDF and the Government of Syria.  Amid these monumental shifts, the focus of much of the international community has remained fixed on the Self Administration’s potential incorporation into the Government of Syria and, more broadly, the fate of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish population. However, when considering the future of northeastern Syria, the political dynamics of local Arab tribes have received comparatively little attention, notwithstanding that Arab tribesmen are a significant component of the SDF and Arabs constitute a majority of the population in the areas controlled by the SDF.  Indeed, in many respects, tribal identity is the most important socio-political identifier in northeastern Syria. For these reasons, the shifting political allegiances of northeastern Syria’s Arab tribes are a critically important component of the future trajectory of the region.

To that end, this paper is a preliminary effort to map the political trajectory of northeastern Syria’s Arab tribes.  For the past several years, most of northeastern Syria’s tribes have aligned themselves, to some degree, with the SDF and the Self Administration out of genuine loyalty to the SDF, perceived financial incentives, or in pragmatic recognition of the fact that the Self Administration has been the primary governance actor in northeastern Syria.  Simultaneously, regional actors, to include Turkey and the Government of Syria, have maintained a policy of active outreach in northeastern Syria, based primarily on engagement with tribal leaders. Considering the rapidly developing political changes taking place in northeastern Syria, tribes and tribal leaders are now increasingly compelled to openly declare their allegiances to reflect these new realities.

This paper has four major findings: First, a majority of the Arab tribes and tribal leaders throughout northeastern Syria are increasingly inclined to break away from the SDF and align themselves with the Government of Syria.  Second, several tribes are, for now, on course to remain within the SDF coalition due to fear of the Government of Syria, or are internally divided between remaining with the SDF or aligning with the government. Crucially, these divisions are especially pronounced in Ar-Raqqa governorate and rural Deir-ez-Zor, highlighting the heightened possibility of intra- and inter-tribal conflict in these areas.  Third, those tribes that are most prominent within the Turkish-controlled regions on northeastern Syria are increasingly openly aligning with Turkey. Fourth, two tribes in particular — the Shummar and the Al-E’keidat — are attempting to pursue a policy of relative independence, leveraging their prominence, cohesiveness, and wealth as a means of negotiating separate agreements with whichever new actors become the dominant force in their areas of influence.

Background and Methodology

Much of the background analysis presented in this paper was drawn from a previous COAR paper, Tribal Tribulations, published in May 20191.  That research focused on the important social role that the tribe plays in northeastern Syria, in particular the role that tribal leaders play in dictating the political orientation of the tribe itself.2  Notably, while the tribe is not necessarily a cohesive entity as such, tribal affiliation informs the social composition of many communities, and tribal leadership figures often perform important governance functions to include dispute mediation, distribution of economic welfare and patronage, and security provision.  Shared tribal identity is thus often a critical component of armed group membership, the formation of political blocs, and the basis of popular mobilization. For that reason, tribal leaders are often influential political brokers, and frequently they are the best means of gauging the political orientation of the tribe as a whole.

Note: In maps throughout this report, individual points represent assessed communities. In communities shown by a solid color, a single tribe or affiliation is most prominent. In communities with split coloration, multiple tribes or affiliations are assessed.

Using field researchers, Tribal Tribulations also mapped which tribes were most prominent within each community in northeastern Syria.  The paper specifically focused on mapping the tribal outreach policies of regional governments, namely Turkey, Iran, and the Government of Syria.  The ultimate purpose of this tribal outreach was to secure relationships with northeastern Syria’s Arab tribesmen to create spheres of political influence within territory controlled by the SDF.  This policy had a geographic component: Turkey has specifically focusing on building relationships on Arab tribes in the proposed ‘safe zone’, especially in Tell Abiad and Ras Al-Ain; for its part, the Government of Syria engaged in tribal outreach throughout northeastern Syria, generally relying on pre-conflict tribal relationships.

Now, this tribal outreach policy is coming to fruition, and tribes are increasingly compelled to take sides as the political situation in northeastern Syria changes due to the Turkish incursion, the SDF’s alliance of necessity with the Government of Syria, and Russian mediation between the Government of Syria and the Self Administration.  To that end, for this paper, COAR field researchers in northeastern Syria have assessed the alignment of 19 major tribes in Al-Hasakeh, Deir-ez-Zor, and Ar-Raqqa governorates, and mapped this data onto the previously compiled tribal mapping data. Researchers focused on the alignment of these tribes and their tribal leaders as they are perceived locally in northeastern Syria. This is an imperfect methodology, but considering the speed of unfolding events, it does present a cohesive, if preliminary, set of findings that can inform an understanding of the future trajectory of tribal politics in northeastern Syria.

