The northern Syrian governorate of Raqqa came to the world’s attention when it fell under the control of ISIS in 2014. Scenes of tribal leaders pledging allegiance to the group, after their governorate fell into its hands, raised many questions about the complex tribal dynamics in the area. Previous analyses of these dynamics have often misunderstood the intricate tribal structure and drawn false links between terrorism and tribalism. This research tool aims to shed light on Raqqa’s tribal structure, making it accessible to everyone interested in understanding the current state of affairs in the governorate.
As a starting point for this study, it is worth emphasizing that tribal affiliation exists alongside other forms of affiliation, such as national, religious, and ethnic identities. These interact in complex ways as one aspect may be more salient than the others, depending on changing socio-political circumstances. The Syrian uprising and the subsequent civil war have given newfound importance to collective solidarities under the name of tribe or sect and other forms of sub-national identity, pushing tribal affiliation to the fore as an alternative to national belonging. This, in turn, increased the importance of tribal belonging.
The visual map featured below lists the names of the major tribes in Raqqa along with each of their traditional leadership families. It also highlights the distribution of each tribe’s strongholds, as represented by the guesthouse (madafa) of the tribal leaders. Overall, this analysis aims to make clear that policy makers should be aware of Raqqa’s tribal dynamics in order to determine the best method of interacting with members of the tribes and the tribal leadership, for the benefit of all parties, including the local population itself.
Distribution of Raqqa's Arab Tribal Guesthouses (Madafas)
Raqqa governorate is divided administratively into three districts, which are then further divided into 10 sub-districts. In each of these 10 sub-districts, a team of three field researchers, who belong to tribes, collected data, meaning a total of 30 field researchers were involved. The data was initially checked by two reputable local genealogists in Raqqa, who suggested some corrections to the first survey, after which the field researchers conducted another round of research. The authors of this report then cross-checked the data by comparing its content to previous surveys presented in the Syrian historian Zakaria’s (1983) book in Arabic, A’ishair al-Sham (Tribes of the Levant); the German archaeologist Oppenheim’s (1939) book in German, Die Beduinen (The Bedouin); Lewis’ (1987) book, Nomads and Settlers in Syria and Jordan, 1800–1980, and Jabbur’s (1995) book, The Bedouin and the Desert, Aspects of Nomadic Life in the Arab East. In comparison to these previous surveys, it must be stressed that this is the most comprehensive attempt to map Raqqa’s tribal topology.
To communicate the findings, we built two bespoke interactive visualizations using various programming packages. The first visualization presents a hierarchical tree outlining Raqqa’s tribal structure. Tap and hover on the nodes in the tree for information. The second visualization plots the locations of the strongholds of each classification (clan, tribe, or confederation). Note that while some entities have no strongholds, others were not available to us. This means that not all the entities presented in the hierarchical tree are plotted on the map.
The tribe in Syria, as in the rest of the Arab world, is divided into smaller parallel sections, known as asha’ir (“clans”) and afkhad (“lineages”). Tribes can also be branches of a larger confederal system called tribal confederations that are “politically unified under a central authority,” like the popular Anizah and Shamar Confederations. Facing the same problem as other researchers when conducting tribal surveys, we found that some tribesmen also exaggerate the status of groups to which they belong, promoting a clan to a tribe or a tribe to a confederation or, alternatively, demoting a rival confederation to a tribe and so on. Each tribe has a traditional leader, known as a chieftain, or sheikh in Arabic, who comes from a particular sheikhly family within his tribe. Instead of specifically mentioning the name of the sheikh, this study uses the name of each tribe’s sheikhly family since there can be disagreement as to who holds the leadership within that family. Most members belonging to a tribe originate from groups with which they have actual or potentially fictive kinship ties. Whether real or fictive, these kinship ties create sentiments of unity, solidarity, and collective action among members of the tribes, particularly in times of need.
Geography and population
Raqqa governorate is located in northern Syria and is bordered by Turkey to the north, the governorates of al-Hassakeh and Deir ez-Zor to the east, the governorate of Homs to the south, and the governorates of Aleppo and Hama to the west. It is therefore considered a strategic governorate that connects the Syrian Jazeera to Aleppo and the center of the country. Raqqa’s pre-war population was estimated to be around 944,000 (Ocha, 2014).
