Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria split over ISIS

Friday 09/10/2015
An Iraqi officer hands out weapons to Sunni tribesman at Camp Habbaniyah, in the city of Ramadi.

Amman - Members of the Albu Ajeel tribe in Iraq’s Saladin province threw their lot behind Islamic State (ISIS) militants who invaded and captured their north-central area in June 2014.

Two months later, the al-Jughaifa tribe in the Sunni Muslim heartland of Anbar province formed an armed force that has since been resisting ISIS, baring the jihadists from entering Haditha.

The stark contrast underlines a split in loyalties among tribes in territories the ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria. The two countries are home to clans from various sects and ethnicities but ISIS considers non-Sunni Muslims to be infidels and has instead focused on recruiting from among fellow Sunnis.

In Syria, the country’s approximately 15 Sunni tribes account for about 15% of the population, although many Syrian Sunnis are not affiliated with a tribe. In Iraq, tribal allegiance is important for the country’s Sunni minority and the ruling rival Shia majority.

Abdul-Aziz al-Taei, a criminal law professor at Baghdad’s Al Rasheed University College, said there were several factors that made Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq fertile ground for ISIS.

“Most significantly is the protection and economic perks which the jihadists offer, the fear factor by intimidating and killing people and the social injustice that isolated many Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq and left them susceptible to Daesh,” Taei said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

“Tribes are crucial in the fabric of Arab society and they simply can’t be ignored”.

In the book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Pakistani author Akbar Ahmed explained how tribal identity was a critical factor in the recruitment of the hijackers in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He argued that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “was joined in his movement pri-marily by his fellow Yemeni tribesmen,” ten of whom came from the Asir tribes.

Haian Dukhan and Sinan Hawat, authors of a study on ISIS’s relations with eastern Syria’s tribes, argued that tribal groups who live in border areas between states forge tight relations to others, even militants, providing them with protection and support. They wrote that Iraq’s al-Qaeda sent in Syrian fighters and Iraqi guerrilla warfare experts when the Syrian revolution started in 2011.

ISIS’s focus on winning over tribal support follows in the footsteps of former Syrian president Hafez Assad, father and predecessor of Bashar Assad. Under the elder Assad, tribes were “co-opted” with official posts and subsidies and “were part of the formidable populist powers that shored up the regime”, Dukhan and Hawat wrote.

In exchange, they backed the government in confrontations with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and Kurds seeking autonomous rule.

But the relationship withered with the economic opening under the younger Assad, which meant fewer state jobs and rising resentment.

“ISIS attempted to fill the gap created by the withdrawal of the state. It provided an alternative structure of clientelism and patronage,” Dukhan and Hawat wrote.

The jihadists also made the cost of disloyalty high. In 2014, when Syria’s Sunni al-Shaitat tribe rose up against ISIS, it slaughtered more than 900 of its members in one go in Syria’s north-eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

In Iraq, similar dynamics are at work, with some tribes inclined to support ISIS because of their anger at being sidelined following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

The post-war civil US administration and subsequent Shia-dominated Iraqi governments “isolated Sunni tribes, designated us enemies and stripped us of all benefits, like social status and posts in the government, army and police,” said Saleh al-Jughaifa, 54, a Haditha tribal leader.

“As a result, many tribesmen joined Daesh to get revenge from the state,” Jughaifa said.

Among those who have joined ISIS is the Albu Ajeel tribe, which has been accused of participating in the 2014 massacre of up to 1,700, mostly Shia, army recruits at Iraq’s Camp Speicher that rattled the Iraqi government.

Sheikh Nawaf al-Dulaimi, from the Dulaim tribe, with more than 3 million people one of Iraq’s largest tribes, insisted that loyalty to ISIS is evenly split within the tribe in Iraq and Syria.

“There is no clan or tribe in its entirety that pledged allegiance to ISIS or other militant groups in Syria or in Iraq,” Dulaimi said.

“There are some individuals within the tribes or clans who support them but they do not represent their whole tribe or clan”.