Hassan Hamza Saloumi Secures Tribal Support for al-Assad in Northeastern Syria

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 10

As the al-Assad government and its allies continue to make gains against the Islamic State (IS) organization in eastern Syria, the regime in Damascus is seeking to expand its influence throughout the northern and eastern regions of the country, areas currently under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition. The important city of Qamishli, which is near the Syrian, Turkish, and Iraqi borders in the northeastern region of Hasakah governorate, has been a long-standing focus of these efforts by the al-Assad government and its allies (see Terrorism Monitor, April 3, 2015). On October 28, units of the Kurdish-majority Asayish organization, an intelligence and security branch of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is one of the largest constituent groups within the SDF, reportedly prevented 300 members of Lebanese Hezbollah from leaving the regime-controlled Qamishli airport in order to hinder the al-Assad government’s efforts to establish a stronger presence on the border region between Hasakah in Syria and Ninewah in Iraq (al-Dorar al-Shamiyya [Qamishli], October 28).

These activities reflect the growing reality that the al-Assad government, through a network of predominately Sunni Arab tribal fighting groups that are mobilized into its Quwat al-Difa’ al-Watani (NDF-National Defense Force) militia system, is making a stronger play for power in Hasakah governorate (see Militant Leadership Monitor, March 30, 2015). In October, the NDF in the area of Qamishli reportedly received a new unit of 100 locally-recruited fighters due to the efforts of Syrian MP Hassan Hamza Saloumi (Twitter, October 8).

Saloumi, 44, is a native of the city of Qamishli and a rising leader among the loyalist forces in Hasakah governorate. He was elected to the Syrian parliament during the special elections that the al-Assad government held in regime-controlled municipalities throughout the country in April 2016 (ARA News [Qamishli], April 17, 2016; RT [Damascus], April 16, 2016). Saloumi is trained as a practitioner in education policy and psychology, and he has come up through the ranks of the Ba’ath Party in the Qamishli district of Hasakah governorate (Syrian Parliament; Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9). He is a member of the Ghanama tribal group, which is a branch of the Tayy confederation that has an estimated 20,000 members located in a belt of rural farming villages in the suburbs of Qamishli (Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9). Reflecting his constituency, Saloumi has focused his work as a new member of the Syrian parliament on the committee that deals with workers and peasants (Syrian Parliament; Tribe6 Arab [Damascus], September 9).

His tribe, the Ghanama, are considered to be a deeply loyalist tribe. Although some members of the tribe have joined the armed opposition, the al-Assad government has intensely and successfully recruited fighters from the Ghanama into its NDF and Kata’ib al-Ba’ath (Ba’ath Brigades) militia networks in Qamishli (Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9; Arabi 21 [Qamishli], March 15, 2016). Saloumi is not himself a sheikh or is part of a sheikhly line of succession within the Ghanama, which means that he is not the paramount authority over his tribe. However, he is still considered to be one of the most influential members of his tribe and to be an increasingly important figure within the al-Assad government’s security network in his region of Hasakah governorate.

Saloumi’s power comes from his deep connection to the al-Assad government in Damascus and through his active role as a member of the local branch of the Ba’ath Party in the area of Qamishli (al-Furat [Qamishli], April 16, 2016). His increasingly prominent role in the security networks of the al-Assad government is bolstered by his efforts to be an organizer of Qamishli-area, Sunni Arab tribal fighters’ recruitment into the NDF (Twitter, October 8). Saloumi and his peers in the local Ba’ath Party have focused this recruitment effort on mobilizing support of Sunni Arab tribesmen, such as from the Ghanama, in the rural communities that surround Qamishli. These communities have generally not joined the armed opposition, and therefore represent a potential recruitment pool for the al-Assad government (Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9). After raising a force of 100 fighters into the NDF in the area of Qamishli, Saloumi is likely to continue to work toward systematically expanding the network of pro-Assad tribal fighters in his region of Syria.

His important role in the al-Assad government’s effort to reestablish stronger influence in the area of Qamishli is in large part due to the concentration of Ghanama communities in the suburbs of Qamishli, the relative cohesiveness of the Ghanama tribe, and the tribe’s generally well-established loyalty to the government in Damascus (Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9; Arabi 21 [Qamishli], March 15, 2016). To a large degree, this is the result of the efforts of local Ba’ath Party officials with ties to the Ghanama, such as Saloumi, whose efforts have made it so the Ghanama as a whole are a tribe that represents one of the local, communal bases of support for the al-Assad government in Damascus in this remote but strategic area of Syria. A significant number of Ghanama, including women, have been mobilized into the NDF (YouTube, March 26).

The loyalist forces organized from the Ghanama have also generally resisted the establishment of the Federal System of Northern Syria, which is the political project of the SDF to build a network of local council-based governance and administration in northern and eastern Syria as an alternative to the al-Assad government in Damascus. Saloumi, like many of his fellow tribesmen, refers to the SDF’s Federal System project as an attempt to divide the territory of Syria by secessionist Kurds backed by foreign powers, especially the United States (Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9). In March 2016, the decision by the SDF to declare a Federal region in northern and eastern Syria promoted clashes between NDF and Ba’ath Brigades units mobilized from the Ghanama and some of the local, Kurdish-majority affiliates of the YPG in the Ghanama-dominated village of Khirbat Amo, a suburb 6 kilometers east of the city of Qamishli (al-Arabiyya [Dubai], April 21, 2016; Syria Mubasher [Qamishli], March 10, 2016). Saloumi, as should be expected from his prominent position in the local branch of the Ba’ath organization, is a fierce opponent of the Federal System project (Tribe Arab [Damascus], September 9).

The ongoing effort by the al-Assad government to establish a larger and more pervasive local security infrastructure in the area of Qamishli provides an opportunity for Saloumi to continue to establish himself as a pro-Assad powerbroker in northeastern Syria. Qamishli is, for all intents and purposes, the most important city in northeastern Syria, and Saloumi’s power base in the area is of strategic value. The al-Assad government is seeking to undermine the SDF and actively work against what it views to be a hostile, U.S.-backed military effort on its soil. Saloumi can therefore continue to benefit as part of an important line of effort being conducted by the al-Assad government and its allies by building a security network in Hasakah governorate, in order to contest the U.S.-backed SDF and prevent it from having the monopoly of violence in this strategic region of Syria.