This week, militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fought members of the Shaitat tribe in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor, much of which is under ISIS control. AFP reports that members of the Sunni tribe subsequently tweeted about an “uprising” against the radical group.
Fighting quickly spread across the Sheitat-heavy villages of Abu Hamam, Kashkiyeh and Ghranij. It was the highest-profile clash between ISIS and a tribal group since the Sunni militants accelerated their eastward push in June, following a successful offensive on the Iraqi city of Mosul that saw it nearly eradicate the border between the two countries.
Tribes have a long, decorated history of fighting in Syria; many on the ground in the east see them as the last remaining barrier to ISIS domination of Deir Ezzor, which with its numerous oil fields is a key prize for the extremist group.
This week’s fighting was reportedly triggered by ISIS’s detention of three Sheitat tribesmen, violating the agreement made between the two sides, in which the Shaitat said it would not oppose ISIS in return for the extremists agreeing to not attack its members.
We asked Dawn Chatty, a social anthropologist at the University of Oxford and a prominent researcher of tribes in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, to weigh in on what makes them such formidable opponents for ISIS. She also describes their role in Syrian politics and how they could factor into future diplomatic negotiations.
Syria Deeply: How are the tribes currently aligned?
Dawn Chatty: Leadership can be quite fluid and the attachment to other groups and tribes can change over time. In the past I’ve had journalists say: “Tell me which tribes are aligned with the government and which are aligned with the opposition.”
There are broad brush strokes that you can make. Some of the former camel-raising or noble tribes have sided with the [moderate] opposition. Many of them had taken up residence in the suburbs of Homs, Hama and parts of Aleppo and Deraa. These were the big flash points when the conflict started [in 2011]. A lot of their original movement was not an uprising at all but protecting the local [neighborhoods].
What’s interesting is that all of the tribes are now using social media, to set out their manifestos and their mandates, and depending on how well they meet Bedouin ideas of honor and ethical principles, people decide to stay with them or move and give their allegiance to another group.
But you can say pretty clearly in Syria that the Bedouin tribes have been active in supporting their local communities and tried to protect them from government forces, and now many are trying to protect their communities from extremist groups like ISIS. Probably 30 to 40 percent of ISIS are jihadists from outside of Syria, mercenaries who are very hardened and very strong fighters and very resented in Syria.
Syria Deeply: How well trained are the tribes? How seriously do the regime and ISIS take them as a fighting force?
Chatty: They’re very good fighters. A long time ago, the tribes were very active in trying to oppose the French [colonization of Syria]. There were Bedouins working with the Druze.
The regime has … integrated groups within each tribe into its internal security services, which are feared. I’m not the only one who feels this was done on purpose, to try to undermine the coherence of the tribes as a whole.
In the 1990s, the government began to use the tribes to block support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama. [What that did] was make being Bedouin more honorable. [Many in the Arab world] look at them as backward and primitive and not civilized. What the government did is make them more respectable, and more people began to self identify as being Bedouin. So by the early 2000s, there were people pretty high up in the Ba’ath Party identifying as belonging to a tribe.
Syria Deeply: How involved is Saudi right now with the tribes? Do they currently receive backing from anyone outside of Syria?
Chatty: There is involvement. I was actually in Damascus in March 2011, and when fighting broke out in Deraa, the rumor was that Saudi Arabia had provided the arms to the Bedouin. Because Deraa is really a town of settled Bedouin. It might have been rumor, but there is always an element of truth.
In the area around Palmyra, the Qataris have a strong relationship with some of the tribes and have been supporting them. I’d imagine it’s just by giving them small arms, but it could also be provided incomes, salaries, so these people can keep fighting. Definitely Saudi has been doing something, and Qatar is as well. They’re not only supporting [Syria’s] extremists, they are also supporting the Bedouin.
Syria Deeply: In Deir Ezzor, do you think ISIS will manage to take over, or do you think the tribes, which have had good relations until now with al-Nusra, will maintain their level of influence?
Chatty: ISIS has been so extreme that I doubt the tribes will stay with them. Right now they are [mostly] working together because the tribes in Syria and the tribes in Anbar [province, in Iraq] are closely related.
I doubt that ISIS will be able to take over Deir Ezzor totally. I don’t see ISIS being able to hold there for very long. The problem with Deir Ezzor is that the regime had worked quite effectively in getting minor leaders of various tribes to join the government. A few of the tribes were also exposed to Iranian proselytization and converted to Shia Islam, which is very unusual. So you find a few [very extreme] Shia tribes in Deir Ezzor.
Deir Ezzor is a tribal city, it’s heavily populated by tribes [including the] Shammar, [which has the] Saudi connection. I don’t see them as allowing themselves to be taken over by ISIS in the coming weeks or months.
Syria Deeply: What role do you see the tribes playing in the future in Syria? Could they be a factor in the peace process?
Chatty: I hope so. The tribes are very important in trying to defend neighborhoods in Homs, Hama, Deraa and Idlib. They still really are working at the community level, they’re providing a lot of support – the stuff local NGOs would have done. They’re really part of civil society.
What this fighting has done is make people realize that they represent 10 to 15 percent of the population, they’re very well educated, and that they have been, in a way, the glue holding everything together rather than allowing it to splinter. If we have a concerted effort towards transitional justice and reconciliation, they will play a large part in that.
Answers have been edited for length.