New Tribal ‘Alignments’

This paper proposes that Arab tribes can now be categorized into five distinct tendencies reflecting the political alignment of these tribes.  These five tendencies are: supportive of the Government of Syria; supportive of the SDF (generally out of a fear of the Government of Syria); internally divided between the government and the SDF; supportive of Turkey; and Independent.

Supportive of the Government of Syria

Nine of the 19 tribes assessed by COAR field researchers were perceived as being aligned with the Government of Syria.  These tribes are dispersed throughout all of northeastern Syria. Several of these tribes, such as the Tayy and the Bakkara, have been longstanding allies of the Government of Syria and have consistently been at odds with the SDF.3  However, others such as the Jbour or the Bou Assaf have large numbers of tribesmen who are SDF combatants, but tribal leadership figures either have high posts within the Government of Syria,4 or maintain open channels with Syrian government officials.5   Ultimately, many of these tribes are orienting themselves towards the Government of Syria out of pragmatism; the leaders of these tribes sense that the Government of Syria is returning to the region and the SDF may no longer exist in its current form, and their tribal leaders are essentially seeking to ensure that they will have some role in the region’s future.

Supportive of the SDF

Two tribes were noted by researchers as remaining staunchly aligned to the SDF — namely, the Al-Weldeh tribe, and the Afadleh tribe, both in Ar-Raqqa.  However, four other tribes were considered to be internally divided between supporting the SDF or realigning to the government of Syria (covered in greater detail below).  Most notably, the tribes that have remained supportive of the SDF are primarily located in Ar-Raqqa. Indeed, in August 2019 many Arab tribes in Ar-Raqqa regularly engaged in local protests, preemptively demonstrating against the Government of Syria returning to northeastern Syria.  According to researchers, there are essentially two major drivers pushing tribes to remain aligned to the SDF: fears of, or grievances against, the Government of Syria, or the perceived benefits to remaining aligned with the SDF. Many Arab tribesmen, especially in Ar-Raqqa, have a history of having aligned with the armed opposition in the early stages of the conflict, and consequently fear that a return of the Government of Syria will lead to evacuations, detentions, or revenge killings.  Others have specific grievances against the Government of Syria; for example, the Al-Weldeh tribe were originally located in the vicinity of what is now Lake Assad, and were expelled from their land by the government in 1974 in order to make way for the construction of the Tabqa dam. Additionally, some tribes in Ar-Raqqa, such as the Afadleh, have prominent roles in local and military councils in Ar-Raqqa under the Self Administration, and would view the return of the Government of Syria as a direct challenge to their power locally.  To that end, likely in an attempt to ensure the continued affiliation of both tribes, on October 29 the Ar-Raqqa civil council was restructured and the Self Administration has given members of both the Afadleh and the Al-Weldeh tribes a highly prominent role in the council.

Internally Divided Between the Government and the SDF

As noted, four of the 19 tribes examined by researchers were perceived as being internally divided between aligning with the Government of Syria, or remaining aligned to the SDF.  Each of these tribes is motivated by the same factors driving tribes that are now openly aligning with either the government or the SDF; what differentiates these tribes is the fact that they are less cohesive due to a multiplicity of leadership figures, or other narrow, parochial concerns.  Many of the tribes that are internally divided between aligning with the SDF or the Government are located primarily in Ar-Raqqa, or in rural Deir-ez-Zor. For example, in northeastern Syria the Al-Naim tribe is primarily located in Deir-ez-Zor, although it has branches across Syria and numerous leadership figures with close relationships to Government of Syria stakeholders.  However, a component of the Al-Naim tribe is in fact Kurdish and is openly supportive of the SDF. Another example is the Al-Bursan tribe, which like the Al-Wedlah tribe, was expelled from the vicinity of Lake Assad in 1974, and have been given a prominent role under the SDF’s Ar-Raqqa military council; however, prominent members of the Al-Bursan are also reportedly negotiating with the Government of Syria under the promise that they will be allowed to reclaim their ancestral lands along Lake Assad.

Supportive of Turkey

Researchers noted two tribes that are for all intents and purposes now aligned with Turkey: the Jeis and the Adawan.  The Jeis are primarily located in Tell Abiad, and the Adawan are the most prominent tribe in Ras Al-Ain; thus, their alignment with Turkey is in recognition of the fact that Turkey now exercices de facto in control of both areas.  Both tribes have also been a major focal point of the Turkish tribal outreach strategy in northeastern Syria. For example, the most important and popular leader of the Adawan tribe is Mohamad Al-Helou, who is also known as Abu Jasim; Abu Jasim is currently the Vice-Prime Minister of the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government.  Similarly, the leader of the Jeis tribe, Hassan Sheikh Ali Salloum has closely aligned himself with the Government of Turkey since the start of the Syrian conflict, and has lived in Turkey since 2014. Additionally, tribesmen from both tribes are also represented in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, and members of both tribes have been displaced to northern Aleppo and have openly advocated for a Turkish-backed offensive into Tell Abiad so that they can return to their communities of origin.

