The Role of the Arab Tribes in Syria
Ghassan Aboud 2021-06-14 00:00:00
- The third time negotiations I had with Brigadier General Manaf Tlas on 4/8/2010, in his capacity as a representative of Bashar Al-Assad at the time, failed; an issue, which I will dwell on in more details in a future article. He knew then that I would not agree to their terms of a partnership. Hence, in an attempt to break me down and make me offer a token of loyalty to the Al-Assad regime, Tlass asked me to send a "trailer"/a truck that could accommodate ten jeep Lexus cars - the price of each at that time was about $100,000 - donated to the Republican Guard. This was in addition to five million dollars, I was asked to pay to one of the tribes in the Al-Hasakah district. I also refused their request. I said, "I won't pay. I left Syria after graduating from the university. I had no job or work in Syria, and did not earn a penny in!
The Tribes Amid Turning Their Back or Learning The Lesson
- In Lawrence of Arabia's memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence frequently talks about the bribes he was giving to the Arab tribes on the way to liberating the Al-Hijaz and Syria from the Ottomans. That was in order to lure and urge them to participate and fight alongside Sharif Hussein and his sons?!
It was in Houran where the first spark of the revolution against the down to core sectarian, racist, immoral criminal corrupted regime, triggered. Young men and women demanded their clan leaders to stand with the revolution and support their claims. The involvement of the clan leaders in short-term interests with the regime did not prevent them from standing up against it and rejecting its exclusionary and humiliating policies. It was the clan/tribe people only who had little breaths left to prevent them from crumbling under the tying policies of the regime in its restrain, humiliation, and contempt of the Syrian people. Notwithstanding the fact that many residents of the urban neighborhoods throughout Syria feared the revolution against the regime, though they hated it very much. People in urbane metropolitan areas very well know that they are rooted up and had no shelter that may join up with their forces into a formidable power capable of providing them with protection!
The spark of the revolution went spreading from the tribal region of clans from to another. From Hauran in southern Syria to Homs in its middle to Idleb and the countryside of Aleppo in its northern parts to all the cities of eastern Syria. Some of the urban places had a fair share as well.
In contrast with this extremely noble and ultraistic sacrificial attitude, the two previous examples of the lowest form of carelessness and mercenary, there seems to be something hidden. Something that the people in control of the region do not wish us to realize and take action in this regard?!
Whenever the term clan or tribe comes to our mind, the first thing we may think of is primitiveness, isolation, intolerance, hatred of unfamiliar persons, hatred of the other, distrust towards others, ignorance, war-minded, revenge, and vengeance. For some, a tribe means simplicity and naivety, playing rural music on a lute-like Rababa, digging in Mahbaj, a stone basin for threshing coffee beans manually, a cup of coffee, an arrogant clan sheikh, cardamom, and camels! For others, it represents genuinely unspoiled values such as generosity, honorable morality, sacrifice, poetry, and the horse, with an economic life-style depending only on nurturing camels, sheep, and goats, and people wholly taken up with these products?!
With this dogmatic kind of thinking in our heads, the tribe and tribal way of life and politics would become far beyond any civilized system. Those living in tribal areas would hence look like people who know nothing about civilization, administration, and politics. The tribe itself becomes a pure evil, just a kind of joke or a fly-by-night tale among the dunes of the desert! But then again, the fact is that with these dogmatic viewpoints in our head, we become absent-minded about the truth that the Arab tribes are simply natural human communities and are subject to drifts, development, and regression as well, etc. Among the dogmas we have inherited from the Orientalists there lies a hidden force that we missed knowing how to employ correctly. A force that the enemy knew how to exploit with bribery and trap them in detriment to their homeland. Accordingly, it is undeniable that the majority of the Arab urban elites by and large misunderstand the nature of the tribes. This misconception about the tribes and looking at them as though they are primitive, violent, and isolated has actual harmful impacts on the political organization of our communities, on their stability much as it has on their political and social unity.
The tribe is an inevitable disposition and a historical reality that may never be overlooked. And much as it has an attractive aspect, it also yields a necessity. A topmost important necessity we have come to be aware of these days. Along this line, in light of the bursting of the bubble about the regime's claim of statehood and rule of the state, many groups and individuals in Syria reverted to the tribe. This is in order to take refuge in and to be protected from the harsh conditions, from the brutality of a sectarian repressive authority, and corruption taking the form of a state. A corruption that has sucked out the country's resources and depleted. A corruption that has committed all sorts of criminal acts and fragmented the country. They reverted to the tribe to seek refuge from a sectarian flock claiming to be ruling in the name of the state and in the of the people; a flock which however has persecuted the people and turned the state into prison and taken the country's populations captives after it had convinced them to become loyal to the state. And when the majority did so, the flock's scourge went lashing the people who were left lonely with no lending hand or someone to back! In the face of the state's brutality, the tribe will be the last bastion to resist the state's despotism and the centralized dictatorship. An issue which we are going to tackle in a future article.
The tribal reality from the time of the Al-Assad rule over to the revolution and its consequences:
Upon termination of the French mandate over Syria, the tribes, many of whose men led uprisings against the French occupation, were part of the national government that ruled Syria by consensus among all of the country's components. However, Hafez Al-Assad's sectarian coup re-established the occupation policy in its dealing with the Syrian tribes. That was through its using the stick policy represented by the power of sectarian militias / the army and the carrot bribes played up with money and positions. As we have mentioned above in the opening of this article
The revolutionary youth played an effective role in mobilizing their clans against the criminal Al-Assad, his regime, and his militias. The tribal communities also played a key role in the spreading out of the protests and demonstrations to engulf the whole of Syria. This was by dint of the powerful authority the tribal sheikhs enjoy among the youth and is respected. They also had wisdom that made them responsive to the wish of the tribe's members. For that reason, a large number of the tribal sheikhs declared their taking a stand with the revolution against the regime. Some of them, nonetheless, lingered, were afraid and hesitant, waiting for whose weight and balance would shift, while some at first supported the regime on basis of taking bribes and out of self-interest. Many of those, however, turned back to support the revolution, fearing for their position, which began to decline in the eyes of the tribe's youth.
