Tribal bonds strengthen the Gulf's hand in a new Syria

Underlying all the other complexities of Syria, ancient tribal allegiances that pre-date national boundaries add an additional layer of motivations.

Powered by automated translation

Much has been said about the Gulf states' interest in regime change in Syria to steer Damascus away from Tehran and bolster their regional standing. The prevailing narrative is that Syria is a Sunni-majority country and will therefore ally itself with Gulf Sunni Arabs after the overthrow of the Baathist regime. But such an alliance is not a surety. Turkey, a Sunni-majority country and a neighbour, has established strong business relations with the commercial cities of Aleppo and Damascus and hosts prominent opposition figures; it is also bound to seek and assert influence in Syria.

So when the regime falls, as it certainly will, how can the Gulf states gain another advantage besides the inevitable schism between Damascus and Tehran?

The Gulf states are, in fact, better positioned because of deeply rooted tribal bonds that span Syria, especially in Al Jazira region (which makes about 40 per cent of the country), the countryside around cities like Deraa, Homs and Aleppo, and to a lesser degree near Hama, Damascus and even in the Druze stronghold of Suwaida. Channels of communication already exist between Gulf states and tribal leaders in some of these areas. These relationships have been sustained despite efforts by the Baathist regime to weaken tribal loyalties.

Members of the tribes migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to the Levant and Mesopotamia, some with Muslim campaigns in the 7th century and others later in search of water and grazing for livestock. But the majority of people of most tribes remained on the peninsula.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain in 1916 divided Mesopotamia and the Levant along artificial national borders that persist today, splitting the tribes that spanned from Syria, Iraq and Jordan all the way to the peninsula. Relations, nevertheless, have been maintained.

The Egaidat is the largest tribal confederation in Al Jazira, with at least 1.5 million members, and links mainly to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Al Neim is the prominent tribal confederation in Deraa that includes the houses of Zoubi, Rifai and Hariri, and has a strong presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and also in the UAE, especially in the Northern Emirates. Al Eniza is another prominent Gulf tribal confederation with members in Al Jazira, Suwaida, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Al Dhafir tribe has members in Al Jazira, Hama and a few in Deraa, as well as a presence in Saudi Arabia and less so in Kuwait. The Shammar confederation has at least one million members in Syria and is also one of the largest tribes in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Several leaders of the Syrian branches of the tribes continue regular visits to the Gulf states and often meet members of the royal families. A significant number have returned to the Gulf and become naturalised citizens mainly in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Many hold privileged positions in these countries and, as the bloody crackdown in Syria continues, tribal kinships have grown closer, with tribes in Deraa contacting their "cousins" in the Gulf asking for a firm diplomatic and economic position regarding Damascus.

There is a common perception that Syria's population is now predominantly urban, and that tribalism is dwindling further because of the pro-democracy protests. As one influential resident of Deir Ezzor said last month: "What is happening is not just a revolt against the regime. It's a revolt by the young against the tribes. Their fathers have been in limbo between Bedouin culture and modern culture, but this generation is breaking free."

That is true to a degree, but details about the protest movement in Al Jazira show that the hold of the tribes remains strong. In the early months of protests, there was friction among the tribes on how to react. Al Jarrah, one of the powerful clans in the city of Al Bukamal, and a part of the Egaidat confederation, is led by a government official, who even armed some of the clan's members to quell protests. This pushed another prominent tribe in the confederation, Al Dandal, to mediate between the government and young protesters, in an effort that failed. By then, some protesters had begun arming themselves and shooting at security forces.

The chief of the Egaidat, who has influence across the tribes in the confederation, asked the pro-government leader to disarm his people and stop working with the security forces. Finally, tribal leaders on all sides agreed to prevent clashes with the security forces and to not interfere in the protests.

Other leaders have refused to take part in the protest movement because they feel it is their responsibility to protect their clan. Abdullah Ghadawi, a political editor for the Saudi newspaper Okaz who is from Al Bukamal, told me one tribal leader had said that he was against the regime but he could not endanger his tribe by fighting. For the same reason, heads of families say they stand by President Bashar Al Assad only to discourage their children from taking part in protests. A similar scenario plays out in Suwaida and Raqqa, where there have been few protests.

This influence will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Politicians may be drawn from the ranks of the educated younger generation, unlike in the past when members of parliament were almost all tribal leaders, but the latter will still be respected.

Another possible trend that favours Gulf influence in Syria is the growing prominence of Salafism (as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has strong links to Turkey). Salafism is increasing especially in tribal areas, partly because of the return of Syrians who have worked in the Gulf.

How the Gulf states will use these levers of influence remains to be seen, however. "Saudi Arabia has a limited understanding of the nature and diversity of the Syrian opposition," said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, "and risks espousing too closely the perspective of its tribal and Wahhabi interlocutors." Riyadh risks overreliance on the tribes, which remain largely divided.

But if these links are harnessed, the Gulf states' influence will extend from the north of Syria to western Iraq and Jordan, creating a "tribal crescent" in place of Iran's "Shia crescent" that today extends from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Follow on Twitter: @hhassan140