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Syria's Bedouin Enter the Fray
How Tribes Could Keep Syria Together
DAWN CHATTY is University Professor in Anthropology and Forced Migration at the University of Oxford and the director of its Refugee Studies Centre. She is the author of Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East.See more by this author
By now it is well known that Syria’s uprising turned civil war began with the government’s suppression of peaceful protests in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011 before spreading north to Homs and Hama. What is less familiar are the strong tribal links that these cities have to Syria’s Bedouin communities, which constitute some ten to 15 percent of the country’s population. In all three battlegrounds, Bedouin communities, already under siege for much of Syria’s modern history, resorted to armed self-defense against the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The role of tribes in Syria’s uprising has been lost in accounts that frame the conflict as a fight to the death between Syria’s fractured opposition and a brutal regime. The oversight is nothing new: Damascus has long sought to silence this and other segments of Syrian society. And here, Syria is not alone. Bedouin tribes have been virtually left out of contemporary Arab politics, often according to regime dictates. Successive Syrian governments have sought to officially delegitimize the country’s Bedouin tribes, ignore them altogether, or co-opt them for regime gain. But none of those efforts ever made the tribes disappear. In fact, in recent years, tribal self-identification in Syria has only increased, and tribes’ involvement in the Syrian uprising signals that they should not be underestimated as the country’s future unfolds.
FROM LAWRENCE TO BASHAR
Historical records show that local, sheep-herding “common” tribes have occupied the semi-arid lands on the borders of Syria’s agricultural areas since the fourteenth century. More distant, camel-herding “noble” tribes, which roamed the vast stretches of desert that extend south deep into the Arabian Peninsula, entered those border regions, known as the badia, beginning in the eighteenth century. Bedouin describe themselves as asil (noble) or non-asil (common), a distinction that refers to two mythical ancestors in Arabia of the asil tribes, the Adnan and Qahtan. The “noble” tribes claim greater prestige through their lineage, but the “common” tribes cannot.