RAMADI, Iraq: When a young boy was raped by a member of rival tribe last month in the city of Ramadi, in Iraq’s vast Sunni heartland of Anbar province, tribal authorities were called on to settle the situation. Fourteen regional tribal sheikhs convened an emergency judicial session and delivered a swift, unanimous verdict.
The perpetrator was sentenced to immediate execution at the hands of his father, to avert any further retributive violence.
The story, as described by a leading sheikh in Ramadi, whose 500,000-member tribe stretches from the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to Iraq’s Anbar and Mosul, might appear to have little to do with events in neighboring Syria.
But it illustrates the precedence of tribal authority in the vast “Jazira” steppe spanning the territory lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It partially explains how the tribes came to side with the uprising against the rule of Bashar Assad, against a backdrop of long-standing economic neglect, and the pressure to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
“The court handed the father the gun and put 14 bullets in the AK47, representing each of the tribes, and said ‘go and kill your son.’ It was carried out immediately and there was no further vengeance,” said the sheikh, who asked that his tribe not be identified.
Iraqi police and security authorities did not intervene, he added.
“This sentence was carried out according to our constitution which has worked here for generation after generation. The system works.”
Seated in a plush velour lounge in the reception room of his vast compound, adorned by photographs of himself with various politicians and tribal leaders, the sheikh says that while many of the tribes initially resisted taking up arms against the government, the stepping up of military actions against their populations demanded a response.
“Our tribe is on both sides of the border; we have our relatives on both sides. There is no difference between us, so it was only natural.”
“If one of my tribe gets killed, we will kill him, so what happens when there are 200 people being killed daily? It can’t be tolerated.”
The Jazira region is host to a complex network of well over 150 tribal groups of differing sizes. Some of the largest groups with a presence spanning Iraq and Syria are the Baggara, whose members number some 1.2 million people, mostly in Deir Ezzor and Aleppo, the Eqaidat, numbering some 1.5 million, and the Al-Bushaaban, whose numbers are close to one million.
Maintaining control across their populations, and with strategic and historic familial and financial links to ruling elites in Gulf states, the tribes present an important and often overlooked source of power and mobilization in a war often seen as a battle between the Syrian army and insurgents in the country’s West.
The tribes in Syria have maintained a delicate and carefully managed relationship with the Baath Party under President Bashar Assad and his late father, Hafez Assad.
During the 1980s and 1990s the regime felt threatened by the tribes, accusing them of being close to Saddam Hussein and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to one former regime insider who said the impact was felt in the massive economic disparities between the eastern region and the rest of Syria.
In an effort to manage that threat under Assad, tribal leaders were given seats in parliament to balance a combination of both political and tribal authority over kin.
But amid security fears of overly decentralized control of the region at the expense of empowered tribal communities, the plan largely failed and the region suffered ongoing neglect.
Despite being Syria’s breadbasket and home to its biggest oil reserves, the population in the country’s east has remained among its poorest. The slow pace of land and wealth redistribution, along with poor water management amid a severe drought, fuelled hostility toward the government.
A 2005 UNDP survey found that extreme poverty levels in the northeast were more than quadruple that of the coastal regions.
“The government’s policies worsened that situation and failed to provide the necessary help [to the people there],” Hassan Hassan, an Abu Dhabi-based columnist and expert on the tribes in Arabia, told The Daily Star.
“The people in the east often relied on traveling to the Gulf for work and practically gave up on the regime.”
“They tried to dismantle the social fabric of the East but failed,” said the sheikh in Ramadi.
“When Iran started to extend its influence in the 1980s, the Baathist policies in Syria changed and we started to see even greater discrimination.”
The sheikh said he had relied on support from tribal connections in the Gulf, where there is a shared concern with blocking Iranian influence in the region.
Working in coordination with rebel Free Syrian Army operatives, the sheikh said he had urged members of his tribe in Iraq to join their Syrian brothers and has personally facilitated the transfer of money, weapons and “thousands” of men in to Syria.
Aware of the threat of extremists and terrorists infiltrating Iraq and destabilizing the country once again, the sheikh said tribal leaders meet twice a month to discuss the security situation and the importance of inter-tribal coordination.
He said there was a quasi-consensus among the tribes to support the rebels through arms and men.
A rebel military commander, speaking from Deir Ezzor via Skype, said close coordination was in effect.
“So that if there is any problem between the groups, the tribal authorities are consulted to resolve the dispute,” he said.
A Syrian refugee in the Iraqi border town of Al-Qaim, Mounir Khalat, noted how eastern tribal areas had suffered a similar fate as the rest of the country.
Khalat, an agricultural worker and a member of the Baggara tribe from Deir Ezzor, said “the demonstrations started peacefully, but when the regime started killing people, we had to take revenge.
He related how his cousin, a 28-year-old father of four, was shot and killed by a government sniper. “The tribal leaders supported the uprising. If someone gets killed, there must be retribution, even if it is 4,000 people.”
Hassan, the columnist, said that tribal authority, and consensus, had been less than absolute.
“Many young people joined the uprising despite their tribal leaders,” he said. “So friction occurred because of the different views.”
What the tribal leaders seek to gain in these uncertain times is unclear.
For now, most are simply trying to consolidate their power and political base, whether or not the Assad regime falls.
"There are definitely opportunities” if the regime falls, said one prominent tribal Sheikh from rival tribe in Ramadi, who has links to Gulf investors and a large number of investment projects in the area.
“In general, there is no [single] objective for tribes,” said Hassan. “But activists in those areas will reject a central government that sidelines them, as the Baathist governments did before. They are organizing themselves to ensure a place in future Syria.”
Another FSA commander from Deir Ezzor, however, indicated how the tribes and the uprising have yet to see a perfect fit.
“The support of tribes is minimal; they don’t supply weapons and ammunition, only some food and medical supplies,” he said.
“We don’t deal with the leaders of tribes because most of them were pro-regime and now they want to ride the wave of the revolution, and we don’t want to repeat the same old scenario.”