Clans of Eastern Syria

A study on the revolutionary and political role of clans in Eastern Syria, before and during the Syrian Revolution. Focus will be on the following issues:

  • The concept of clan and its social and political role
  • Role of clan in the peaceful mobility
  • Role of clans in the military episode of the Syrian Revolution
  • Effect of civil society on the tribal culture
  • Clan torn between law and tribal conventions
  • Future role of clans


The eastern region of Syria, which includes many governorates such as Der Al- Zour, Al-Raqa and Al- Hasaka, is considered to be one of the rich pieces of Syrian land regarding irrigated water and rain-fed agriculture especially growing field’s crops like cotton, corn, wheat and barley, and rearing animals and stockbreeding. So, this area takes advantage of Euphrates and Khabur rivers; with a little interest regarding Tigris river that pervades the area near Al-Malekia. As for Al-Khabur river, it rises in Ra’as Al-Een, which is situated at the Syrian-Turkish border, and it pours in Euphrates, particularly at Al-Busaira in Der Al-Zour. However, its water basin has been subjected to a harsh overuse; that is the reason why it has not sprung any more. The eastern region is classified as the richest area in the country in oil and gas because the majority of these resources’ wells are found over there.  

As for its size, the eastern region of Syria is about 76.1 thousand kilometers; thus, it forms totally 41.1 percent out of the total size of Syria, and this area is inhabited by 4 million citizens; which means that its population forms 17.1 percent out of the whole population of Syria.

The eastern region is characterized by being tribal communities, regarding its people, coexisting with each other over the deep course of time. These tribes, particularly the Arabian ones, have got regional echoes and extention which involve their historical residential areas that were submitted to division as a result of Sikes-Picot Accords.

Whenever we want to define the concept of “clan”, we can say that it is ” a group of people who gather because they are relatives, or they gather because they share an actual or supposed ancestor even if that ancestor’s relation was not detailed enough to be known”. The members of the tribe might recognize the founding member or the primitive ancestor, and those considerations might be built on symbolic relation; since the tribe shares a certain ancestor who is deemed as a symbol for the uniformity of the tribe.

To understand the structure of tribe or clan, we need to shed light on the development of the human communities throughout the patterns of their agricultural and nomadic production. These two patterns unify the human crowds who belong to one single origin within a social style saving their ancestors’ attributions and their economic interests, as much as, it provides for them protection in case of danger.

To make it clearer and easy to understand, it could be said that “The tribe captures a primitive image of the human crowd; and it, as a concept, is attributed to a group of people sharing either relatives’ links, or the so-called solo- origin set. These two illustrations are usually linked into their individuals belonging to the same rituals, their same ownership, submitting themselves with the communal cooperation and solidarity at many occasions like; celebrations, taking revenge against their enemies, and military unit which is represented by composing a compact tough military team.

A tribe is smaller than a clan, in terms of numbers and individuals, in which the latter usually consists of a group of tribes sharing ancestors and relatives. In other words, the tribe, which is the singular form of tribes, means certain persons who belong to one father or one grandfather.

It is mentioned in the Jame’h Al- Ma’any dictionary that the man’s tribe means the relatives who come from his father relatives and tribe closely. Moreover, the tribe is a small human community that shares one ownership and cooperates to take revenge against its enemies. however, it is of a little interest comparing with the tribe.

The Concept of Clan and Its Existence

The clans of the eastern region of Syria is considered to be the social mixture that captures the societies over there. Over the history of the region, particularly ever since the Ottoman rule, the successive governments made much effort, respectively, to find a certain relation with tribes and clans in order to spread their authority over tribes and clans and conduct collection of taxes.

As tribe and clan are important because they both constitute the frames of social organization for their individuals. So, they both create the personal faithfulness before the emergence of the national state, so to speak. Throughout those periods of time, a person has always admitted his Shammi (Damascus) or Hijazi (Mecca) attributions, or he said that he came from Tay or Shummer tribes or any other Arabian one. So, this attribution is not only social one, yet it is declaring for a political identity that is derived from those human communities. Throughout the Ottoman rule over the Arabian Orient, the tribe kept strict relationships with the civic centers of the Ottoman authority and it kept its relationships with its supporters in the countryside too. 

