Middle East

Tribes seek support as tensions rise with ISIS

Nawaf al-Bashir.

ISTANBUL: One of the largest Sunni tribes in Syria is calling for U.S. support to battle ISIS militants after a dramatic escalation in tension this week between eastern tribes and the radical Islamists. Tribal sources from the region of Deir al-Zor say that they are seeking support and are prepared to deploy up to 100,000 tribal fighters across the country to fight ISIS after an uneasy truce with the group fell sour.

The sources warned that the situation in the east of Syria and spanning into Anbar province in Iraq is at a critical stage and that the tribes in the east of Syria are facing an unprecedented slaughter without support. They say the tribes present the sole bulwark against more rapid advances by ISIS in the area.

The tribes in Syria and Iraq have long been considered, along with the Kurds in the northeast, as the best option as local Sunni partners for the U.S.-led coalition to fight ISIS, similar to the Sahwa tribal forces in Iraq that, with support from the U.S., successfully curtailed Al-Qaeda during the peak of Iraq’s civil war in 2005-06.

However, varying allegiances based on the overwhelming force of ISIS, as well as mutually beneficial local agreements between some tribes in Syria in the form of oil deals, mean doubts persist about tribal alliances and incentives.

“The Syrian tribes are stuck between the regime and ISIS,” said one Syrian tribal source from central Syria.

“They don’t want to side with either, but because of the experience in Iraq, where the tribes originally sided with ISIS after years of discrimination by the Maliki government, they can’t be trusted.”

U.S. Senator John McCain was in Baghdad Saturday discussing the potential partnership with tribal groups there in the battle against ISIS. According to media reports, senior Iraqi Sunni tribal figures submitted a list of demands to McCain, including ground troops, and weapons to grant the tribes a bigger role in the battle against ISIS.

According to some reports, the tribes threatened to resort to other partnerships, including Iran, if their requests were rebuffed.

The latest escalation in Syria appeared in part to be triggered by the kidnapping of three sons of the head of the powerful Baghara tribe in Syria, Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, Saturday by ISIS militants, according to multiple sources.

The disappearance of the three sons appears to have precipitated the collapse of an unofficial truce deal with ISIS based on force, after ISIS slaughtered over 700 members of the Sheaitat tribe in Deir al-Zor in August.

The massacre represented a brutal warning to other tribes entertaining ideas of confronting ISIS, according to the same tribal sources.

Last week, members of the Sheaitat tribe returned to Deir al-Zor to find a mass grave containing 230 of their kinsmen, believed to have been summarily executed by ISIS.

Syrian tribal expert with the Center for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland, Haian Dukhan, said most tribes in the Deir al-Zor region accepted pledging allegiance to ISIS to avoid conflict, except for the Sheitaat.

“Announcing allegiance was a kind of truce between the tribes and ISIS. You accept the leadership of the caliph, give up your arms and in return ISIS allow you to live peacefully with the condition of adhering to Islamic Shariah law,” said Dukhan, who recently published a paper, “The Islamic State and the Arab Tribes in Eastern Syria.”

While it was not clear what had precipitated the collapse of the truce, particularly with the Baghara, which numbers some 1.2 million members in Syria, the arrests indicate a clear escalation in hostilities, the results of which could see a new revolt against ISIS.

“The fight is on now. Before there was a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, but now ISIS is so strong they don’t need any agreement with the tribes,” said a senior Baghara tribal source familiar with the negotiations.

“We are the only force on the ground that can fight ISIS. We have 100,000 fighters ready, but no one is listening to us.”

Dukhan speculated that the high-profile kidnappings may have come in response to attempts by Western countries and the Assad regime to build connections with the tribes in Syria in the fight against ISIS, but noted that there was fragmentation within the tribe itself.

“I doubt that the revolt will be able to get ISIS out of Deir al-Zor, but it will definitely affect its battles against the Syrian regime [there] and add more tribes to the list of those who want to get rid of [ISIS] rule.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2014, on page 8.

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