x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

A Damascus loyalist defects as violence affects the tribes

A high-profile defection from the Assad government has its roots in the way regime violence is affecting ordinary members of tribes and clans.

Nawaf Al Fares, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq who defected last week, is the leader of a powerful clan in Al Bukamal area, adjacent to Iraq. The clan, Al Jarrah, is a branch of the Egaidat tribal confederation, the largest in eastern Syria. Al Jarrah established itself as a powerful clan by virtue of an acclaimed legacy of fighting against the French in the 1940s, and by Mr Al Fares's career with the Baathist regime.

Before he became the first diplomat to defect, Mr Al Fares's career spoke to a close relationship with the Assad clan. He held key security and government posts, heading a branch of the Baath party in Deir Ezzor and a mukhabarat centre in Latakia. He served as governor in three important governorates: Latakia, the birthplace of the Assads on the coast; Idlib, near Turkey; and Quneitra, near Israel.

In 2008, he was given the sensitive role of ambassador to Baghdad. Needless to say, the embassy post co-ordinates Syrian activities in Iraq, including espionage and, lately, the evasion of sanctions.

Yet Mr Al Fares's value to the regime depended not only on his loyalty and official roles. Over decades, Mr Al Fares and other tribal leaders across the country helped to establish the regime's legitimacy and ensure stability. These tribal leaders have managed convoluted relations between the state and the communities in which they have influence.

The scale of the recent violence shows that the regime has threatened this dynamic.

When the anti-regime protests began about 16 months ago, many villages and towns in Al Bukamal quickly joined the protest movement. Friction erupted among the tribes over how to react. Mr Al Fares sided solidly with the regime and armed his tribesmen against anti-government protesters. Another tribal leader unsuccessfully tried to mediate between the protesters and Mr Al Fares's clan.

Meanwhile, protesters had begun to arm themselves as well. The chieftain of the Egaidat, who has influence across the confederation, asked Mr Al Fares to disarm his people and stop working as a regime enforcer. Finally, tribal leaders agreed to prevent clashes with the security forces as well as to not interfere in the protests. By then, hostility towards Mr Al Fares and his tribe had increased in Deir Ezzor governorate - to the extent that they were called "tribal Shabbiha", in reference to the Alawite-dominated militias blamed for much of the violence.

As the regime escalated violence in eastern Syria last month, the situation began to change. Until recently, Deir Ezzor had been relatively quiet compared to other governorates in the country, but protests had persisted in a few hot spots, mainly in the city of Deir Ezzor and the nearby town of Al Quriyya. More towns and villages were being slowly drawn in largely due to kinship ties as the violence escalated. Tribal links with clans that were suffering from the regime's violence brought pressure on tribes to take part in the struggle.

Groups identifying themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army began to form in large numbers, particularly in the countryside - where the weapons trade has historically thrived and people traditionally own guns as a symbol of strength, despite the government ban.

Last month's government assault on Deir Ezzor, killing nearly 350 people, meant that the tribes could no longer remain silent. There was a responsibility not only to distance themselves from the regime, but to act against it.

People close to Mr Al Fares's family told me he started to consider defecting when the assault began.

"The violence and the military campaign on Deir Ezzor have put the tribes in an awkward moral position," said Abdullah Ghadawi, a political editor for the Saudi newspaper Okaz who is from Al Bukamal.

The tribes are aware that their stance today will affect their reputations for generations to come. As a leader of a prominent tribe, Mr Al Fares's loyalty to the regime is secondary to his loyalty to the tribe and its place in the region. The news of his defection has already been received well by many tribal leaders.

Over the past 16 months, the regime had succeeded in creating rifts between tribes and even within tribes. Those rifts deepened particularly during the parliamentary election in May as some took part and others boycotted. The regime had tapped tribal dynamics to maintain relative calm despite the light presence of government forces in the area.

The situation changed dramatically after the recent assault on Deir Ezzor. There is now clear anti-regime momentum throughout the governorate. Residents from different parts of Deir Ezzor told me that there are many opposition fighters in the villages, making it difficult for the regime to control the area. As has been the pattern, the regime shelled cities in Deir Ezzor before sending in armoured vehicles. If the violence continues on this scale, tribes in the nearby governorates of Hasaka and Raqqa may rise against the regime, also driven by kinship ties.

The defection of Mr Al Fares, a longtime loyalist, shows the regime has lost its ability to turn the tribes against each other, and use them to maintain relative calm. The worsening violence will draw more people into this conflict.

In the early months of the uprising, many tribal leaders actively opposed the protests to protect their tribes and clans from the regime's retribution. But the scale of violence, and the layers of kinship ties, have forced people's hands against the regime. It is yet another example of how the regime has become its own enemy.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140