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Tribal and Islamist clashes in Syria reveal deep divisions

Radical groups in Syria have long sought to avoid alienating the public, but clashes are increasingly unavoidable as disputes become more complex.

Throughout the two-year conflict in Syria, jihadi groups have sought to avoid antagonising members of communities where they operate.

But clashes are becoming unavoidable as disputes become more complex.

In the province of Deir Ezzor, there have been a few significant clashes between jihadi groups and provincial tribes. A closer look at these incidents underlines inevitable confrontation between radical Islamism and tribalism.

In late March, prominent leaders of the jihadi group Jabhat Al Nusra were killed during clashes with the Assaf clan in the west of Deir Ezzor, over an oil-related dispute. A Saudi commander and a Tunisian fighter were shot dead after they tried to force a member of the clan to surrender an oil tanker that the fighters claimed he had stolen.

After the killing, two of the group's members surrounded the village and demanded that the killers be handed over and tried according to Sharia. The clan's leaders refused and said that handing over their relatives would violate tribal rules.

In another incident about six months ago, a Jabhat Al Nusra leader known as Abu Qutada was killed by members of Deir Ezzor's main tribe, the Egaidat, because Abu Qutada had ordered the death of one of their relatives for allegedly committing an offence punishable by death according to Islamic law.

The tribe's relatives rejected the verdict by Abu Qutada and sought retribution according to tribal laws. Jabhat Al Nusra did not respond, considering the weight of the tribe in the region.

Such acts of violence between tribal factions and jihadi groups are reminiscent of the bloody clashes that flared between tribes and jihadists in western Iraq in 2006. But clashes between tribes and Islamists date back to the early years of Islam, when some leaders either rejected or pushed for the authority of one leader or another after the Prophet, depending on tribal rather than religious influence.

One of the reasons for such recurring confrontation in tribal parts of Syria, as elsewhere, is that tribes revere blood kinship while Islamists emphasise allegiance to their faith. As long as religious teachings are compatible with deep-rooted tribal norms and interests, religion will be accepted, even required in certain circumstances. Yet in strongly tribal communities, religion is regarded as a somewhat secondary trajectory.

This supremacy of tribal values is even rooted in language. For example, tribes often render the Hadith "all Muslims are brothers" as "all Muslims are uncles". "Brotherhood" has religious connotations that signify sharing a belief while "uncles" is about blood kinship.

Also, tribal and religious leaders both have the title "sheikh" but a tribal "sheikh" has stronger resonance because winning that title requires a noble lineage.

The Baath parties in Iraq and Syria tried in their early years to weaken tribal bonds between the two countries. After failing, they turned to focus on a workable alliance with emphasis on the Arab identity of tribes.

The late leaders of Syria and Iraq, Saddam Hussein and Hafez Al Assad, utilised tribes to fight Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively. Hafez Al Assad took advantage of tribes' weak loyalty to religion in his war against the Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Tribes played a key role during and after the conflict that ended with the 1982 Hama massacre.

Despite sectarian affinity with the Islamists who fought against the Alawite-dominated regime at the time, tribes fought fiercely against the Islamist rebels.

But with the start of the uprising in 2011, the regime failed to bring tribes to its side. Today, tribal leaders in rebel-held areas are teaming up with Islamist factions to protect them from likely retaliation. Some Islamic groups are suspicious of the motives, but Jabhat Al Nusra tends to avoid antagonising tribes.

These ebbs and flows in the relationship between tribes and Islamists reflect the overlooked fact that tribes are dynamic and pragmatic. They form alliances based on interests rather than shared values.

It is therefore a mistake to assume that Syria's tribes are susceptible to the influence of radical groups merely because the two groups are conservative Sunni Muslims. This is an assumption belied by history.


Abdalnaser Al Ayd is a Syrian journalist and novelist from eastern Syria

Updated: May 21, 2013 04:00 AM



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