Syrian tribes, national politics and the uprising

By Dawn Chatty

Professor Dawn Chatty

The understanding of tribes in the contemporary Middle East has undergone significant changes over the past century; at times the tribes have been rendered invisible and at other times important partners in local governance. And although Bedouin tribes have been largely missing from contemporary political discourses, there is convincing evidence that in fact they never disappeared; they simply were not officially acknowledged.

In the 1920s, French mandatory authorities set up semi-autonomous administrations of the tribes in the semi-arid steppe of Syria, the Badia. The 1950s, the early years of independence, saw the de-legislation of tribes and efforts to break tribal association and transnational territorial and resource holdings. In recent years, however, tribal self-identification in Syria and Lebanon has grown and involvement in the Syrian uprising is noticeable.

The Bedouin tribes in the 20th and 21st century

While Bedouin in Syria use the term Bedu and ‘Arab to refer to themselves, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the western-most finger of the Badia, the term Bedu is rejected in favour of the term ‘asha’iri (tribal). Historical records show that local sheep-herding common tribes (‘Arab) occupied the Badia from the 14th century, and that long distance camel-herding noble tribes (Bedu) entered the region beginning in the 18th century. In the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, many Bedouin leaders supported the establishment of an Arab independent state. The leaders of three Bedouin tribes with close proximity to Damascus – the Ruwalla, the Fadl and the Hassanna – were particularly active in supporting the Arab nation, the Kingdom in Syria (1918-1920). In 1918 both Nuri Sha’laan of the Ruwalla and Trad al Melhim of the Hassanna entered Damascus with the troops of Emir Faysal to establish the Kingdom of Syria. Along the Euphrates, Fed’aan Bedu tribal forces led the region between Dayr al Zawr and Raqqa for Emir Faysal against the invading French forces. However, while their attention was focussed on local negotiations regarding the political future of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, their own homeland, the Badia of Northern Arabia, was being carved up following the secret negotiations between Sir Mark Sykes and his counterparts among the French and the Russians (Sykes Picot Agreement, 1916). Sykes drew a line from Acre to Kirkuk to protect future oil interests and the open territory of the Badia became a British corridor between Trans-Jordan and Iraq, separating the Syrian Badia from its natural southern half in Saudi Arabia. At the stroke of a pen the Aneza and Shammar confederations of noble Bedu tribes became transnational.

The French mandate authority gave the Bedouin special status because they needed their cooperation to guarantee a continuous and safe passage through the region for commerce and travel to Baghdad, and to protect the oil installations and pipe lines between Mosul and Haifa. The French divided the tribes into nomadic, noble Bedu, including the Aneza and Shammar confederations as well as the more powerful sheep-herding tribes such as the Hadidiyin, the Mawali and the Haib, and semi-nomadic, common ‘Arab tribes comprising all the other common sheep-herding tribes like the Beni Khalid.

By the 1950s, the separate status of state-like character which the French had granted the Bedouin tribes was an immediate thorn in the side of the independent nationalist rulers of Syria. The new Syrian government policy wanted to educate this ‘wild’ population and turn them into good Syrian citizens. Thus they pursued an aggressive tribal policy aimed at ultimately abolishing all tribal privileges and power. Settling the Bedouin was regarded as a key part of this process. On 28 September 1958, the President of Syria repealed the Law of the Tribes and proclaimed that henceforth tribes would cease to possess any separate legal identity. This was the last legislation to deal specifically with the Bedouin tribes and marked the final legal act in the long struggle between central governments and the Bedouin tribes and their leaders, many of whom fled the country.

In 1970 Hafez al Asad led an internal coup and set out to broaden the support base for his own regime. He invited tribal shaykhs and other dissidents to return to Syria – including the shaykh of the Hadidiyin tribe who was in exile in Jordan and under the protection of King Hussein. Relations with the Bedouin tribes became more generous and the Asad era heralded a pragmatic approach to conflict resolution. Thus, in contradiction to the Law of 1958, Asad encouraged tribal members to resolve disputes through traditional channels. Although the Ba’th philosophy was meant to do away with sectarian and tribal interests, Hafez al Asad instituted reforms which permitted the Bedouin to continue to operate an alternative system of authority and thus also power – but power allied to the state. At the same time, perhaps fearing Bedouin tribal authority could get out of hand, he built up relations with numerous minor shaykhs as potential challengers, if need be, in the future. In recent years, the President has frequently appointed a Bedouin as Minister of Agriculture, and Bedouin have also been given important posts in the Ministry of Interior and the Ba’th Party Regional Command. The governor of Der’a in 2010, for example, was the shaykh of the Agheidat tribe. A number of Ba’th Party members are reported to currently claim Bedouin origins as do several other important members of the Internal Security apparatus in the country. This trend to identify or create ‘fictive’ kinship links with Bedouin is very recent among Ba’th party members. Although Hafez el Asad astutely sought out their cooperation and gave them leeway to manage their own lands, Bashar seems to have taken this relationship a step further by promoting a significant number of individuals who either self-identify as Bedouin or are encouraged to do so. It suggests a contemporary recognition that some Bedouin leaders have a strong following in the Badia which is potentially beneficial to the government, but needs to be harnessed.