Principally, the clan’s economic production paradigm standardizes its presence at one place. So, it could be assumed that a human group who are characterized by being relatives socially inhabits in one area only for the sake of protection. Also, that human group is organized by an economic and dynamic axis which is linked either by stockbreeding which relies on looking after pastoral land that is called nomadic code, or the agricultural production that conducts all the nomads’ relationships. That is to say, the land becomes distributed among the clan’s and tribe’s individuals, as much as, there is a person who regulates the relation inside this social composition. besides, a family out of the tribe’s or clan’s families occupies the leadership position in this tiny community in accordance with formulation of the dominant social scale towards each and every person of them. A clan is a human group that is constituted by the relation which is built on blood tie descended from a primitive grandfather. The clan is composed of several families who settle usually in one home embracing them all. Moreover, those families have got one accent, culture, habits and traditions. The clans of eastern region of Syria exist in Deir Ezor, Hasakeh and Al-Raqqa near the banks of Euphrates, Al-Khabur, Tigris and rainy areas.

The main clans of Deir Ezor are composed of Al-Ekedat Clan, which involves a huge mixture of cooperated tribes, Al-Bakkarh tribe, Al-Busaraya clans and other clans inhabit in cities’ centers. The majority of Al-Ekedat clans inhabits in Euphrates’ banks to east of Deir Ezor towards Iraqi border. As for Al-Bakkarh, it exists in series of villages located in the left bank of Euphrates up to west of Deir Ezor.

In Hasaka, there are many tribes; such as, Tay and Shammar and some clans of Al-Bakkarh and Al-Ekedat. Whereas the majority of Kurdish clans settles in the border strip next to Turkey starting from Al-Malkia “Deryek”. In Al-Raqqa, Al-Bushaban Al-Zubeidia is the main clan from which most of the Arabic tribes in Al-Raqqa come from. These clans formalize the utmost majority of people who settle in Al-Raqqa. As we have mentioned earlier. These clans’ presence is systemized either by economic production which captures the dearly nomadic mode, or the agricultural production as it was later adopted.

 Pre-revolutionary Tribalism; politically and socially

The conditions of the clan’s manner or position in the eastern region of Syria could be understood throughout the comprehension of the political, economic and social development in the country. It can never ever neglect the impact of such a change in the tribe and the clan structure; concerning the tribes’ communities and the nomadic ones in this pivotal region. So, after the French invasion of Syria in 1920, a clan fragmentation occurred and this incident was accompanied with a decreasing role of the biggest clan and increasing the role of tribes and sheikhs who had been less influential.

Thus, we are able to figure out the relationship between the clan’s and tribe’s manner, and the extent of political, economic and social development. Whenever the economic structures advance and so their productive styles do, there will be political powers that air the new economic dimensions, to some extent. Then, this advanced movement will pervade the social structures already existing in the society. So, when the industrial and agricultural production grew in the country, the social structures that indulged in the process of production was under the effect of that development in the industrial and agricultural fields. Consequently, all of these structures have been changed and their coordinating relations have been modified.

Before the independence in 1946, clans were the systematic political frame of the social structure in the eastern region and the clan’s individuals considered that their political identity is the identity of their clans. After the independence and formulation of political parties, the role of clans was weakened, politically, in favor of these structures (represented by political parties). Hence, the political ideologies passed over the social structures provided by a double drug of education; besides, one can easily see different political visions and several political attributions within the same clan. After that, when Hafez Al-Assad came to power in 1970, he re-put the highest consideration of the tribal standards regarding the tribal leaders. As a result, many tribal individuals who immigrated to Iraq and Saudi Arabia were being re-settled in their original country, Syria, and were being granted high positions in the state and the Syrian parliament. So, Hafez Al-Assad re-coordinated with tribes after they had been fought by the national governments after the independence and the early years of Al-Ba’ath party’s government.

The relationship between the clans’ leaders in the eastern region of Syria and the   regime during presidency of Hafez Al-Assad was built on awarding those leaders positions in the state and, facilitations and many privileges. Simultaneously, the system of the regime supported powers within these clans in order to create a particular political relationship decreasing the role of clans’ leadership through an indirect way and putting their authority under risk in case of necessity. So, the political tyranny in Syria and the regime of one single party weakened the clan’s political role, so that the clans lost their previous impact as much as they have, conversely, looked like the pivotal basis supporting the structure of the current political regime. Having said that, those who refused to capture or play this role in favor of government got satisfied with the political silence; yet they still played a certain role in the economic and social activity within clans. This unsteady progression in the structure of clans that resulting from the political and economic developments made the clan’s individuals realize the state’s power and its political authority in comparison with the clan’s weakness and its political downturn.

