Syrian Tribal Networks and their Implications for the Syrian Uprising

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 11

(Source: Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi/Reuters)

Sunni Arab tribalism has a significant socio-cultural, political, and security impact on the current uprising in Syria, with strong implications for post-Assad governance formation. Tribalism has fueled unrest throughout Syria, including in places such as Dera’a, where mass opposition demonstrations began on March 15, 2011, in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates River, and in the suburbs of Homs and Damascus, where some of the fiercest combat between the Syrian military and armed opposition groups has occurred. Millions of rural and urban Syrians express an active tribal identity and tribal affiliation is used extensively to mobilize the political and armed opposition against the Assad government as well as to organize paramilitary forces in support of the Syrian regime. Both the Syrian opposition and the Assad government recognize the political importance of the tribal networks that cross Syria and extend into neighboring countries. As a result, the support of Syria’s tribes is a strategic goal for both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition. 

Tribal Networks – The Social Demographic Impact of Tribalism in Syria

The Syrian Ba’ath Party has traditionally sought to undermine the independence of the country’s tribes through intimidation, infiltration, and dependence. These aggressive policies continued under the Assad government and were exacerbated by decades of economic stagnation and the near total collapse of the rural economy of regions in southern and eastern Syria due to drought, corrupt use of water resources and mismanagement of croplands where many tribesmen resided (Jadaliyya, February 16). In spite of these severe difficulties, tribal networks in Syria are, ironically, better equipped at present to influence the opposition against the Assad government than at any other point in Syria’s modern history.

Over the last several decades, relationships between different tribes have been strengthened by the mutual difficulties that all Syrian tribesmen face, and by a shared bond of kinship and a common Arab-Bedouin heritage that differentiates tribesmen from the ruling Assad family that usurped the power of the Syrian Ba’ath Party. [1] The economic disaster facing tribal youth, combined with the political pressure that is constantly applied by the Assad government, caused Syrian tribes to look to each other for mutual help and support. The traditional vertical authority of the shaykhs over the rest of their tribesmen weakened over time, causing decision-making authority to extend beyond one person (or family) in a specific tribal lineage to mutually supporting individuals in a wider network of tribes. [2] Under coercion from the state, many tribal shaykhs were forced to leave their traditional areas to live quietly in Damascus or Aleppo, or left Syria entirely, becoming remote figures from the perspective of their tribesmen. Without revenues, they became unable to provide for the essential needs of their tribes, particularly during the most recent drought that began in 2003 and lasted through the rest of the decade.

The result is a series of horizontal, activist networks of mainly young and economically displaced tribesmen residing in Syria’s most restive cities who have adopted an inter-tribal identity that champions the importance of their shared tribal cultural background and dissatisfaction with their economic and political marginalization in what they view as a corrupt, repressive state. The torture and subsequent death of tribal youth in Dera’a by agents of the regime, as in other regions of the country such as Deir al-Zor and the suburbs of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, makes such agents of the government the target of retributive violence by aggrieved tribesmen, codified under ‘urf, or customary tribal law. With the recent evolution of tribal social networks, murdered al-Zoubi tribesmen are mourned for and revenged not only by their tribal kinsmen in Dera’a, but also by networks of tribal peers, such as the Shammar who recently migrated to Dera’a from the north in large numbers. Two of the most famous opposition martyrs in Dera’a in the opening months of the uprising, Hasan al-Shammari and Hamza Khateeb, were tribal youth who were part of these activist networks. [3]

Tribalism’s Impact on the Syrian Opposition

Tribal participation in the uprising from its inception is well documented and is celebrated by the Syrian opposition. During the incipient phase of the uprising, the first “Day of Rage” demonstration against the Syrian government in the ethnically mixed, heavily tribal eastern city of Hasakah on February 5, 2011, was conducted by networks of tribesmen from the Jabbour, Ta’i, and the Ounaiza tribal confederations. [4] The “Union of Arab Syrian Clans and Tribes,” an Aleppo-based opposition group claiming to represent more than 50 percent of Syria’s tribal population, announced its existence via YouTube on March 11, 2011. [5] One of the first nationwide Friday demonstrations organized by opposition groups inside of Syria, held on June 10, 2011, was called the “Friday of the Tribes” in recognition of the role that tribesmen played in leading resistance to the Syrian government (al-Jazeera, June 10, 2011). Many Syrian tribal leaders, such as Shaykh Nawwaf al-Bashir, an important leader of the large Baggara tribe and a former member of the Syrian Parliament, are active members of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) (al-Jazeera, January 16). Recently, a group of Syrian tribesmen and shaykhs in exile in Istanbul created the “Assembly of Tribes,” claiming to represent 40 percent of Syrian tribesmen (al-Arabiyya, April 16).