No official statistics exist in Syria regarding the size of the Bedouin population in the country. In 1999 the Minister of Health put the number of Bedouin in Syria at somewhere around 900,000. As a percentage of the total population of the country Bedouin would thus represent between 5-7%. More recent estimates by researchers double this figure, suggesting that self-identifying Bedouin are closer to 10-12% of the total population of the country.

The Syrian uprising

The Syrian uprising has drawn Bedouin leaders, national and transnational, from all over the Badia deeply into the conflict. Their voices and positions are largely, but not exclusively, with the Opposition. During the first few months of peaceful demonstration the Shaykh of the Hassanna in Syria was outspoken about the need for greater freedom, dignity and respect. He posted regularly on his website and his blogs were eagerly read. In a later phase of the uprising he, as well as other Aneza and Shammar confederation leaders, joined the Syrian Tribal Council which met in Amman and then later in Istanbul to find commonalities with the Syrian National Coalition. In July 2013, Shaykh Ahmed Al Garba, a member of the same family as the great Shammar leader, Ajil Al Yawar, was elected president of the Syrian National Council. Other tribal leaders and their followers, such as the Ageidat, have been particularly active in forming armed anti-Assad fighting groups at the local level and as part of a national tribal coalition that calls itself the ‘Ageidat Tribal Brigade’. The Hadidiyin are fighting with the Opposition near Aleppo and Idlib, the Mawali near Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa, while the Beni Khalid have several battalions fighting with the Free Syria Army near Homs and its suburbs. Other Mawali tribesmen are fighting against the Syrian military in the vicinity of Ma’arat Nu’man.

Some of the tribal leaders with previous close links to the security services in Syria and in Lebanon have remained loyal to the regime. The Baggara – a large confederation of ‘common’ sheep-herding tribes in the Jazira east of the Euphrates River – have participated in armed activities both in support of and against the Opposition. Baggara fighters are reported to work with the Syrian military to attack opposition-controlled neighbourhoods in Aleppo. Others have rallied round the son of the paramount shaykh of the Baggara, al Bashir, and supported his defection to Turkey where he became a prominent leader within the Council of the Arab Tribes of Syria and the leader of the Jazira and Euphrates Front to Liberate Syria (al Safir 2013). Aneza and Shammar tribal leaders have commented on the lack of internal coherence and ‘common’ origins of the Baggara to explain their attachment to the regime. Others see the Baggara’s lack of cohesion as having more to do with Hafez al Asad’s relentless parcelling out of favours to sub-tribal leaders while also undermining their tribe’s autonomy as a whole.


However convenient it would be to associate all the ‘noble’ tribal leaders and their followers with the Opposition and its backers in Saudi Arabia, and all the ‘common’ local tribes with the regime, the lines are not clear-cut. Many of the Hadidiyin are furious that one of their sub-tribal leaders has sided with the regime while most of the tribe are siding with the Opposition. Perhaps as a legacy of the Hafez al Asad era when numerous minor tribal leaders were either being cultivated or punished, the ‘common’ tribes with no ties to Saudi Arabia could not remove themselves from the disempowering influence of the regime and grab opportunities to reinforce their tribal solidarity. Instead they had to remain in Syria and suffer the deprivations and calculated favours which were parsimoniously handed out by the regime. The result of this astute political game by Asad was that among many of the ‘common’ tribesmen, alliances and allegiances to their leadership were not so clearly drawn.

The peaceful protests in Syria in the first few months of 2011 were transformed into violent confrontation between protestors and Syrian security personnel in March 2011 in Der’a and shortly thereafter in Homs and Hama. This string of towns has a strong tribal presence. It is clearly evident that the Bedouin communities in these flashpoints resorted to armed self-defence. Some tribal leaders have issued manifestos against the Asad regime (e.g. Al-Hassanna); their followers have formed brigades to defend their neighbourhoods and quarters in the front line cities against security forces onslaughts. Other tribal leaders, particularly those who had been drawn into close working relationships with the internal security forces of the country, as well as those in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, have aligned themselves with the Syrian Ba’th regime (e.g. some Baggara and Al-Hadidiyin). For the present, it appears that these alternative sources of authority are being reinforced and invigorated by the political stand which most Bedouin leaders have taken both against and with the current state power. The transnational as well as the local Bedouin tribes of Syria and Lebanon have moved out of the margins and become a significant part of the political imaginary of the Syrian uprising.

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