The tribal system has not, then, been fit and untied enough as a result of spreading the knowledge within its spheres as much as the plenty of mental capabilities in each and every clan. Moreover, the clan’s region has been under the urban impact, and the region has been globalized with human variety, the presence of the current strong state which is governed by both of the constitution and the law of the clan’s mentality. In short, the civic traditions and the new relevance have been placed instead of those other old ones.

Yet, a few relationships were kept between the clans’ and tribes’ leadership and the political authority. Such relationships preserved for those leaders, to some extent, their social role within their clans or tribes. This status is clarified; for example, in the tongue of Al-Bou Faraj clan’s sheikh, who descended from Al-Ekedat tribe, saying that the relationship between the authority and the tribe in Syria before the Syrian uprising in 2011 was a very good one; nevertheless, even when the clans’ sheikhs’ positions missed their interest; so to speak, the state kept the clan’s sheikh’s dignity and his presence, too.

Having discussed the political changes in the country over one hundred year, it could be said that the political and social status of clans became of a little interest to play a primary political role. And this clan-based status had got, still, a little social influence compared with its influence before. At any rate, the clan has got, currently, expressed any same political vision for its individuals. Hence, this uncertain vision is captured by the changeable political and economic profits for the individuals who belong to the clan, who have never linked with the previous two paradigms of production (the agricultural production and the nomadic lifestyle). Consequently, as long as the profits change, attitudes and loyalties change.

The Clan-based Role in the Peaceful Mobility

The peaceful movement in the eastern region was more activated by political elites than clan- based political activity, therefore city centers in the eastern region were the arena of the political movement in the uprising in 2011. The peaceful mobility in the eastern region was captured with particular demands addressing the issues of releasing political freedom and ceasing all discrimination formula; whether it is political or non-political discrimination. Yet, this movement was remote enough to be outside the villages and rural towns which did not engage in the movement’s mechanism. So, the peaceful protests were the way with which the powers which guided these protests airing their manifestations. Reactively, the regime resorted to activating the role of clans’ sheikhs in order to confront this movement in an attempt to prevent these clans’ engagement in the current uprising. However, Assad’s Regime, over decades ago and within its totalitarian concepts across the two phases of the first and the second Al-Assad (Hafez and Bashar), seemed to forget about its policy which aimed to destroy and shatter the social and political role of the Syrian tribes and clans; and it also prevented the tribes and clans from expressing their own tribal privacy. Apart from that, it finalized the social leadership of the Arabian clans and melted the latter into the frame security-related subordination.

Given that the peaceful movement is civil one characterized with having much national nature than clan-based structure, we find, clearly, the peaceful movement in cities’ centers of the eastern region much more than these cities’ countryside or towns which still belong to clan-based structure, largely, without political identity. As a result of the uprising of 2011, the Syrian regime has lost its own control over a huge eastern part of Syria; the part that is inhabited, principally, by the tribes. Such a loss has resulted from the regime’s dependence on weak clan-based leaderships among their environment. Besides, those leaderships could not represent their clans in terms of political respect since they linked their private interests (familial and personal) with the regime’s dimension instead of linking them with their clans’ own interests. Thus, it could be said that the time with which the tribe’s sheikhs had the ability to conclude the convention with external powers on behalf of each and every person of his tribe evaporated and vanished, so to speak.

The Clan-based role in the Military Stage of the Revolution    

The clan-based impulses in the eastern region towards arming and constituting their own squads could be understood in terms of self- defense because of the withdrawal of the ruling regime which became a military target for the uprising. The conflict with the regime woke up the clan-based communities to care for their own safety and security-related necessity. That is the reason why the clans focused on the necessity of protecting for their local communities. Thus, several military brigades and squads have been created in most of the eastern areas aiming to defend their areas depending on the support received from the regional powers. Moreover, these regional powers have rushed out to support these brigades and squads for those powers’ own goals. The external powers have done their best to polarize the tribal support to achieve their political and military aims since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011. So, these powers have allied with the sheikhs of tribes and have invested the tribal entity to compose fighting units. Furthermore, the fragmentations of clans’ loyalties and their little interests in the eastern region have led to a total absence of the united military action to submit the oil wealth, particularly in Deir Ezor, under the clan’s authority. The militarism of clan captures a kind of defense of economic interests, especially those interests that relate to oil wealth in the region. 

