How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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.
In the closing years of World War I, many Bedouin leaders supported the establishment of a single, independent Arab state throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In 1918, the leaders of two prominent tribes -- Nuri Shaalan of the Ruwalla and Trad al Melhim of the Hassanna -- entered Damascus with the troops of Emir Faisal and T. E. Lawrence to establish the short-lived Kingdom of Syria, which collapsed under French fire two years later. Faisal became the king of the newly created state of Iraq, installed by the British, who also made his brother, Abdullah, the Emir of neighboring Transjordan, which later became Jordan. Shaalan and Melhim were not as fortunate. They doggedly pursued negotiations over the political future of their homeland, but its fate had already been determined in secret wartime negotiations between Britain, France, and Russia -- the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The agreement drew a line from Acre on the Mediterranean to Kirkuk in northern Iraq in order to protect future British oil interests. The Bedouin heartland between Transjordan and Iraq became British territory, and the Syrian badia was severed from its natural southern half in Saudi Arabia. Tribes that had roamed with little regard to national borders suddenly became transnational.
Between 1920 and 1943, the French mandate authority gave the Bedouin in Syria special legal status that offered them semi-independence in the Syrian badia in return for their cooperation in protecting the oil installations and pipelines between Mosul and Haifa and safe passage in general throughout the region. By the 1950s, independent nationalist rulers of Syria grew tired of this Bedouin state within a state and set out to tame its population. They abolished all tribal privileges that the French colonial authorities had established, including, in 1958, during Syria’s brief union with Egypt as the United Arab Republic, stripping tribes of their separate legal identity. As a result, many Bedouin fled the country.
Just over a decade later, the Bedouin’s fortunes changed. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad, newly installed as Syria’s leader after a bloodless coup, set out to broaden the support base for his new regime. He invited tribal sheikhs and other Bedouin to return to Syria. Assad encouraged reforms that granted the Bedouin their own system of legal authority based on customary law. Never fully trusting the tribes, though, he also built up relations with numerous minor sheikhs, who could be counted on as potential counterweights to the more powerful and prominent tribal leaders if needed.
Over the past two decades, both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar have appointed Bedouin as ministers of agriculture and have given them important postings in the Ministry of Interior and the Baath Party Regional Command. Bashar has taken the government’s relationship to the tribes a step further by promoting more Bedouin to prominence within the regime and condoning claims by some Baath party members to tribal links or origins. Simply put, by the end of the twentieth century, the state had come to recognize the value of co-opting Bedouin leaders -- in one way or another.
Since 2011, the Bedouin have emerged to chart their own course. The Syrian uprising has drawn in fighters and their backers from around the region, including Bedouin leaders and their followers both inside and outside Syria. They stand largely, but not exclusively, with the opposition. During the first few months of peaceful demonstrations, the sheikh of the Hassanna tribe, living in Salamiyeh, near Homs, was outspoken about the need for greater freedoms. In these early months, he and other Bedouin leaders called for political reform and an end to corruption, echoing the calls of most of the locally organized coordinating committees. Later in the uprising, he and other Bedouin leaders, including from the Aneza and Shammar tribes, joined the Syrian Tribal Council, which met in Amman and Istanbul to plan Syria’s future with the Syrian National Coalition.
In July 2013, Ahmad Jarba, a leader of the Shammar tribe, from eastern Syria, was elected president of the Syrian National Coalition. Not only was Jarba from one of the most powerful Bedouin tribes in the region, but he and his tribesmen also received strong backing from Saudi Arabia. Other tribes in the council, such as the Ageidat -- who, like other Syrian tribes, spread across central and eastern Syria, from Deir al-Zor and Hassakeh to Salamiyeh -- have been active in forming armed local groups, often with aid and arms from Saudi Arabia. Members of the Hadidiyin are fighting alongside the opposition near Aleppo and Idlib. Mawali tribesmen have joined the fray in Maarat Numan, near Idlib, as well as in Hama and Raqqa. The Beni Khalid, meanwhile, have several battalions fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army in and around Homs, and are said to have been effective in protecting a number of neighborhoods.
Not all tribes fight against the regime, however. Some tribal leaders who have close links to the security services in Syria and in Lebanon have remained loyal to the regime. Take the Baggara, a large confederation of sheepherding tribes in the Jazeera region east of the Euphrates River. Some Baggara fighters are reportedly working with the Syrian military to attack rebel-controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, adding to regime advances there.
On first glance, it may appear that the transnational and “noble” tribes, such as the Shammar and Hadidiyin, are allied with the opposition (and, crucially, its backers in Saudi Arabia), and that the “common” local tribes side with the regime. But the divisions are not so clear-cut. Many of the Hadidiyin are furious that one of their sub-tribal leaders has sided with the regime even as most of the rest of the tribe has joined the opposition. Leadership, as a result, has fractured within the Hadidiyin, reducing the tribe's overall power and authority. Ambiguous loyalties are likely tied to the legacy of Hafez al-Assad’s tribal policies, when many local “common” tribal leaders were either being cultivated by the regime as pliant allies -- or punished for their refusal to go along -- while many transnational “noble” tribes lived outside Syria to escape the regime.
Unlike the “noble” tribes, which depended on their ties to Saudi Arabia to survive in exile, Syria’s local tribes had to remain in Syria to suffer the regime’s deprivations and calculated favors. The Assads’ political strategy ensured the allegiances of many of the “common” tribes for years -- although as the uprising has proved, loyalties can shift. Either way, by taking positions against or with the Assad regime, the tribes have reasserted their place on Syria’s political map -- as a vital part of the diverse opposition or as one of the regime’s bulwarks. The transnational Bedouin tribes with links beyond Syria and the local Syrian Bedouin have moved from the margins to become significant players in the country’s violent transformation.
Until the four major powers -- Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States -- decide that enough fighting is enough and withdraw their support, or agree to negotiate a cease-fire, Syria’s Bedouin will continue to defend themselves. Some will keep working closely with local coordination councils against attacks from government forces and, in other areas, hardline jihadists. Others will continue aiding the regime.
If Assad’s forces start to prevail in wider areas around the country, local Bedouin will undoubtedly be among his armed forces. Tribes with links beyond Syria, however, are most likely to keep their distance from the government. Each tribal group has its own exit strategy. Some local “common” tribal leaders and their fighters in the opposition could seek sanctuary across the border in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The transnational tribal leaders could flee for Jordan or Saudi Arabia if Assad prevails and wait to be invited back by a resurgent regime. Assad, crucially, has not branded the Bedouin who fight against him as “foreign terrorists,” so he has maintained room to maneuver.
More likely is that Assad’s government, which it appears will remain in power in the near- and mid-term, could invite the Bedouin who fought against him back into the fold just as his father did in 1970. Assad will be conciliatory, encouraging exiled tribal leaders to return to Syria and compelling those within the country to put down their arms. The regime will need the allegiance of the tribes in any attempt to reconcile social and political differences and to rebuild Syria’s fractured polity, because the Bedouin still support the idea of a Syrian Arab nation, just as their grandfathers did after World War I. The most effective way to restore a coherent Syria, rather than to accept a nation partitioned along sectarian or ethnic lines, is through the networks and social links to the country’s diverse population that these Bedouin tribes maintain.