The majority of the population of the governorate (90%) are Arabs who have a tribal affiliation (Jordi, 2008). The majority of these groups are Sunni Muslims. A small Alawite minority lived in the governorate and worked in the education sector, oil industry, and security apparatus. Following the Syrian uprising and the withdrawal of the regime’s forces from Raqqa, most of the Alawites left. The last remaining Alawites in the governorate were executed by ISIS when it took over the 17th Reserve Division in 2014, the Syrian Army unit responsible for north-eastern Syria (White, 2014). Other ethnic groups such as Kurds, Turkmens, Circassians, and Armenians constitute the remaining 10% of the population. About 2,000 ethnic Armenian Christians live in the governorate (BBC, 2014). Iranian missionaries were active in the area after Iran built a Shiite shrine over the tombs of Ammar bin Yasir and Uwais al-Qarni, companions of the Prophet Muhammad who died at the battle of Siffin between Muawiya and Ali in 675 CE. The Iranians’ missionary efforts were not successful, however, and very few people converted to Shi’ism. Apart from the classical definition of tribes, which refers to groups of people who have common descent, this study also covers small groups of people who came from particular places in Syria at different points in time, such as al-Sakhani, who moved from the Syrian town of al-Sukhnah in the middle of the last century.
The largest population centers in the governorate are the city of Raqqa, the city of al-Tabqah, the town of Tell Abiad, and the town of Ma'adan. The rest of the population is scattered across more than 700 villages spread all over the governorate. Historically, the population’s main livelihood has been agriculture and raising livestock, but since Syria’s independence and the founding of Raqqa as a governorate, many people have started working in the civil service or other jobs like trade. Raqqa governorate is Syria’s main producer of irrigated “strategic crops,” including wheat, barley, cotton, and yellow corn (EASO, 2020).
Raqqa tribes throughout history and during Assad’s reign
When we talk about Raqqa, the Bo-Sha’aban tribe is often brought up by historians and political analysts of Syria. It is a large group of clans mainly inhabiting the governorate of Raqqa, but also present in small numbers in al-Hassakeh and the countryside of Aleppo. While it is believed that the clans of Bo-Sha’aban are distantly related, they united to face the waves of camel-riding al-Fadda’n tribesmen coming to Raqqa from the Arabian Peninsula in the 17th century. The al-Fadda’n tribe established itself firmly in the governorate of Raqqa until the majority of its members left Syria for Saudi Arabia beginning in the 1960s. The al-Fadda’n, under the leadership of Hajim Ibn Mheid, proclaimed an independent state in 1920 based in Raqqa by the Euphrates, with Turkish support (Rae, 1999). They issued a declaration confirming this act of defiance and protesting the French occupation of Syria (Lewis, 1987). Frustrated by the loss of Syria, the Turkish government supplied the al-Fadda’n with artillery and machine guns. For more than a year, the Flag of the Arab Revolt continued to fly over Raqqa until the French attacked the al-Fadda’n from both the air and the ground. Their camps were scattered and their state was finished, with the tribe retreating toward the Turkish border and camping there. It should be noted here that there was a struggle over the leadership of the al-Fadda’n between Hajim Ibn Mheid and his nephew Muhjim Ibn Mheid, who supported the French against his uncle and assisted them in capturing Aleppo (Dukhan, 2019).
During the French Mandate of Syria, the French granted privileges such as land and parliamentary seats to tribal leaders. These policies transformed the sheikhs into feudal lords, disconnecting them from their traditional patterns of social interaction, responsibility, and political dialogue with their tribesmen (Khalaf, 1981). They were no longer dependent on their tribesmen to support them socially or financially, as they were able to secure their own resources. When the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1963, it issued a set of land reform measures that destroyed the sheikhs’ economic base and reversed their social status. Suleiman Khalaf (1981) illustrates this shift in the words of one of the sheikhs of the al-Fadda’n: Kuna bil n im wasurna bil jahim (“We were in paradise and now we are in hell.”) The reform measures pushed the al-Fadda’n sheikhs to start emigrating to Saudi Arabia, where the oil boom created many opportunities for members of the tribe who left Syria (Dukhan, 2019). The fact that they belong to the Anizah confederation, which includes the royal family of Saudi Arabia, eased their entry to the kingdom. Many of them started to work for oil companies in the Arab Gulf or served in the armed forces of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (Lewis, 1987). At the same time, the Ba'ath Party began replacing the traditional tribal leadership with a new generation of Ba'athist recruits who were strongly influenced by the party ideology to the extent that they began to reject their tribal values.
In a marked departure from previous Ba'athist measures against tribalism, Hafez al-Assad started appointing tribal leaders as members of the Syrian Parliament once again. In 1971, just three months after officially taking power, al-Assad brought some tribal leaders back to Parliament. The People’s Council had one tribal sheikh from Raqqa (Sheikh Jassem Hweidi) and another from the countryside of Aleppo (Sheikh Dayyab al-Mashi). The regime established patronage networks with tribal leaders who helped it sustain its power and prevented any attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to provoke unrest. This continued for nearly a decade after Hafez’s coup d'etat in 1970 (Dukhan, 2019). The Ba'ath Party was very active in Raqqa. Khalaf (1981) describes how joining it enabled educated members of the al-Affadlah clan to become local party comrades. This offered them access to government amenities and brought benefits to their families and villages.
