A Tribal Solution to the Islamic State

"Get to know their families, clans and tribes, friends and enemies, wells, hills and roads...win and keep the confidence of your leader. Strengthen his prestige at your expense before others when you can." ~ T. E. Lawrence, Twenty Seven Articles (1917)

One of the more significant threats to international security today comes from the deteriorating situation in the Syrian Desert. There, the collapse of one regional center of gravity (Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad in 2003), and the weakened status of another (Bashar Assad's government in Damascus, under siege since 2011), combined to produce a political vacuum that has been filled by the so-called Islamic State, creating instability and uncertainty that threatens the region and resonates globally.

The Islamic State phenomenon has its origins in the unraveling of the socio-economic relationships that had been forged over time between Baghdad and Damascus and the Sunni Arab tribes that reside in the expansive Syrian Desert that connects Syria and Iraq. American policy objectives toward containing and defeating the Islamic State focus on simultaneously undermining the legitimacy of the Syrian government while marginalizing the pro-Iranian stance of the Iraqi government, preventing either Damascus or Baghdad from asserting the kind of legitimate authority needed to offset the allure of the Islamic State among the Sunni tribes of the Syrian Desert. The recent Russian intervention in Syria, closely coordinated with Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran, would appear to have a better chance at reversing the tide of the Islamic State by re-establishing both Damascus and Baghdad as legitimate political centers of gravity for the Sunni Arab tribes, and thereby undermining the perception of legitimacy of the Islamic State among these tribes.

The emergence of pan-Arab nationalism under the leadership of Egypt's Gamal Nasser in the 1950's and 1960's helped spawn nationalist political movements (i.e., Ba'athism) in both Syria and Iraq. In both these states there was an inevitable clash of cultures when the resultant progressive trends of secular nationalism confronted conservative tribes whose identity was more defined by traditional values centered on family, individual prestige, and religion rather than nebulous notions of nationhood. Such cultural conflicts were not unique in the history of the tribes of this region, with both the Ottomans and European colonial powers having experienced similar friction when seeking to impose outside rule over tribal areas. Historically, the solution to mitigating conflict with the Sunni Arab tribes of the Syrian Desert was found in developing mutual economic interests that empowered tribal leaders by enabling them to establish a system of patronage which encouraged loyalty through economic incentive. In this way, the basic operating element of the tribe, the extended family (or khams, representing five generations of male relatives) was bonded to the tribal leadership, consisting of a council of elders headed by an elected leader, or Sheik, which in turn bonded with the regional political center of gravity from which the patronage originated.

During Ottoman times, such patronage originated from the capitals of the various vilayets, or provinces, in which the tribes resided, either Syria (Damascus), Zor (Deir Ez-Zor, in modern-day Syria), or Baghdad. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire these tribes found themselves either under French mandate in Syria, or British mandate in Iraq. However, as in Ottoman times, political lines on a map meant little to tribal federations whose territory often overlapped with two or more Ottoman vilayets, and today include both Syria and Iraq.

As such, the tribes were influenced not by a single center of gravity with regard to political and economic patronage, but two -- Damascus and Baghdad -- both of which were essential for maintaining the delicate balance of tribal relations, both internally by empowering tribal leadership, and externally, by strengthening tribal ties to either center (or, in some cases, both.) The system of political and economic patronage was continued when Syria and Iraq became independent nations, and was expanded under both the Assad dynasty in Syria and the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both of which found that such patronage played an important role in offsetting the influence of conservative Islamic clerics among the tribes who historically had used the mosque as a vehicle for instigating anti-regime plots.

The complex socio-economic-political fabric that held the Arab tribes of the Syrian Desert together disintegrated in the aftermath of the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. The relationship between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni tribes was extensive and, especially in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, so closely woven together that they were virtually indistinguishable to the American forces occupying Iraq. Policies such as de-Ba'athification and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army had an overwhelmingly deleterious impact on the Sunni tribal leaders of Iraq for whom political membership and military employment were an important aspect of the patronage derived from Baghdad that gave them legitimacy among their respective tribes. The reduction in the authority of the tribal elders and sheiks that followed in the wake of these policies played a significant role in the creation and sustaining of the Islamic State. The radical exhortations of conservative clerics were more readily received by a population conditioned to receive such a message as a result of American actions, and lacking any viable counter message from the now diminished tribal leadership.

The linkage between the tribes and the anti-American resistance that grew from the aftermath of the 2003 invasion led to the leadership of the Sunni tribes being heavily targeted by the American military, and the subsequent arrests, killings and disenfranchisement of the Sunni tribal leaders resulted in the disintegration of traditional tribal structures. The Sunni tribes were called upon to abandon their loyalty to an Iraqi state that had been, for decades, defined by the leadership of Saddam Hussein, and transfer that loyalty to a foreign occupying power, which endorsed a follow-on government in Baghdad comprised primarily of Iraqi Shi'a expatriates loyal to Iraq's neighbor and nemesis, Iran. The resulting conflagration turned family members against one another, violating the sanctity of the khams and, in doing so, undermined the basic building block of tribal unity and integrity.

It was into the resultant tribal chaos and anarchy that the antecedent of the Islamic State -- Al Qaeda in Iraq -- first emerged. Islamic militancy has traditionally been eschewed by the Sunni tribes of the Syrian Desert on the grounds that it offset the delicate balance between the leadership role played by sheiks and tribal elders in managing the secular aspects of tribal life with the role played by the clerics in administering to the needs of the faithful. But when the tribal leadership was destroyed or undermined by American policy and action, the moderate clerics who previously co-existed with the tribal leadership found themselves replaced by more radical clerics whose sermons exhorting the tribes to violent resistance in the name of Islam could no longer be suppressed with the kinds of economic and political patronage the tribal leadership used to bring in from the center. Tribes were further divided over the issue of resistance or accommodation, to the extent that one could not speak of the singularity of unified tribal action -- some members supported Al Qaeda, some supported traditional tribal resistance, some supported neutrality, and some supported political accommodation with the new post-Saddam government.

