Limited political role and polarization imposed by war

Syrian Tribes: Division based on interests and loyalties

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain - April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)

Limited political role and polarization imposed by war

Syrian Tribes: Division based on interests and loyalties

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain - April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain - April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)


Khaled al-Jeratli | Jana al-Issa | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Hassan Ibrahim

Syrian tribes and clans are divided in their loyalty between different authorities based on areas of control and influence. These divisions can be seen east, west, south, and north. Prominent sheikhs from the same tribe can be seen taking different alignments, some leaning towards the regime and leading military factions that comprise thousands of fighters from the same tribe.

At the same time, other sheikhs support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and form similar military gatherings, while some remain neutral, trying to balance their interests between the parties. This pattern is not much different in northwestern Syria, where the same tribe is divided eastward, with factions opposing both the regime and the SDF in the west, raising the banners of the Syrian revolution.

These tribal divisions across Syrian geography are seen by observers as a product of polarization by de facto authorities that has persisted for years, while others believe that the division resulted from the tribes’ need for protection and representation.

In this lengthy report, Enab Baladi discusses with experts and researchers the roles played by Syrian tribes in managing Syrian provinces and their position in the four areas of control, where their authorities have tried and continue to try to win the tribes over.

Tribes across the Syrian geography

The military and political conditions resulting from years of war and conflict in Syria have left four areas of control, each considered an area of influence for one or more foreign states. The Syrian tribal and clan structure has changed due to movements of displacement, asylum, and human losses suffered by the Syrian population.

While the Syrian regime’s government does not provide any statistics or maps of the distribution of these tribes in Syria, research organizations have faced difficulty in estimating the tribal structure. This was noted by the Jusoor Center for Studies in a study that attempted to estimate the spread of this structure in 2021.

Other studies, such as those prepared by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies, relied on historical references and interviews with activists from the region to try and estimate the distribution of tribes and clans.

The Jusoor Center for Studies estimated that there are at least 23 Arab tribes mainly spread across Syria, primarily concentrated in the east, center, and north of the country.

It is commonly known that tribal components have a lineage sequence starting with the tribe’s name, followed by the clan, then the sub-clan, the family unit, and the household.

In Syria, however, the situation is different according to the Jusoor Center. This sequence varies significantly, appearing as the tribe, followed by the clan, the family unit, and then the notables. The sequence of lineage in the tribes is determined based on the necessity of kinship bond, and sometimes on alliances formed from interest or necessity.

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain - April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain – April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)

Social status: A gateway to politics

The tribe has always influenced the lives of individuals in Syria, and from this perspective, the Syrian regime worked to attract tribal leaders and gain their loyalty to influence the tribe members themselves, who may number in the tens of thousands in some tribal components.

As peaceful demonstrations developed into armed action due to the regime’s iron-fisted response to Syrians’ demands, the regime relied on tribal factions and tribal sheikhs in their areas of presence to secure its institutions and supported certain tribes at the expense of others, enhancing tribal conflicts in certain areas.

Social umbrella in the east

The role of the tribe re-emerged after the Syrian revolution in the absence of law, authority, and weakening of the security grip, according to social and political history researcher Muhannad al-Katea.

Al-Katea told Enab Baladi that the absence of authority in some Syrian provinces created an urgent need to seek an alternative social umbrella that provides a minimum level of reassurance and defends the interests of its members, strengthening the role of the tribe.

Despite this, the roles played by tribes politically or militarily were varied and limited at the same time. For example, the Shammar tribe played different political and military roles in al-Hasakah province after the revolution, even though it is one of the smallest tribes in terms of the number of its members in the region, despite its large extensions in Iraq and the Gulf region.

The Shammar tribe played a major role in a political and military alliance with the de facto authorities, referring to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

The tribe benefited from the United States support for the SDF, which brought material benefits to its leaders and helped avoid any violations and assaults by the local authorities, compared to what happened with other tribes and clans that did not take a collective stance or whose real leaders sided with the SDF.

Al-Katea added that the leaders of the Tayy tribe in al-Hasakah province stood on another side, as did most of the sheikhs and tribal leaders, with the Syrian regime, repeating the slogans chanted by the regime.

