URFA, Turkey: When clashes erupted between ISIS militants and tribal fighters in Mosul in Iraq and Deir al-Zor in Syria earlier this month, many observers were quick to suggest that a tribal force might be the only option to lead a successful resistance to the radical Islamist group.
But growing social linkages, shared economic and political interests, and common foes make a tribal resistance to ISIS unlikely in Syria, experts and tribal leaders say.
ISIS has used a combination of fear and social networks to successfully co-opt its potential rivals, meaning the tribes will most likely side with the group, while long-standing rivalries will also factor into the tribes’ calculations.
“The tribes will back the winning team,” said Haian Dukhan, an expert on Syrian tribes at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “There are many shared interests between ISIS and the tribes.”
After ISIS received an initial welcome by many Sunnis in Iraq’s Anbar and Mosul provinces opposed to the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, some tribal groups last week took up arms against ISIS in Ramadi, in Iraq’s Anbar province, to fight against its heavy-handed tactics and radical interpretation of Islam.
The early signs of resistance prompted some U.S. military leaders and analysts to suggest that if they received the required support, the tribes could lead a resistance similar to a revived Sahwa (Awakening) force, which managed to defeat Al-Qaeda in 2008 and turn the tide of the Iraq civil war.
“Today, as in 2006-07, some fissures have developed between ISIS and its Sunni allies, especially Sunni tribes and potentially other insurgent groups who do not support ISIS’ maximalist Islamist form of governance,” wrote two retired American military officers in an article for the New America Foundation policy institute, after ISIS’ sweeping gains in Iraq in June.
“This divergence of aims will create opportunities for external actors to develop ties with the Sunni tribes – and thus could help restart the Awakening as well,” according to retired Col. Derek Harvey, a former senior U.S. intelligence official who worked on Iraq from 2003 to 2009 and Michael Pregent, a former U.S. Army officer and senior security and reconciliation analyst who worked on Iraq from 2003 to 2013.
In recent weeks, ISIS fighters have clashed with members of the Sheaitat tribe in Deir al-Zor province in Syria, killing a reported 700 tribesmen in what was interpreted as a further sign of growing resistance to the extremists.
But analysts and tribal leaders say the outbreaks are likely to be short-lived and that without international backing, the tribes are more likely to back the stronger force and those who offer larger benefits over the long term.
“The tribes could be part of the solution, especially in the east of Syria, but it’s very problematic,” said Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They do not have great combat capabilities [and they suffer from] a lack of heavy weapons, a lack of discipline, etc. They fight for local reasons, can be bought or at least rented, and some are apparently OK with Islamic State ideology,” White said, referring to the latest official name adopted by ISIS.
“They might also be cowed, since [ISIS] crushed the tribal rebellion in the east.”
ISIS has taken control of large, mainly Sunni tribal areas of Iraq and the resource-rich northeast of Syria. The group now controls oil reserves and is administering oil and food production and distribution in areas under its control.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and jihadist expert, believes the No. 1 reason for cooperation is related to oil, and how revenue and distribution responsibilities can be shared.
While generally marginalized under decades of rule by the Assads in Syria, the tribes nonetheless benefitted from certain policies aimed at co-opting them under Hafez Assad. But under his son Bashar, they became increasingly marginalized and the mostly agricultural eastern areas where they live became impoverished as a result of unequal development policies and drought.
When the uprising broke out in Syria in 2011, the tribal-dominated areas of Deir al-Zor province and Deraa in the south were among the first to rise up.
The tribes were also the first to take up arms against the government, having benefited from overseeing a booming business in weapons trafficking in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Dukhan said ISIS was now reaping the benefits of the Assad-era years of neglect. “ISIS has taken large reserves of oil and the money is being used to build schools, hospitals. Bread is sometimes given for free. [The people’s] needs are being met,” he added. “The tribes see ISIS as a state that helped them in terms of benefits that were never [achieved] under Assad.”
Dukhan said tribes were co-opted through fear, but added ISIS had also been active in integrating with the tribes from early on, through marriage and offering other tangible benefits, such as paying salaries to tribal fighters.
“When ISIS came to Raqqa it took the tribes into consideration. ISIS acts as a state and it wanted the tribes to see them as such. So it invited the tribes to issue statements of solidarity, which they did in many cases,” Dukhan explained. “Most of the resources that ISIS is getting come from the oil wealth and what they are winning on the ground is coming through tribal networks. They are also marrying into the tribes and educating their children.”
“It’s a small, thin line between tribalism and Islamism.”
Adding to the complexity of tribal relations, one tribal source in Syria said long-standing tribal rivalries and anger over the perceived Western and Gulf backing of minor tribes through the main opposition Syrian National Coalition had pushed many tribes toward ISIS.
The source, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, said Saudi Arabia and Qatar tried to marginalize powerful tribal groups with greater influence by promoting lesser-known and less-influential tribal figures to positions of influence in the main opposition body.
The source said that corruption and the control of the arms trade by the rebel Free Syrian Army angered the principal tribal leaders in Syria.
“These people have maybe 700 men to their name and yet they claim to speak for the tribes of Syria. We speak for millions,” the tribal source said, referring to the Shammar tribe of Ahmad Jarba, who recently completed a one-year stint as the head of the Coalition.
“This is why the real sheikhs took this decision,” he added, referring to the alliances some tribes have made. “For the tribes it is better to align with Assad than Jarba,” he said. “Anything is better than the Coalition.”
The source said the tribes would act based on a desire to secure resources that will benefit their people and develop their land.
“But we are not going to fight for the sake of Jarba.”
With ISIS consolidating territory across the porous border dividing Syria and Iraq, the porous border dividing tribal networks has become increasingly irrelevant.
Any international assistance to tribes on one side of the border would have to be matched on the other, Dukhan said, to build a resistance force against ISIS.
“The whole issue of Syria and Iraq should be seen as one. If you support the tribes of Iraq, you need to support the tribes of Syria.”
“The tribes might be willing to fight ISIS, but there needs to be a transition in Syria similar to what took place in Iraq, and there needs to be international support for the tribes.”