Tribal justice blamed for deaths of 120 Syrian police and soldiers

The Assad regime blames Islamist insurgents for the deaths of troops and police during the current violent protests against the Syrian government, but the truth may be more mundane - shotgun justice by a complex mosaic of tribes.

Syrian military police carry coffins as they prepare to send the bodies of 11 soldiers and security force members to their families for burial in the city of Homs.
Powered by automated translation

In the two months since an anti-government uprising began in Syria, more than 120 members Syrian police and soldiers have been killed, authorities say.

If that number is correct, the Syrian government has lost as many security forces since March as the US military has in Afghanistan since the start of the year - 127 killed in action - and more than the British army has lost in any single year during the decade-long Afghan war.

Officials say that scale of violence is clear evidence that Syria is facing an insurgency by Islamist terrorists.

Civil rights activists in Syria acknowledge religious militants are likely to have been involved in some killings. They cite a handful of well-publicised atrocities in which the bodies of soldiers were mutilated. There have also been claims of mosques calling for jihad as security units face off against demonstrators.

But residents say the reality is typically far more mundane, especially in the tribal regions where many of the attacks against government forces appear to have occurred.

Rather than a conspiracy of Islamic fundamentalists, supplied with weapons and cash by Syria's enemies, local inhabitants and tribe members say many of those shooting at the security services are motivated by traditions of tribal justice and dignity, self-defence, a sense of powerlessness and years of pent up anger and frustration.

For all its hallmarks as a modern secular state, Syria remains a complex mosaic of tribes, sects and powerful extended families. Loyalty to clan often supersedes allegiance to country and tribal justice regularly supplants civil law.

Rural Syria, where this hierarchy of loyalties is most prevalent, is home to a majority of the country's 22 million people. Nevertheless, large scale migration means tribal influences have reached into the teeming working-class suburbs of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other major cities.

This clash of tribal identity with state authority is woven into the violence that has swept the country since protests began two months ago this week. The absence of any credible prosecution of those responsible for excessive violence against unarmed protesters has given way to more traditional ways of holding people to account.

"If you kill someone from a tribe and the government doesn't deliver justice, then the tribe will see justice is done in its own way, which means blood-for-blood," a member of one of Syria's major clans said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his remarks. "My people believe in revenge," he continued. "If one of the tribe is shot by a member of the security services and the killer is not properly punished by the government, then another security man will be killed to settle the score. It's simple: an eye-for-an-eye."

That reaction to what many saw as official impunity took root on March 18 during the first rally in Deraa, the crucible of the uprising, when four people were gunned down as they demanded the release of 15 local schoolchildren who had been arrested and abused by the security forces for writing political graffiti on a wall

The powerful tribal families in the southern Houran region, which has its capital Deraa, asked the authorities to discipline security personnel involved in killings, particularly the senior officers who gave orders to open fire on unarmed protesters during the first demonstration.

Despite promises of justice and the sacking of local officials, lawyers say no legal action has been taken against any security force suspects, in stark contrast to the rapid arrests and referral to the courts of political dissidents and those suspected of anti-government violence.

"There is no independent judiciary in Syria, no trustworthy legal process that will punish anyone working for the government for their crimes," said one man, who refused even to identify his tribe.

The government's inaction led influential figures in Deraa's strongest clans to conclude both that justice would not be done and that they would be shown no mercy for their public dissent, he said. Similar calculations appear to have fuelled violence elsewhere in the country, some of which has targeted security forces.

The government's claim of 120 dead soldiers and police officers is disputed by activists, who also insist that some have been summarily executed for insubordination after refusing orders to shoot at protesters. Human rights groups say some 850 civilians have been killed and many more wounded by Syrian security forces since March. Neither figure can be independently verified.

Syria's leadership has justified its use of tanks, infantry and mass arrests against centres of protest, including Deraa, Banias, and Hom, on the grounds that demonstrations have been hijacked by what presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban described as  "a combination of fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers and ex-convicts".

"You can't be very nice to people who are leading an armed rebellion, in a sense," she told The New York Times in a recent interview, adding that investigations were still on-going as to exactly who is behind the violence.

State-run media has aired gruesome footage of dead security personnel, and a series of confessions by people it says were involved in acts of violence. Some say they were pushed to do so and supplied with cash and arms by foreigners. Others have confessed to having criminal records and to taking part in "vandalism and riot acts" during protests, including drive-by shootings and arson attacks.

A resident of Syria's border region with Lebanon, where there have been frequent protests and some clashes between anti-government forces and the security services, agreed that criminals were involved in violent demonstrations there.

"These people near the border, many are smugglers, and they hate the border police, the customs authorities, the security, they see them as enemies," he said. "There are criminals and drug dealers, hard people who have been fighting the authorities in one way or another for years."

Nevertheless, he described circumstances more complex than mindless criminal activity and said Islamic radicalism was not in play.

"There are dishonest people involved in the violence, but there are also criminals who are nationalists and patriots who hate the system and they see this as their chance to do something about it," he said.

"Some of the criminals fighting now blame the authorities for their situation, they say they were forced into crime by corruption, poverty, prejudice and abuse by officials.

"They hate the system because they say it gave them no chance in life. They are angry and they have some weapons which they are not afraid to use."

A member of an influential clan from Deraa also brushed aside suggestions that Islamist ideology was playing an important role for those trying to fight government forces in the area.

"There are people fighting, but they are not religious extremists, they are tribal people, mainly farmers, and they are trying to defend themselves," he said. "The government started the killing and it didn't stop, so some people take up weapons as a last response."

He said some leading tribal figures had declined to join a delegation to discuss the issue with Syria's leadership, after early mediation

efforts came to nothing, in part because major clans felt they had been disrespected by authorities in Damascus.

"There is blood, so it's a tribal issue now and it will be settled in a tribal way," he recounted a leading clan member as saying.

Another member of a Deraa tribe described the mixture of community pride, stubborn defiance and a towering sense of outrage that had led some people there to fight against the overwhelming military force sent in to crush the uprising. Armed with unlicensed weapons that are found in many rural households, including hunting rifles, pistols and AK-47s, they refused to back down.

"In some of the villages near Deraa, people are almost crazy," he said. "It's not like Damascus. Down there, if the army comes for them, they'll stand and fight, even if they know they'll lose."

He said he knew of some tribe members in one village who had managed to obtain a small mortar and had fired a bomb at a nearby army encampment, after a relative had been killed by government forces.

"It's not an Islamic uprising - it's pride, it's tribal," he said. "There is a poem in Deraa that says it's an honour, not a source of shame, to be buried in your own soil. We believe that."

A secular Syrian dissident said that in Deraa and other Syrian communities, only a minority had responded to government brutality with violence.

"The regime sent the army and tanks in, and there was so much killing, so we have seen revenge killing from people there," he said. "I don't support that, but you have to understand it. It's a tribal area and if you see your cousin or bother or sister killed, and you know you can't tell the police about it because they're the ones who did it, you will use whatever weapon you can to defend yourself.

"They killed soldiers and security there, that's certain," he added. "But the motives are important and they were not jihad."

However, tribal members and secular dissidents have warned that people are being pushed towards violence and Islamic militancy, especially those who have seen family members killed.

A tribe member put it bluntly: "The government isn't killing Islamic extremists but with every protester that gets shot, it might be making them."