The creation of Lake Assad in 1973 led to the submersion of 66 villages located on one of the banks of the Euphrates River (Ababsa, 2011). The majority of the people who lost their homes belonged to Raqqa’s al-Waldah clan. Hafez al-Assad's regime moved some of the clan’s members to the north of al-Hassakeh — a densely populated Kurdish area — in an effort to change its demographics as part of the so-called “Arab Belt Project.”
When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, he transformed the populist nature of the authoritarian regime, connecting it mainly with the bourgeoisie and upper class, neglecting the rural tribal constituency that was a vital part of Hafez al-Assad’s authoritarian state (Dukhan, 2019). Poverty was generally more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones (reaching 62% in rural areas), with the north-east (Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and al-Hassakeh) having the greatest incidence and severity of poverty (UNDP, 2005). The neo-liberal policies adopted by Bashar al-Assad reduced bribery and the economic advantages provided by the regime and thus limited its ability to expand its patronage networks. Ababsa (2005) describes members of the al-Waldah clan, whose former lands and homes were submerged by Lake Assad, protesting in front of the Raqqa Agriculture Directorate against procedures that registered their traditional pastureland as state land, and then illegally sold it or rented it to people who did not live in or know the villages. The tribesmen began shouting “Corruption is sucking peasant blood!” (ibid.: p. 41). The governor of Raqqa visited the village accompanied by officials and asked the protesters to be calm, but they started to throw stones at the officials, who quickly retreated to their cars and sped back to Raqqa city. Many letters were sent to the president, the minister of agriculture, and the Ba'ath Party regional command (ibid.). Instead of finding a satisfactory solution to the problem, however, officials arrested a number of tribesmen and brought them to Raqqa’s political security branch. This example highlights the disintegration of the social contract between the Syrian regime and its rural constituency in the periphery (Dukhan, 2019).
Tribal dynamics in Raqqa during the civil war
As soon as the uprising started, the protest movement moved to the peripheral areas of Syria, including Raqqa. Tribal leaders tried to calm the protesters and establish a line of communication with the state apparatus. Six months after the start of the Syrian uprising, at the end of Ramadan, Bashar al-Assad visited Raqqa to perform the Eid Adha prayer in one of its major mosques. On this occasion, many local tribal leaders publicly pledged allegiance to the president (Legrand, 2014). This group included most of the leaders of the Bo-Sha’aban clans, including Sheikh Abdulkarim Rakkan of the Sabkha and Sheikh Mohammad Faisal Hweidi of the al-Affadlah (Aksalser, 2013). Tribal sheikhs prevented young people from gathering in the city of Raqqa’s central square for a whole year, but the tribesmen eventually broke the rules they laid down and organized a big protest there, attempting to pull down a statue of former President Hafez al-Assad in March 2012 (BBC, 2013). The uprising highlighted the large gap between the sheikhs and the younger members of the tribes who took to the streets. Long years of clientelism between the regime and the sheikhs helped the regime to survive but divided the tribes, because the sheikhs recruited part of each tribe to suppress the others who had revolted. This led to major divisions within tribes between those who supported the regime and those who opposed it (Dukhan, 2019).
Many tribal youths who took part in the protests resorted to armed self-defense and took revenge for their relatives who were tortured or killed by the Syrian regime’s security forces. Some tribal youths also received outside support — for example, the Saudis backed the establishment of the King Abdulaziz Brigade from the al-Fadda’n tribesmen in Raqqa. At the same time, the regime asked its loyal sheikhs to set up militias and mobilize their younger members to fight alongside them. For example, the Fighters of the Tribes militia was established by Turki al-Buhamad, a tribal youth from Raqqa, and it played a vital role in the Assad regime's efforts to retake central and eastern Syria (Nedaa, 2018).
The governorate of Raqqa started going outside of the regime’s control in the summer of 2012, beginning with Tell Abiad and eventually leading to the takeover of the city of Raqqa by Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra in March 2013. Alongside these Islamist groups, there were many other Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades that were established on tribal lines as well. One of these was the Uwais al-Qarni Brigade, active in the city of al-Tabqah, which drew the majority of its members from the al-Naser tribal group belonging to the al-Waldah clan. Other such groups include the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, whose members came mainly from the al-Sakhani tribal group referred to previously, and the al-Mustansir Billah Brigade, whose members were largely from the al-Affadlah clan. In preparing its takeover of Raqqa, ISIS began targeting Islamist groups alongside FSA militias in the governorate. Its tactics included bombing their headquarters and assassinating their leaders, including the head of the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade. This ultimately led to the dispersion of the majority of these militias and ISIS’s full control of Raqqa in January 2014.