Independent

Two tribes — the Shummar and the Al-E’keidat — have been noted as independently engaging with the SDF and the Government of Syria on the basis of the considerable leverage they possess.  Here, independent refers not necessarily to the tribe’s alignment, but to its capacity to negotiate, as a tribe, with the government and the SDF. In this respect, both tribes should be viewed as powerbrokers in their own right.  The Shummar are by far the most cohesive, well-armed, and best-organized Arab tribe in Al-Hasakeh. The Shummar are led by the Jarba family, and the Shummar maintain their own armed group, the Sanadid, which is a significant component of the SDF.  Throughout the conflict the Shummar have aligned themselves to the YPG and the SDF; however, members of the Jarba family often negotiate independently with the Government of Syria, Turkey, and Russia. For example, Ahmed Jarba has regularly coordinated with the Government of Turkey. Similarly, Dahham Hadi Jarba has regularly been invited to the Government of Russia’s military base in Hmeimim, and his son Dahham Hadi is now a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee on the civil society list, reportedly at the request of Russia. Essentially, due to their cohesiveness, relative strength, and relationships with multiple regional actors, the Shummar are able to negotiate an important role independant of the Self Administration in the future politics of northeastern Syria.

The Al-E’keidat is also pursuing an independent policy on the basis of resource wealth.  The Al-E’keidat are among the most prominent tribes in the oil fields of Deir-ez-Zor; thus, they are a crucial interlocutor for any actor seeking to control Deir-ez-Zor’s most critical natural resource.  Notably, while many Al-E’keidat are a part of the SDF through the Deir-ez-Zor military council, the tribe also harbors serious grievances against both the Government of Syria and the SDF. The Al-E’keidat were overwhelmingly associated with the armed opposition in the early stages of the conflict, and many fear the return of the Government of Syria.  However, the Al-E’keidat have also had serious disputes with the SDF and the Self Administration, primarily due to the fact that they feel that they are not adequately represented in military and governance structures, and that they are not receiving their warranted share of financial benefits from Deir-ez-Zor’s oil fields. Thus, the Al-E’keidat are likely to negotiate with both the Government of Syria and the SDF for greater local authority as a means of securing the loyalty of the tribe.  To that end, sheikhs from the Al-E’keidat tribe are already reportedly negotiating with the Government of Syria to grant all Al-Ek’eidat tribesmen that have fought with the SDF a general amnesty, while simultaneously continuing to negotiate with the SDF over revenue sharing in Deir-ez-Zor’s oil fields.

Findings

  • It is likely that many Arab tribes in Al-Hasakeh will attempt to align themselves with the Government of Syria, opening severe fractures within the SDF.  One of the largest concerns of Arab tribesmen and tribal leaders in northeastern Syria is that they will be punished for having been affiliated with the SDF, as seen in the case of armed opposition combatants in reconciled areas.  For this reason, the fragmentation of the SDF is increasingly likely as tribal leaders, as well as individual combatants, attempt to distance themselves from the SDF in light of its potential amalgamation into the command structures of the Government of Syria .

  • There is the distinct possibility of inter- and intra-tribal conflict in Ar-Raqqa.  Tribes in Ar-Raqqa are generally charting one of two courses: remaining aligned to the SDF, or realigning to the Government of Syria.  This raises concerns that pro-government and pro-SDF tribes will begin to engage in open conflict with one another; similarly, there is also an increasingly possibility of conflict within tribes themselves, as tribal leaders within divided tribes jockey for influence.

  • Tribes located in Turkish-controlled areas are aligning themselves with Turkey, limiting Turkish influence elsewhere.  Turkish efforts to build relationships with the Arab tribes in Ras Al-Ain and Tell Abiad are well-documented, and appear to have borne fruit with Turkey’s new territorial control over the region.  However, in parts of northeastern Syria outside of Turkish control, no tribes appear to be attempting to align with Turkey.   Essentially, Turkey’s tribal outreach strategy is now likely to be localized to the areas that it controls.

  • The ‘independent’ Shummar and Al-Ek’eidat tribes will likely become critically important powerbrokers in their respective areas.  The Shummar are the most prominent Arab tribe in Al-Hasakeh governorate, while the Al-Ek’eidat are the most prominent tribe in Syria’s oil-rich regions of Deir-ez-Zor.  Both the Government of Syria and the SDF will be compelled to negotiate with these tribes in order to secure influence within these areas. Whether through financial incentives and guarantees of representation, or the threat of force, whichever actor is able to secure the loyalty of these tribes will, to a point, ensure political dominance over these areas.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.