The Tayy tribe formed the main forces of the National Defense in Qamishli before the regime forced them to hand over all their headquarters in the city to the SDF after it cut off military support to them in mid-last year.

According to the researcher, who hails from the eastern region with a tribal structure, different roles can be observed that were played by the Aqeedat tribe in Deir Ezzor. They participated in the revolution strongly, organized themselves as armed groups against the regime, and contributed to its expulsion from the province, seizing oil fields.

Over time, the chaos led to disputes among cousins, especially with the entry of the Islamic State into the equation and the regime exploiting these disputes. It used part of them in its battles while the SDF later used another part for the same purpose.

Individual protection and stage divisions

In the early months of the Syrian revolution, the Syrian regime tried to reduce the tribe’s role and exploit privileges among members of the tribe and the tribal elders. The tribe, like any social component, was divided, with individuals and leaders leaning towards the revolution, while others sided with the regime, according to political researcher Firas Allawi as told to Enab Baladi.

Allawi clarified that the tribe played a significant role in northeastern Syria, forming its popular base by protecting individuals during demonstrations from repression by security forces, who considered this social situation before developments escalated into armed conflict, leading to the formation of factions more reflective of the tribal composition. Consequently, each tribe formed its military faction and social leadership, overshadowing the divided tribal sheikhs. Most prominent sheikhs were neutral or leaned towards the regime, and most other sheikhs were divided.

The division among the tribal sheikhs led to the emergence of other tribal leaders, whether from defected officers or civilians who became leaders of military factions. This situation persisted until Islamic factions and al-Nusra Front, then the Islamic State, entered the eastern region.

Before these factions’ entry, dealing with the tribes was good, and there was clear coordination because each tribe had an unclear military body not exclusive to the tribe, but most of these military bodies comprised the tribe’s members due to localism.

When al-Nusra Front entered the scene, it tried to exploit this, bringing some tribes closer to others at their expense. Some tribes pledged allegiance to al-Nusra Front, creating tribal conflicts within the region, according to the researcher.

On the other hand, the Islamic State invested in the same issue in its early years by establishing the Tribal Bureau to contain this social component. Some tribes fought against it, like the Shaitat, to prevent its control over their oil-rich areas, besides the tribal conflict between tribes that pledged allegiance to the group, al-Nusra Front, or the Free Syrian Army.


The tribe’s role during this period was to provide social protection for its members. However, the entry of groups into these tribes led to internal divisions, with the groups attempting to pit tribes against each other to exploit the situation.

Firas Allawi, Political Researcher


During this period, the tribe’s role was social protection for its members, but the entry of groups into these tribes resulted in internal divisions, with the groups attempting to pit tribes against each other to exploit the situation. Subsequently, the SDF also benefited from this issue, and the division became more apparent after the SDF took control of the region, leading some people to side with the regime, others under the SDF’s control dissatisfied with it, causing ongoing conflicts and instability in the region.

As for tribal leaderships, they are present and distributed, evident in the Tribal Council loyal to the regime, another close to the SDF, and a third supporting opposition factions aided by Turkey. Each council has a representative from each tribe, but these councils have not been as effective as hoped. The depletion of the political and cultural elite in society has affected the tribe and Syrian society as a whole, as genuine political gatherings were not produced during the revolution, limiting it to tribal councils. This social situation seeks to achieve a minimum level of local social contract or local law through resolving minor issues using customs or even religion, according to Allawi.

Meeting of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, with tribal and clan sheikhs in Syria during Eid al-Fitr in Idlib countryside - April 2024 (Tribal Council)

Meeting of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, with tribal and clan sheikhs in Syria during Eid al-Fitr in Idlib countryside – April 2024 (Tribal Council)

Exploitation along the Syrian geography

With the division of the Syrian map among areas of foreign influence and control by local entities, tribes—due to their social influence and their extensions across areas of control—have become targets of exploitation and attempts at co-optation by de facto authorities in these regions.

For example, the Syrian regime has supported the Berri family, who originate from the Bab al-Neirab neighborhood in Aleppo. This family is well-known for their alliance with the regime and for backing fighters who side with its forces. They played a role in suppressing demonstrations at the beginning of the revolution and are accused of sharing narcotics and contraband with figures within the regime.