The clans, that have been structurally ruptured throughout their history, did not do any further serious steps for constituting a local army in both Al-Raqqa and Deir Ezor governorates to replace the regime’s army which had already withdrawn from these two governorates. Hence, the clan-based military brigades became so frail target and easy prey for much organized military powers whose aims seemed to be much clearer and accurate just like Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, ISIS, or “Daa’ash”. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Hasaka managed to found its military arm which was not, from the very beginning, founded or submitted to clan-based basis.

A number of parties and entities involved in the Syrian conflict; including Assad Regime, extremist Islamic groups, Kurds and regional powers, have tried to merge the clans’ leaderships with those parties’ political agenda assuming that the clans would follow their sheikhs and leaderships. Yet, these parties seemed to forget that these sheikhs have not, currently, owned any kind of authority which was once theirs. The current conflict has shown that the clans changed their compass towards their own private stuff and interests; that is the reason why their entity was weakened or decomposed.

Thus, the clan has not got any one single decision since the visions and considerations inside the clan’s spheres varied and contrasted as a result of the political and regional interferences utilizing their agenda and interests. Therefore, those interjected sides have got followers and supporters at most of the clans. Then, after the stage of the Free Syrian Army, Al-Nusra Front or “Jabhet Al-Nusra”, which is descended from the internationally well-known, Al-Qaida Body, has controlled over a wide range of the countryside’s squads in the eastern region. When “ISIS” appeared in  the region, fought against Al-Nusra Front and what were left over of the Free Syrian Army. So, the majority of the countryside’s squads realized that they were obliged to withdraw from the region or pledge allegiance to ISIS and admit its authority over them all.

This This change of allegiance shows the actual belonging to the private limited interests, that are, extremely pre-national ones, that largely pervade the Syrian countryside, particularly the eastern one. Actually, those private limited interests led to the destruction of the primitive tribal background and basis, and divided the latter into smaller entities; and, then, caused dichotomies inside these entities using the political and economic discriminations in order to decompose the primitive tribal basis. Such a situation provided a plenty of interchangeable loyalties in favor of different powers whose political agendas are paradoxical. As for this case, one can say that the clan, which is considered to be social, political, economic, and pre-national ingredient, missed its political and economic role throughout many phases. Also, its social standard has been recently, still, fought with dissociation and erode that coincided with creating vanguards of a new civil society.

 The clans’ changeable loyalty among Al-Nusra Front, “ISIS” and “Kassad” have shown that this loyalty is circumscribed by achieving certain conditions. For example, firstly, the politically controlling entity should accept leaving a few profits and interests for these clans. Secondly, there should be common and shared points between the two sides serve them both; even if that service is at its lowest level. However, this changeable loyalty is governed by national horizon; and it shows internal rupture in such a basis which was once reliable social principle in the periods of pre-national state in 1946.

The effect of civil society and its culture on the tribal culture

The origin of Syrian civil society with its modern form is not new or Independence-borne and developments that came after. At the end of the Othman Empire, Syrian civil political, social and cultural societies appeared in the Syrian society. The following is list of these societies that emerged before 1908: 

  1. Syrian Scientific Society which was founded in Beirut in 1847.
  2. Beirut Secret Society which later gave birth to the Arab Nationalists Movement. This society was founded in 1875. Most of its members are graduates of American University in Beirut.
  3. Damascus Conference in 1877 which called for independence of Syria from the Othman Empire
  4. “Preservation of the rights of the Arab Nation” is a society which was founded in 1881 with an Arabic credo.
  5. Damascus Charity Society. It is an Islamic charity society that worked in politics. It was founded by Taher Al Jaza’eri end of the 19th century.
  6. Arab-Othman Fraternity Society
  7. Literary Forum which was founded in 1909

Independent social commissions and societies can be considered as a means for serving its members. They used to be some kind of cooperative and charity institutions or civil societies like syndicates, literary clubs, etc. A civil society is based on the people having different economic lifestyles. It has a deep root in the concept of citizenship, unified constitution and unified law. Social expressions are usually formulated on the basis of a constitution that allows the establishment of such societies like political parties, syndicates, cultural, scientific and social societies interested in children, women and the young. Such social expressions are usually exploited in a way that serves the political system in stead of serving the basic objectives of these societies.   