The disintegration of tribal cohesion was not confined to Iraq. Given the geographical realities associated with the creation of the Syrian and Iraqi states, tribal territories often straddled national borders, and, as a result, the loss of inter-tribal cohesion in Iraq had an impact on tribes inside Syria as well, with families being called upon to make the same choices between resistance or accommodation.

The Assad government sought to manage these tribal stresses by empowering the tribes to quietly support their brethren across the border, and deflecting Islamic militancy onto the American occupiers in Iraq and away from Syria. Patronage in the form of increased oil subsidies (the Syrian Sunni tribes occupying the territory encompassing the majority of Syria's oil production capacity) and leniency toward expanded cross-border smuggling activities helped Syrian tribal leaders retain control of their respective charges and contain the domestic fallout from the conflict in Iraq, but successive years of drought brought about an economic crisis which came to a head in 2006 -- the same time as the US-led "surge" against Al Qaeda-inspired insurgency began to take form in Iraq.

In the ensuing years, the decline of tribal authority inside Iraq, and in particular Anbar province, in the west, continued, leeching into Syria at the same time that the authority of Damascus was being undermined by growing resentment over what was seen as ineffectual government response to the growing socio-economic crisis brought on by the drought. Given the connectivity among the tribes in Iraq and Syria, there were ready-made escape routes available to Al Qaeda in Iraq for withdrawing into the Syrian interior in the face of American military pressure in Anbar. The introduction of significant numbers of radicalized Islamist militants across the border from Iraq coincided with the loss of authority of Damascus over eastern Syria, where the majority of the Syrian Sunni tribes resided, and, as such, there was little to offset the influence of radicalized tribesmen who, in the vacuum created by the retreat of the Syrian government, joined forces with the Iraqi militants to create the organization the world now knows as the Islamic State.

It is the Islamic State that today is the source of prestige and patronage, serving as the bedrock of tribal legitimacy in the areas under its control. Any solution to the problem of the Islamic State therefore must confront the issue of how to unify and realign the Sunni tribes of the Syrian Desert to centers of gravity other than the Islamic State. It is within this framework that the Russian intervention in Syria, and the strategic cooperation between Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, needs to be considered. This is especially so when juxtaposed with the policies of the United States and the coalition it has assembled (including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab States, Turkey and Jordan) to confront the Islamic State. On the surface, an alliance between an outside power (Russia) and Shi'a-dominated regional players seems an unlikely conduit for resolving a problem that originates from within a Sunni tribal context. Indeed, many analysts and observers of the Islamic State point to the role played by the rise of the so-called "Shi'a Crescent" encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran as one of the principle factors behind the disenfranchisement and radicalization of the Sunni Arab tribes in both Syria and Iraq. But such analysis is both short-sighted and wrong.

The American policy toward confronting the Islamic State is focused on the dual tracks of eliminating the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria while strengthening military and political capabilities of the new pro-Iranian Iraqi government. This policy, as implemented, only reinforces failure, as it encourages the kind of political and economic chaos in Syria that the Islamic State thrives on while propagating reactive policies in Baghdad that further alienate the Sunni tribes.

The initial plan for confronting ISIS had the Iraqi government mobilizing support among the Sunni tribes to push the Islamic State out of Iraq and back into Syria, where it would be subsequently contained and destroyed. But the heavy-handed use of Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi'a militias to confront the Islamic State in the Sunni-dominated areas around the cities of Tikrit and Ramadi underscored the difficulty Baghdad has encountered in engendering meaningful support from Sunni tribal elements, even in the face of ISIS atrocities.

This, combined with the inability of the Assad government, under siege as it is from foreign-backed insurgencies (some of which are openly aligned with the Islamic State) to reassert its authority in the areas of Syria under Islamic State control, results in a policy that is counterintuitive, since its very implementation only strengthens support of the Islamic State among the Iraqi Sunni tribes while facilitating the Islamic State's ability to leverage its control over the Syrian Sunni tribes (the recent decision to deploy 50 American Special Forces soldiers to support Kurdish militias fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria does nothing to change this strategic calculus).

While the American attempts to create a new regional center of gravity in Baghdad from which to attract the loyalty of the Sunni Arab tribes of the Syrian Desert flounder, the Russians seek to do the same in Damascus by propping up and strengthening the regime of Bashar al-Assad (the immediate objective behind Moscow's decision for military intervention) and expanding the Syrian government's reach back into territories currently controlled by anti-regime elements, including the Islamic State. By reasserting Damascus as a regional source of legitimacy, prestige, and patronage in the context of the Sunni Arab tribe's socio-economic reality, the Russians hope to de-legitimize the fractured tribal elements in Syria and Iraq who support the Islamic State by empowering traditional tribal leadership.

If the Russian plan succeeds, then there could be a cascading effect, with tribal stability and cohesion extending out of eastern Syria into western Iraq. Unlike the United States, which seeks to implement its anti-Islamic State policy in near unilateral fashion, void of any input from Damascus and with minimal cooperation from Baghdad, Russia is coordinating its efforts with the key regional players, ensuring unity of vision and implementation across the board. While this, in and of itself, does not guarantee success, it does provide for a policy that conforms to both historical and current realities and, as such, has a viable chance of recreating the dual centers of gravity in both Damascus and Baghdad that have proven capable of engendering political and economic stability among the Sunni Arab Tribes of the Syrian Desert in the past. Such an outcome would be beneficial to all parties who have a stake in promoting security, both in a regional context as well as globally.