x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Oil, food and protest in Syria's restive east

Protests in Syria's economically vital Deir Ezzor province are becoming more violent in response to regime repression, and are being fuelled by young people's defiance of tribal elders.

A photograph released by the Syrian Arab News Agency shows government soldiers leaving Deir Ezzor city following a 10-day military operation in August.
A photograph released by the Syrian Arab News Agency shows government soldiers leaving Deir Ezzor city following a 10-day military operation in August.

Protests in Syria's economically vital Deir Ezzor province are becoming more violent in response to regime repression, and are being fuelled by young people's defiance of tribal elders. Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent, reports

DAMASCUS // Violence, poverty and fraying tribal loyalties are causing dangerous instability in Syria's oil-producing Deir Ezzor province.

Protesters and the regime remain locked in a stalemate in the eastern desert region, despite a military offensive during Ramadan inside Deir Ezzor city - the provincial capital, 450 kilometres north-east of Damascus - that gave authorities the upper hand after demonstrators had taken over some urban areas. But protests have not stopped and the continuing bloodshed - activists say more than 286 civilians have been killed in the province since March, with thousands wounded - is radicalising regime opponents.

"There will be an escalation in Deir Ezzor, I am certain of that. In its actions the regime is pushing people to be more radical and more of them are going to carry weapons," said Sobhey Jassim, a political activist from one of the province's major tribes. "I won't take up a weapon but there are people who will. There are 500 soldiers in Deir Ezzor who have defected and civilians are joining them. They are protecting themselves and the demonstrators."

Deir Ezzor is crucial to Bashar Al Assad's survival as president. It accounts for 70 per cent of Syria's oil and gas output, and is part of the agricultural breadbasket that makes Syria self-sufficient in many foods.

The province borders Iraq and could become a major conduit for smuggled weapons if an armed insurgency continues to gain momentum. There have already been reports of weapons crossing near the porous Abu Kamal border gate and Syrian officials say they have been fighting "armed gangs" in the province for months.

Tribal links between Deir Ezzor's 1.5 million Sunni Arab population and powerful, wealthy Sunni clans in Iraq and Saudi Arabia mean it could have a central role if sectarian tensions between Syria's Sunni majority and ruling Alawite minority become a decisive factor. Such tribal links worked to help the anti-American insurgency in Iraq after the US-led invasion of 2003.

There are already signs of emerging sectarianism. Activists say some of their number are very religiously conservative and influenced by Adnan Al Arour, a Salafi cleric from Hama who, from exile in Saudi Arabia, has been accused of inciting dangerous anti-Alawite sentiments.

In Abu Kamal, Hizbollah flags have been burnt in protest at the Shiite movement's support for Mr Al Assad and a city resident described anger among his Sunni community over "exploitation" by Shiites.

"There is resentment that we send our sons to Lebanon because there is no work here and they come back converts to Shiism and Hizbollah supporters," he said. "People are not happy about this and if our poverty is exploited, they will react violently."

Many rank-and-file security personnel are drawn from the impoverished eastern provinces of Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Hasika and although not powerful like the elite Alawite-dominated units, any mass desertions by soldiers from the province would hit the stability of the armed forces.

Recent shootings at large anti-regime demonstrations - activists say 35 civilians were killed by the security forces last week when Arab League monitors were due in town - have heightened an already tense atmosphere.

"Resentment of poverty and the indignity of being treated as third-class citizens incubated the revolution in Deir Ezzor," said Hussein Amach, a former regime official and economist from the province.

"Now the poverty, unemployment, oppression and marginalisation the people are suffering is all twice as bad as it was before the uprising began."

As in other parts of Syria, the uprising has created divisions between those with pro-and anti-Assad sentiments that transcend class, religion and family structures. In Deir Ezzor's case, traditional tribal networks have also been strained.

Within any of its major tribes - the Aaqidat, Baqara and Bosariya - and the various sub tribes, there are splits between those opposed to Mr Al Assad's rule and those who vow to back him.

One senior tribal figure estimated there was an almost even split, with 50 to 60 per cent of Deir Ezzor's population against the president and 40 to 50 per cent with him.

Nawaf Al Bashir, a well known pro-democracy campaigner and leading member of the Baqara tribe, supported protests.

He was arrested at the end of July, just as a military assault was looming, and held for 69 days without charge. In an interview on state-run television the day after his release he announced a dramatic U-turn, saying foreign agendas had brought violent chaos to Syria, and that protesters should "give a chance for the political reforms under the leadership of President Bashar Al Assad".

Earlier that day, a group of 13 sheikhs from the Baqara clan, excluding Mr Al Bashir, met senior regime officials in Damascus and, according to tribal figures with knowledge of the talks, pledged to keep their cousin from going "astray" after being told they would be held personally responsible.

"We used to regularly have 20,000 a day protesting but after Nawaf changed his mind, we get 5,000. It's only the very active who ignored the tribal leaders who still came out," said an opposition figure.

"People who were protesting might now have stopped because the sheikh told them to, but in their hearts they are still angry and they still want change, so they respect the sheikh less for his instructions," said an activist and tribe member.

"In future if the sheikh tells them to do something, they'll ignore him. The old tribal authority is getting weaker all the time."

It is the young, educated city dwellers who are leading the defiance of their elders, ignoring calls from the tribal sheikhs to halt protests.

"It has made splits within families. You have sons protesting in defiance of their fathers," said one Deir Ezzor resident. "The fathers become the police. I've seen men beating their children in front of me for protesting."

The man's own nephew was jailed for demonstrating, he said, and upon his release organised a campaign against fathers who were "betraying their families for the regime".

"What is happening is not just a revolt against the regime. It's a revolt by the young against the tribes," said an influential Deir Ezzor resident. "Their fathers have been in limbo between Bedouin culture and modern culture but this generation is breaking free from it.

"It is hard to see this ending well. We're on course for more violence. It's heading for a fight."

psands@thenational.ae