The tribal ties stretching from Syria to the Gulf States and Iraq had helped the flow of weapons and money into Syria. We came to see an earth-shattering collapse of the Sykes-Picot border in the literal sense of the word collapse. This was what made the revolution capable to confront the Al-Assad Shiite Iranian-Lebanese-Iraq sectarian militias altogether. It only broke down by the expansion of Daesh, especially in northeastern Syria, following which the raids of the coalition and Russia took place, tearing off the tribes apart and rendering them weak. Added to this, the severe measures that had been taken to stop the support coming from the members of the Gulf tribes for fear of being accused of supporting extremist factions. Accordingly, after the revolution had brought together the youth of the clans, the cruel attacks and yet the cruelest siege led to the emigration of many. The families were dispersed, the traditional solidarity ties went ebbing and the support of their brothers in the Gulf dried out. Many tribal leaders in the region had difficulty establishing their influence and authority. Tribal conflicts also surfaced as a result of their conflict to jump at and take hold of the largest possible amount of the spoils of the war in the region, including the oil and gas fields. Over and above, to win the privileges of being loyal to blocs backed by influential countries, such as "Qasd /QFS" the US-backed Kurdish militia, and the Turkish-backed National Army militias.
The Tribes and the extremist organizations
An emir in an extremist group challenges a tribal sheikh and strips him of his authority over the tribe he heads. Hence, the tribes are one of the most important weapons in the face of extremist groups. We have two narratives about how the "Sahawat" awakenings had been engineered. The first maintains that: The Americans turned their back to the tribes in Iraq. The tribal sheikhs, after suffering for a long time from the expansion and dominance of the extremist groups, solicited the Americans and asked them to cooperate to resist the spread of the extremist groups, including Daesh and to provide them with the necessary weapons. Accordingly, the awakenings were hatched. The other narrative says: The Americans infiltrated the tribal sheikhs and recruited them to fight the takfiri groups. As I tend to weigh over the first narrative, the Americans looked at the tribes and clans as essential partners in its war on extremist organizations. Accordingly, the US appointed the tribes as local agents in its war and formed with them what was called the Awakenings. A situation in which the interests of the two parties teamed up to overthrow Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In contrast, the imprints of the Al-Assad regime for nearly 50 years resulted in the division of the Syrian clans and had resentment against each other. Something that rendered them fragile in comparison to the sister groups in Iraq, and therefore, unable to form a united front against Daesh and Al-Nusra. Indeed, the Al-Shaitat tribe lost about a thousand of its youth when it fought a battle alone against Daesh. In view of that, the Americans relied on the Kurds and adopted them as alternative local agents. As they were more organized, united, and able to enforce command and control; which the Arab tribes in Syria were in short of.
It is from the tribal womb that brave leaders, prophets, and wise men have always nurtured to lead nations. Equally, it is the tribal womb that gave birth to academics, university professors, doctors, engineers, high-ranking officers, lawyers, and builders who leveraged good achievements for the Syrian people. Therefore, only a childlike person may characterize the tribe with naivety, cunning, backwardness, and isolation. Notwithstanding the fact that the reality of the tribes is comparable to the entire situation of the Syrian society in its being fragmented and corrupted. In spite of this, I find that they are still the most important factor that can be depended on to herald the first building block for restoring stability to Syria and reshaping its overall community. If we are looking forward to see that day, we must understand the nature of the tribes, their strengths, and fortify them so that they are a gathering factor rather than posing as one of the causes of our political problems. The tribe is contributing factor in finding a solution. Just as it was a refuge to protect its members from the tyranny of the most criminal regimes in history, it can also be a refuge to protect the Syrian nation from the inevitable end; in case the situation remains as it is, with the loyalty and connections that the tribes are privileged with. If we come to know that "about 150 million members of tribal background are living in more than 60 countries around the world within non-tribal societies. And that they mingle in with, learn from for centuries and also interact with each other; something that contributed to their making achievements and thrive." If we also recall that many of the nations in the East, in its full range from one end to other, including the Arabs and the Turks, were led by their pioneering tribes to build up the greatest states throughout history and turning these nations into prosperity, we would know that the issue is worth discussing and put into action.
The most significant starting point is to rehabilitate the tribal leaders to realize that they are the most proficient, the most capable, and the most worthy to restore unity to Syria and heal its cracks. That they should be able to uphold a true national thinking that never disproves the identity affiliations in its particulars; the tribal links being one of those. They however should not act within the tribal narrow scopes, but rather strengthens that scope to unify the community and create a decentralized state. A state built on justice to all, away from struggling to win bargain gains and be a plaything for this or that state. They would rather compete among themselves within the framework of the tribe institution that has protected them for centuries. This is in order to reach building up state-run institutions that manage competition in a conscious national manner. Therefore, the tribal elders must find out a way to consciously negotiate a solution to their differences. They need to give listening ears to the sons of their clans amongst themselves and tolerate. According to the current situation we are in, I think that they further are the most capable of forming a security force to control the security in the areas liberated from Al-Assad's militias. Among them, there are practically dozens of dissident officers who are capable to shoulder this task efficiently. They can also confront the extremist groups, the separatist groups, the gangs of corruption and theft, and breathe security into life; the cornerstone on which growth and development depend.
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