Using their cultural structure, Civil societies usually invade different social structures that are less developed like the tribal structures. These societies affect the existing culture and push members of these traditional structures to get involved in a larger and more national commissions which have got a wider base. These new-born commissions are protected by the national law. The relationship that connects the individual to his/her tribe or clan retreats in the face of his or her relationship with larger national entities which are more capable of meeting his or her increasing needs. We are in front of an economic change that leads to change in the political, social and culture structures. This makes the tribal allegiance retreat as civil societies develop. To make this clearer, we can say that civil society in Syria started as an influential power with the advent of civil demonstrations and protests like what happened in Al Maydeen whether in an organized way or a random one.   

Prevalence of Law and Tribal Conventions

The complete formation of citizenship state depends on building all its social, political and economic pillars on the basis of one integrated law that regulates its existence. Such law constitutes a common basis that composes all the components of the state including tribal historic composition. Prevalence of law can be defined as a principle of governance where all citizens, institutions, public and private entities and sectors, including the state itself, are held accountable by virtue of law which is publicly issued, enacted and respected by all individuals and public entities. All stakeholders refer to an independent judicial system, and they accord with international rules and standards of human rights. When the law is whole, comprehensive and public, all other previous private and local conventions retreat. This includes tribal and sectarian loyalties or any other pre-state conventions.

Prevalence of law is a constitutional principle. This entails that no existing public authority can rule or act the law without having written laws made according to constitutional procedures that comply with the constitution of the country. The aim of these limitations is to anticipate any arbitrary judgements that are individually determined. On the contrary, tribal conventions are principles that are agreed by members of the same clan and other clans including habits, conventions and traditions they are used to in their everyday life. Such conventions are considered to be the reference for all members of the clan. They consider these conventions as the principal credo that they depend on for solving their problems, help their dreams come true and settle their disputes through reconciliation, arbitration or conventional litigation.   

Tribal convention is a verbal law memorized by nominated tribal judges who are committed to conventions of the clan to solve disputes and conflicts of all the clans and tribes living in the governorate. As a result of the development of the society and the empowerment of authority of the central government and its domination of the economic, social and political aspects of life, and the existence of a set of laws to which all citizens are subjugated, tribal conventions retreat and the tribal structure is dismantled. Its role is nearly obliterated. This allows the general, but not ultimate domination of laws. Tribal conventions are still vigorous in some cases whose judicial procedures are deemed to be prolongated and take long time for members of the clan, so they resort to tribal conventions which they all agree on.   

Clans of the Eastern Area and their Future Role

No political authority whatsoever can obliterate the role of a historical component of the Syrian society. The Eastern area of Syria is an assembly of clans. The sustainability of tribal concepts in this area has caused an economic, social and political negligence on part of the central government. Hafez Assad played a role in reinforcing competition and dichotomy within each clan to weaken the authority of Head of the clan. Hafez Assad didn’t want to obliterate this major component of the Syrian society. Instead, he wanted to make the best use of these clans for the sake of domination of this major social component.

If war stops and peace prevails, the eastern area of Syria needs persistent efforts to heal up war-associated wounds, and anticipate any internal conflicts. Clans are considered a safety valve for the peace process and political transition. This doesn’t mean the reproduction of these tribes and clans as an inevitable historical necessity. Society should smoothly move from tribal protection towards the protection of law, and tribal culture should be substituted with a unifying national culture. Allegiance should change from tribe to homeland in which all citizens are equal under the umbrella of national constitution and laws.  

For the sake of this evolution in an environment of stability, new ties will be enhanced in the new civil society; societies for women, the young and laborers. This should be accompanied with the retreat of tribal thought in favor of national political thought with all its different political programs and ideologies. This is what happened after the independence of Syria in 1946 before Al Ba’ath Party took over and started a new era of tyranny and the rule of one party which inhibited any diversity of thought and political trends. Al Ba’ath Party crushed any attempt to terminate its permanent rule. This made all components of the Syrian society pre-nationalistic in the form of tribes and clans, and favored limited interests at the expense of public interests.

The upcoming stage will be time for Syrian civil society where all components melt in a national crucible as a result of the development of life with all its aspects including the tribal one.

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