In addition to their political role in the Syrian opposition, Syrian tribesmen also participate in the armed groups that fight the Assad government, particularly the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its affiliates. These tribesmen predominately fight the Syrian military on the local level, in the areas where they reside, relying on young tribesmen who defected from the Syrian military for materiel and tactical advice. [6] Further, the tribes of northeastern and eastern Syria, such as the Shammar, Baggara, Jabbour, Dulaim, and Ougaidat, have close and enduring relationships with their tribal kin in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Anti-Assad regime states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are reported to be using tribal networks to move materiel and weapons into Syria, though this is officially denied (al-Arabiya, March 4). There is also strong evidence that Iraqi tribesmen in particular are moving arms and material as well as fighting alongside their tribal kinsmen against the Assad government in small but growing numbers.[7] The shared cross-border kinship ties possessed by Syrian tribes and networks of tribal youth in Gulf Arab countries present a regional geopolitical complication to the uprising.

Syrian Tribalism and the Assad Government

Although Syrian tribes are well represented in the internal opposition, some tribal shaykhs and tribesmen continue to cooperate with the government. Like the opposition, the government has been aggressive in attempting to secure the support of the tribes. Since the beginning of the uprising, the government has sponsored a series of conferences called the “Syrian and Arab Tribes and Clans Forum,” which emphasize the role of Syrian tribesmen in resisting foreign intervention and ensuring Syria’s sovereignty (Syrian Arab News Agency, May 5).  Under regime pressure, Syrian tribal shaykhs were forced to meet the Russian Ambassador to Syria and present him with gifts after Russia’s veto of a February UN Security Council resolution that would have demanded political transition in the country (Syrian Arab News Agency, February 22).

Since the start of the uprising, many Syrian tribesmen have supported the state’s security apparatus, controlled by the Assad family. This is not a new practice, and Syrian tribes have been used as enforcers for the Syrian government for decades. In many restive regions of Syria, tribesmen are deployed by the Syrian military as paramilitary forces called shabiha (literally “ghosts” with the connotation of “thugs”), although interviewees referred to them as jahaaz, which means “apparatus,” as in a security apparatus, but has the connotation of “political tools.” [8] There is evidence that affiliation with the Syrian government or the armed opposition in these areas is splitting the loyalty of tribesmen and fraying relationships between tribal shaykhs asked to choose a side. In Deir al-Zor, tribal loyalties are reportedly being put to the test even within families, as youth join the opposition against the wishes of their more cautious parents, family elders, and shaykhs (The National [Abu Dhabi], January 16). These reports correspond with the authors’ field research on developments in the Jazirah region, indicating that members of the Jabbour tribe in and around al-Hasakah, and the Ta’i tribe in and around Qamishli have been organized and deployed by the regime against restive Kurds and tribal opposition members in these cities. [9] Both of these tribes, in a precarious position in their respective cities, were susceptible to the coercion and manipulation of the Syrian government, which desires to keep its “Kurdish problem” cost effectively managed through the arming of tribal militias and cash “gifts.” Divided loyalties and conflicting networks of mobilization both for and against the opposition add another element of potentially severe instability to the current uprising.

Implications for Regime Change and Stability in a Post-Assad Syria

Interview data collected since the uprisings began in 2011 indicates that without clear guarantees from the United States, leading shaykhs across Syria will not put their tribesmen and women at risk by openly siding with the opposition. At the same time, shaykhs of large tribes located along Syria’s strategic border areas are pursuing quiet but active dialogue with U.S., Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari officials about how they can support the opposition without putting their tribes in danger.  In May, one Arab shaykh of a large northern tribe described a build-up of Iraqi tanks along Iraq’s Syrian border (from Abu Kamal to Turkey) in support of the Assad government, as well as the movement of hundreds of trucks coming from Iran and transiting through Iraq, carrying supplies for the government. [10] This same shaykh is now convinced that only the creation of a safe haven along the Turkish-Syrian border will create an environment secure enough for the northern tribes to openly join the internal opposition. Were this to happen, other major tribes across the country would be more likely to actively join the opposition. 