In 2016, “Shabiha” loyalists of Parliament member Hassan Shaaban Berri threatened the residents of Aleppo with being “slaughtered with knives” if they did not vote for him in the elections held that year. They also attacked a supermarket on the College of Engineering Street in Aleppo with knives because its owner refused to display the candidate’s picture on the store’s front.

Hassan Berri successfully secured a seat in the People’s Council during the legislative term of 2016-2020. His name continues to be present in the council to this day, and every term of the People’s Council includes a share for the Berri family, given that the family elders belong to the Baath Party and secure seats in the council.

The Syrian regime also supported the Qaterji family (from the Naim tribe), with individuals from this family emerging as “war traders and warlords.” Leading figures include Sheikh Hussam Qaterji, as his followers call him. He became notably prominent militarily and economically by organizing oil deals between the Syrian regime and the Autonomous Administration (the political umbrella of the SDF). He also owns a massive iron factory within the industrial city of Aleppo and another for cement. His forces regularly sweep parts of the Syrian desert, securing roads intercepted by the Islamic State group.

Throughout the Assad family’s rule, the Syrian regime has sought to co-opt tribal loyalties while maintaining tight control over their roles within state apparatus, preventing traditional tribal leaders from gaining extensive influence.

Individuals from tribes have held positions in security and civilian institutions such as the Ministry of Interior and Agriculture, and offices affiliated with the Presidency. Tribal representation in the People’s Council reached 12% in 2012, with 30 out of 250 members being tribal at the time. There are currently no available statistics for their proportion now that the council has 252 members.

Since Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000 until the uprising in 2011, the approach of co-opting tribes shifted to enlisting their help to prevent public unrest and ensure they did not partake in peaceful demonstrations in Syria.

Northern Syria: Networking attempts

In northern Syria, control is divided: the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) rules northern and eastern Aleppo countryside, as well as the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, with the Syrian National Army as its military wing.

The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) controls Idlib, parts of western Aleppo countryside, and parts of Latakia countryside and the al-Ghab Plain in northwestern Hama. It acts as the political umbrella for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

The Interim Government has regularly held meetings with tribal elders in the region. One notable event was the General Conference of the Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans in 2018, which saw the participation of approximately 1,000 figures representing around 150 Syrian tribes and clans. This conference was held in the town of Sajo near the city of Azaz in northern Aleppo countryside.

Since his appointment in September 2023, the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Hadi al-Bahra, has prioritized engaging internally in Syria and boosting investment. His visits to the north, where he met with various local figures, including the Tribal Council, highlighted discussions about the region’s issues.

A significant yet unpublished percentage of fighters in the Syrian National Army come from tribal backgrounds. One prominent tribal faction is the Liberation and Construction Movement, with most of its fighters hailing from eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, al-Hasakah).

In Idlib, where HTS holds sway, the group’s and its leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s interest in tribes is evident. Through meetings or the formation of auxiliary military units comprising their sons, including the inclusion of the Eastern Bloc (whose fighters come from the eastern tribes) within HTS ranks.

In May 2019, the General Shura Council in Idlib announced the formation of the Popular Resistance Brigades, consisting predominantly of tribesmen tasked with supporting military factions in defensive and offensive battles and bolstering frontline positions.

Khaldoun Ahmed, one of the tribal leaders close to HTS, serves as the general manager of its high committee. In January 2023, the Syrian Tribes and Clans Council in Idlib donated 250 Kalashnikov rifles to the Popular Resistance Brigades during a ceremony.

Al-Jolani has often appeared with tribal elders, discussing building institutions in the region and reviving tribal roles. Additionally, he has attempted to expand his influence in Aleppo’s countryside, where the Interim Government is in control, through relationships fostered by the defected faction leader Jihad Issa al-Sheikh (Abu Ahmad Zakour) before his departure.

Before his split from HTS in December 2023, Abu Ahmad Zakour opened relations for al-Jolani with tribal elders. Over the past two years, he managed coordination with Syrian National Army factions, leveraging his popular base in the Bekara tribe, one of the largest Arab tribes in the region, paving the way for HTS’ influence in the area.