In addition to co-opting the governorate’s traditional leaders, ISIS understood that the tribal structure had changed over time and that there was a younger generation that refused to accept the traditional chiefdoms. Therefore, ISIS co-opted young tribal leaders by offering to share oil and smuggling revenues with them and promising them positions of authority in the state. For example, ISIS appointed Ali al-Sahou, a young man of 23, as the head of its security office in Raqqa. He worked on recruiting young people from the tribes in Raqqa to join ISIS (al-Sayed, 2015). In order to tighten its control of the Syrian tribes, ISIS established a tribal affairs office headed by a Saudi man from the Shamar tribe, aided by a Syrian man named Tubad al-Breji from the al-Brege clan (Ibrahim, 2015). The tribal affairs office had the task of gathering information on the tribes and their daily activities.
After more than three years of living under ISIS rule, local tribes in Raqqa were exhausted by the oppression, arbitrary arrests, censorship, and deaths caused by airstrikes intended to target ISIS militants. These extreme conditions pushed many of the tribal youths to give up on ISIS and support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their military campaign against ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa. The SDF had to ally with many local tribes in Raqqa, including the Buo-Assaf and the al-Waldah, in order to liberate the governorate. In this way, the SDF managed to defeat ISIS and retake the majority of the lands it once controlled.
Control of the governorate of Raqqa is currently divided between the “Syrian National Army” opposition group supported by Turkey, which has a presence that extends about 20 km in from the border; the SDF, which controls the majority of the governorate; and the Syrian regime, which has a small pocket of territory in the south. The vast majority of the resources and population fall under the control of the SDF. The group established a Raqqa Civilian Council co-led by local tribal leader Sheikh Mahmoud Shawakh al-Bursan that includes 20 representatives from local tribes, but critics who live outside Raqqa say it is merely a fig leaf for Kurdish rule (Dukhan, 2018).
External political authorities promote different individuals living within their area of control as the legitimate representative of a given tribe. This has led to the creation of multiple competing leadership groups within a single tribe, thereby promoting conflicting agendas. Both Turkey and the Syrian regime attempt to use tribal bonds to destabilize SDF rule in Raqqa, which causes further divisions within tribes and clans.
On the ground and inside Raqqa itself, tribal leaders will lend support to those who guarantee benefits to themselves and their tribesmen. As long as the U.S. maintains its support for the SDF, tribes in Raqqa, despite sporadic tensions, will continue to stand by the SDF. If the latter were ousted by the Syrian regime, or the U.S. were to withdraw, their backing of the SDF would almost certainly wane.
What are the implications for policy makers?
- Tribes are not homogenous, static actors. Structural changes within tribal communities mean that not all members of the tribe follow their leader or their tribal traditions at any given time. Tribal identity is just one of many that tribesmen hold, meaning there is less cohesion among members of the tribes.
- The weakening of state authority enhances tribal affiliations as many tribesmen see the tribe as their safety valve in the absence of state control. This means that concepts of tribal solidarity and support become more salient in times of conflict.
- Tribes do not have the ability to coordinate militarily outside their immediate area. The case of the Army of the Tribes, which is composed mainly of members of the al-Waldah and Buo-Assaf clans, shows that clans and lineages have a stronger sense of territorial solidarity than tribes do.
- Traditional tribal leaders are not necessarily representative of their entire tribe. The examples of Ali al-Sahou and Turki al-Buhamad show that there is a "generational" dimension at play. Often such people still utilize their tribal background and ties to influence unemployed and disenfranchised members of different tribes to rally for a particular group. This means that the SDF or the U.S. should also reach out to groups other than the traditional tribal leaders when attempting to counter extremism and establish stability in Raqqa.
- Strengthening traditional tribal affiliation for the purpose of preventing a resurgence of ISIS does not come without costs. It can often weaken emerging civil society organizations and lead to inter-tribal feuds. Instead of relying purely on tribal solidarities for short-term security purposes, the U.S., the SDF, and other parties involved in Raqqa should invest heavily in building civil society initiatives that are based on the rule of law and order.
Haian Dukhan holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. His research interests revolve around issues of identity and political violence with a specific focus on tribal communities in relation to the Syrian state. He is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Central European University's Centre for Religious Studies in its research project (Striking from the Margin).
Ammar Al-Hamad is a MA student in Political Science and International Relations at Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Karam Shaar holds a PhD in Economics from Victoria University of Wellington. He is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and the lead researcher at the Operations & Policy Center. Follow him on Twitter: @karam__shaar. The opinions expressed in this piece are their own.
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