Arab tribes are likely to contribute significantly to two key issues in a post-Assad Syria: 1) Syrian Kurdish aspirations and demands in the context of a potentially fragile state and emerging system of governance; and 2) the combined ability of the Islamic parties in Syria (Ikhwan, Salafist, etc.) to turn out enough votes to secure a majority win in the first cycle of post-Assad regime elections, guaranteeing that they will have significant power in determining the nature of the new government.  The majority of Syria’s approximately two million Kurds inhabit three distinct geographical areas that border Iraq and Turkey, generally living within 15 miles of these borders. These areas are the Jazirah, Ayn al-Arab, and Afrin. In the culturally complex and oil rich al-Jazirah region (i.e. al-Hasakah, Raqqa, and Deir ez Zor provinces), Kurds make up about 25 percent of the population and share the region with Arab tribes (e.g. the Shammar, Baggara and Ounaiza) and Christians. 

In the post-Assad context, Syrian Kurds will need to negotiate with the Arab tribes and various Christian communities to organize local and regional level governance in these culturally mixed border areas. Syria’s Arab tribes and their shaykhs have a long history of peacefully coexisting with the Kurds in Syria. The Arab tribal shaykhs who have lived alongside and suffered with Syria’s Kurds throughout Syria’s modern history can help keep Syria’s Kurds at the table, negotiating for their political and cultural rights within a united Syria. If Syria’s Kurds believe they have no allies among Syria’s Arab majority community, they may follow the path of the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) and its Syrian affiliates and become proxy agents of Iran and the Assad regime.

Substantive discussions and negotiations are already taking place between Arab tribal shaykhs and Kurdish political leaders concerning Kurdish demands and aspirations. This sort of ongoing dialogue between the Kurds and Arab tribal leaders can contribute to a peaceful settlement of the Syrian Kurdish question in a post-Assad Syria. A key challenge for both Kurds and Arabs will be to work together to mitigate the ability of the Iranian-backed PKK and its affiliates inside Syria (such as the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat – PYD) to use violence to destabilize not only the Kurdish concentrated areas along the Turkey-Iraq borders and in attempts to form a stable and more democratic system of governance at the national level (see Terrorism Monitor, May 18).

Critical to a stable post-Assad state that can begin the process of democratization is a political outcome with room for secularists, moderate Islamists and religious and ethnic minorities. At present, Islamist groups inside Syria include an extremist Syrian variant of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as affiliates of al-Qaeda. The lessons from the precipitous post-Mubarak era elections in Egypt are clear. Syrians will need time to organize new political parties capable of competing with Islamic parties and groups linked to mosque networks in the critical first cycle of post-Assad regime national elections. Syria’s Arab tribes represent an alternative bloc of millions of votes across the country that can rapidly organize and turn out for elections and thus become strong political powerbrokers in a post-Assad Syria.

Carole A. O’Leary is currently a visiting scholar affiliated with the Program in Law & Religion at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. She is the co-director of a project that explores religious freedom issues in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with a focus on the region’s Christian communities.

Nicholas A. Heras is an independent analyst and consultant on Middle East issues and a former David L. Boren Fellow.


1. Field research and semi-structured interviews conducted by the authors in Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey between May 2008 and May 2012.

2. Ibid

3. Interview conducted by the authors on November 4, 2011 via Skype with a well-placed Syrian shaykh from the al-Jazirah (northeast) region of Syria.

4. Interviews conducted by the authors in March 2011 with Syrian tribal guest workers who were present in Hasakah during the February 5, 2011 demonstrations. These guest workers were residing in the Dora, Naba’a, and Sin al-Fil eastern suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon.


6. Interviews conducted by the authors in Lebanon and Turkey, and via Skype and Facebook message with tribal youth and shaykhs in Syria between March 2011 and May 2012.

7. Email interviews conducted by the authors between December and April 2012 with a well-placed shaykh from the al-Jazirah region. The field research and in-region interviews associated with the authors’ original Arab Tribalism Project commenced in Iraq’s southern governorates, including Basra, Maysan and Wasit in May 2003, and from there expanded to include the Iraqi governorates of Anbar, Ninewah, Salahaddin, Kirkuk (At-Tamim) and Diyala.  Research on tribal linkages and networks, in the context of the out-migration of millions of Iraqis, expanded our fieldwork base into Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

8. Field research and semi-structured interviews conducted by the authors in Lebanon and Syria from May 2008-March 2010. 

9. Ibid

10. Skype interviews conducted with a tribal shaykh from al-Jazirah between April and May 2012.