Tribes have also served as a cover for negative behaviors of HTS, as seen in the incident involving the arrest of Yusuf Arbash (Abu al-Hassan), the head of the Shura Council of the Bekara tribe in Idlib. Arbash denied to Enab Baladi the claim that the Syrian Tribes and Clans Council had offered a bail for his release, calling the bail a “fabrication and invention” by the council.

AANES: Marginalization by strategy

On May 25th, the events of the second edition of the forum titled “National Unity” of Syrian tribes and components, organized by the Syrian Democratic Council and AANES, began. The forum, held under the slogan “Dialogue, Security, Building for a United Decentralized Syria,” took place at the Sports City Stadium in al-Hasakah with the participation of about five thousand figures from official institutions and Syrian tribes, including sheikhs, dignitaries, and religious figures.

During the same conference, SDF Commander Mazloum Abdi promised to fulfill the aspirations of the region’s tribes, which he had previously discussed with the area’s dignitaries but had remained stuck at the promises stage for years.

The regions of northeastern Syria, where AANES and its military wing (SDF)control, have a tribal character. However, despite this, the tribal component is marginalized, especially after former US President Barack Obama’s administration chose the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a primary Washington partner in Syria to combat the Islamic State organization.

US support for Kurdish forces marginalized the role of the Arab tribes without excluding them, as US leaders regularly meet with the dignitaries and sheikhs of these tribes, and Washington also shows an inclination to win over the tribal component in the region, which is also pursued by the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia and Iran.

The marginalization by the SDF cannot be denied and was acknowledged by Washington when the US Department of Defense (Pentagon) issued a report in March 2020 criticizing the exclusion of the Arab component from decision-making within the military and civilian institutions affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political umbrella of the SDF and AANES, according to its definition.

The SDF always strives to show its communication with the tribal and regional leaders in the areas it controls. Mazloum Abdi also holds an annual meeting with the dignitaries and sheikhs, but its actual relationship with these tribes is managed through a specific strategy that manifests as “exploitation, investment, alliance, and dismantling the power centers in the tribe.”

The issue of representation for the tribes in northeastern Syria was reflected when armed confrontations broke out between the region’s residents and the SDF in mid-last year, led by Ibrahim al-Hafl, one of the sheikhs of the Baqir tribe belonging to the Baqara tribe, accused of loyalty to the Syrian regime.

Although the armed confrontations have effectively ended, their repercussions still hover over the region, as armed tribesmen target SDF checkpoints, individuals, and military points almost daily in Deir Ezzor.

Daraa: Dignitaries play the role

The governorate of Daraa, with its socially tribal structure, can be seen as an example of the social weight represented by this nature. Despite the regime’s control over the region since July 2018, its service and even judicial institutions are managed by tribal dignitaries and others representing villages and towns in the rural areas of the governorate.

Despite approximately six years since the regime imposed its control over the area, its presence has not left an impact on the service or judicial level, focusing only on the security aspect, which has not been noticeable with the continued daily assassinations and targeting in the region.

In the absence of the regime’s influence, Daraa’s dignitaries have worked to raise funds to repair schools, hospitals, and dig wells based on tribal connections with expatriates from the governorate living outside Syria.

The dignitaries also run something like a judicial institution called the “Arbitration Committee,” tasked with resolving disputes and reclaiming rights in the absence of official bodies performing these duties, as it defined itself through its official channel on the Telegram application (widely used in Syria).

The Arbitration Committee has a special Shura Council to discuss all decisions made by the committee on individual cases, consulting on the fairness and justice of the decisions.

The Arbitration Committee is active in most of the judicial issues of the governorate’s residents, from reclaiming grievances whether financial or moral, to ethical issues and cases of fraud and deception, primarily dealing with murder and revenge cases.

The committee also states that it is entirely independent and does not belong to any official or military entity and operates without any pressure from any party, working independently and free from patronage.

The same working mechanism of the committee became evident later in its role in resolving disputes within Daraa. Today, it is considered a guardian of many villages and towns in resolving conflicts, having received delegations from village dignitaries of Tel Shihab, Zeyzoun, al-Ajami, Khirbet Qais, Tabriat, al-Fawar, Nahj, Khirbet al-Shahm, and Amouriyah, assigning it to manage the region’s judicial affairs.

On March 31, the Arbitration Committee stated that since the beginning of 2024, it received 45 criminal cases, in addition to 19 murder cases and thefts, issuing verdicts in 26 of them.

