Southern Syria: Tribal traditions control revenge acts amid law absence
The southern governorate of Daraa is witnessing a large number of assassination attempts and killings by unknown persons. Regardless of the security aspects and the political nature of the region, some of these acts are deemed clan retaliation, according to what Deputy Governor of Daraa, Abdo Khasharfa, said during an interview with the local Sham FM radio.
In light of the lawlessness and the role of the security services being limited to operations for gains and influence in the governorate, there are repeated instances of a murdered person’s family or clan rushing to attack their opponent from another clan in retaliation for their murder. This results in loss of life or material losses following the burning of civilians’ homes on both sides.
The latest case took place on 27 April, when relatives of young Mohammad Ibrahim al-Hassan, who was killed following a personal dispute, attacked homes belonging to a family they accused of killing their son.
With the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, judicial courts lost jurisdiction over the areas beyond the control of the Syrian regime, which increased killings and criminal cases for the lack of deterrent punishment.
In Daraa, the so-called House of Justice was formed under the control of the Syrian opposition and with local and factional support. It played a role in prosecuting violations, dissolving disputes, and prosecuting criminal defendants until the assassination of its president, Osama al-Yateem. Then, it was subjected to pressures during the administration of Judge Esmat al-Absi, until its role regressed once and for all with the Syrian regime’s control of the governorate in 2018.
The judicial role declined as the regime regained control over Daraa in what is interpreted as the unwillingness of the Syrian regime to improve the security situation in the region.
In the opinion of the academic and researcher specializing in Syrian sociology, Professor Talal al-Mustafa, the absence of the rule of law is a major cause of clan fighting and tension, which may extend to innocent people who are related to the offender and who may be of social or scientific importance.
He explained that the Ba’ath party’s access to power in Syria had strengthened clan authority. According to al-Mustafa, the party did not seek to build a state of democratic citizenship but rather exploited clan and sect fighting in “the destruction of the Syrian social fabric” to ensure that a united societal front would not be created against it.
In his view, one of the reasons for the fighting was court corruption. When the relatives of the victim feel that the killer has not been punished, they resort to violent acts to reclaim their rights. Thus, the existence of fair courts may limit the occurrence or extension of crimes.
Al-Mustafa considered that educating and sensitizing society through community-based organizations was important in reducing fighting. However, “Syria’s dictatorial environment is not suitable for the work of such organizations.”
Tribal committees to adjudicate cases
With the regime regaining control over southern Syria at the end of 2018, the role of the House of Justice institution has ended; it was an institution in which society found a way to stop clan fighting and settle disputes in the way of clan customs, which is relatively acceptable to the residents of the governorate.
One of the notables of the city of Tafas in the countryside of Daraa told Enab Baladi that tribal leaders, or sheikhs, currently have a role in settling disputes and arbitrating disputes based on the provisions of the Islamic Sharia and the inherited customs recognized among the region’s clans.
He added that there are procedures that are initially represented in the “Atwa” (a time limit set in days during which the killer’s family is guaranteed safety until peace consultations begin and justice is served according to the acceptance of both parties), then assigning notables who are clan sheikhs by the family of the killer to decide on the case. It is a requirement here that this committee be aware of the norms followed in this sort of incident.
This committee, known locally as “al-Jaha,” begins by visiting the parties and bringing views closer in an effort to defuse tensions and alleviate the anger caused by the loss of a family member or a relative.
The committee rules on the case after examining its course, and the sentence may amount to “Qisas against the killer” (the death penalty). However, this ruling has not been previously applied in Daraa according to what Enab Baladi has monitored over the past years.
Among the rulings prevalent in clan disputes is the rule of “al-Diyah” (“blood money,” a payment of compensation for the loss), with the killer being expelled from the area for a period of time to be determined by the committee. The family of the murdered may pardon the murderer from the al-Diyah in what is known locally as “al-Shom,” which is reconciliation between the two parties.
Researcher Talal al-Mustafa added that the absence of law prompted the traditional clan structure to resolve the problems of crimes and disputes among the population through notables, and religious sects in Syria even created their own councils to rule in this type of cases while their notables played a positive role at some point.
However, notables may turn into a coordinating authority with the regime’s security apparatus, such as the police and the courts. Ultimately, however, this role holds the status of a “temporary interim solution,” which is positive in resolving conflicts but becomes a burden on law enforcement in the long run.
Al-Mustafa considered that clan customs had become an authority that was searching for its societal status to implement its customs. However, if the power of the courts is restored in a “democratic state governed by law,” its role will gradually end.
Retaliation, a recurring situation in Daraa
In December 2021, three people were killed, and others wounded when a family dispute in Tafas in the western countryside of Daraa escalated into armed clashes between two of the city’s largest families, resulting in armed clashes and indiscriminate house burning by both sides of the dispute, according to what was reported by Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa at the time.
The dispute between the two families dates back to about two years, as it had previously developed and included the al-Zoubi family, one of the largest families in Tafas, resulting in the emergence of large quantities of weapons. The city was later besieged by regime forces for the surrender of weapons that emerged during the fighting.
In January of the same year, five civilians were killed in Tafas, west of Daraa, following clan clashes that lasted for a whole day, causing panic among the city’s residents and damage to their properties.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa at the time had stated that clashes between the al-Zoubi and Kiwan clans, the city’s largest clans, had not been the first of their kind and that it had resulted in the closure of schools and city markets.
In response to the fighting, the Daraa al-Balad Clan and Notables Council issued a statement to the parties of the fighting appealing for calm.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa Halim Muhammad contributed to this report.
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