Notables co-opted by the regime

Simultaneously with initiatives undertaken by tribal components in Daraa to compensate for the absence of government institutions in the governorate, there are tribal leaders co-opted by the Syrian regime. The regime worked to increase their influence within the tribal community, according to notables from the region speaking to Enab Baladi.

Abu Ali Mahameed, a notable of Daraa al-Balad and one of the city’s prominent figures, said to Enab Baladi that there are no traditional tribal sheikhs in Daraa as commonly understood. Instead, there are “individuals with money” who emerged due to their financial status and grew close to the regime through bribery, seeking standing with the regime and in the local community.

He added that those known today as “notables” or sheikhs achieve their personal interests through their relationships with the regime, resolving people’s issues, especially security-related ones, which the regime later addresses to solidify the position of these “notables”, according to Mahameed.

Mahameed believes the regime does not favor bold figures who challenge it but rather seeks “appeasers” from the governorate. The regime does not want any opposing voices and throws some notables “crumbs” to gain their support in promoting its narrative within the local community.

The policy of the ruling Baath party in Syria aimed over decades to fragment the tribes and exploit their names to show them as loyal by granting their notables seats in the People’s Council or local councils of villages and cities, according to Mahameed.

He added that the regime’s policy aims to highlight individuals from a particular tribe at the expense of other prominent ones who may not agree with its directions or are its opponents.

A notable from the western countryside of Daraa and a member of the Central Committee that manages the area told Enab Baladi that the regime’s relationship with notables and tribal sheikhs from the area existed even during the opposition’s control of southern Syria.

The source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, added that some notables were secretly moving between opposition and regime-controlled areas before 2018. Some opposed the idea of the opposition controlling the area and moved to live in the city of Izraa, which never fell out of regime control.

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain - April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)

Official Syrian opposition figures during participation in the tribes and clans forum in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain – April 6, 2021 (Abdul Rahman Mustafa)

A future tied to political solution

The tribal component experienced severe shocks during the years of war, losing essential sources of strength, primarily the human element. Areas lost many of their sons due to killing, arrest, displacement, or forced disappearance, leading to the fragmentation of the tribal component, according to a February 2022 study titled “Tribes of the Jazira and Euphrates in Syria: Fragile Alliances from Baath to Revolution,” published by the Arab Center for Research.

The study indicated that the traditional leadership houses split according to the political orientation imposed by war circumstances.

Despite the current circumstances, the tribal component retained its historical weight and significance, explaining why many local and international parties aim to attract it due to the power tribal sheikhs still hold and their ability to influence local communities. However, these tribal components lack a unified political vision.

According to the study, conflict narratives confirm that civil wars and armed conflicts enhance sub-identities due to the absence of a comprehensive national state. Therefore, the future work should focus on creating cohesive social contracts to establish a national identity that accommodates and interacts with sub-identities to refine them.

Conflict management affairs researcher Mahmoud al-Hussain told Enab Baladi that the future of tribes in Syria depends on the nature of the potential political settlement.

Al-Hussain believes that the tribe’s role in the coming period will remain influential in balancing local power dynamics.


As long as there is no general form of true state institutions representing a broad segment of people and solving their daily issues, the tribe will maintain a clear and influential role in Syria.

Mahmoud al-Hussain, Conflict Management Affairs Researcher


Muhannad al-Katea, a social and political history researcher, told Enab Baladi that there is no single, fixed political stance among Syrian tribes, and they cannot be seen as a single bloc.

Al-Katea considered that the tribes’ political future in Syria cannot be foreseen unless they engage in a real political movement away from tribal fanaticism. Tribal loyalties have negatively contributed over the past decade, increasing hot conflicts among tribes and often resulting in casualties.


Regionally and internationally, tribes failed to play a real political role representing their entity, interests, and existence. Their roles in Syria remained marginalized and scattered among various forces and de facto authorities, using them for their interests by selecting some notables and marketing them as new sheikhs and representatives of the tribes.

Muhannad al-Katea, Social and Political History Researcher


Amid these conditions, al-Katea questions how these tribes can play political roles without forming organizations that unify their efforts and integrate them, benefiting from their energies away from narrow factional interests and tribal strife.


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