BEIRUT, Lebanon — The blistering August sun beats down and bakes Deir Ezzour, a sprawling city of tribes nestled between the deserts of eastern Syria and the lush green banks of the Euphrates River, which flows across the nearby border into Iraq.
“The city is boiling,” a Deir Ezzour local said during the long bus ride east from Damascus through the vast and little populated scrubland. It was not only the fierce sun he was referring to.
Security forces on Wednesday killed two people in Mayadeen, 30 miles southwest of Deir Ezzour, while tanks rumbled back into where activists say there have been near daily protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the start of the month.
The ongoing assault follows a 15-day attack on the city of Deir Ezzour itself, declared over on Aug. 17 when a military source told the state-run news agency, SANA, that the army was leaving “after completing their mission of ridding the city of the armed terrorist groups that terrorized citizens and vandalized public and private property.”
Many residents of the city, however, have another story. Theirs begins with a killing.
On May 13, the Khalifa family of Deir Ezzour received the worst possible delivery: The body of their son, Sufuk al-Khalifa, a soldier in the army who had been killed, authorities told them, by the “armed gangs” the regime claimed to be battling in the central city of Homs.
Sufuk, a graduate in satellite imaging from a French university, left behind his wife and an 18-month-old child.
Then locals began to piece together a very different kind of story from those who knew Sufuk. Far from killing protestors in Homs, he had joined them, and was shot and killed after having defected from the army.
Having witnessed, in the first two months of the uprising, only small, sporadic protests against a regime that had long bought a measure of loyalty by permitting Deir Ezzour’s tribes to keep arms (unique among communities in Syria) and earn lucrative money smuggling gas and commodities to and from Iraq, the tribes now began to throw their weight behind the opposition.
It began through adherence to the ancient tribal code of honor and retribution. Sufuk al-Khalifa belonged to the Albu Sariaha tribe and his killing demanded a response.
But rather than attacking the regime with weapons, the tribesmen decided to seek their revenge doing what hundreds of thousands had been doing in other parts of Syria for weeks before: They went to the street demanding freedom.
It was the first of a number of surprising moves by Syria’s eastern tribes which reveals them in a light much different than the caricature picture of the remote Bedouin tribesman, an ignorant social conservative, resistant to rule by a civic state and seeking only the power he can wield at the end of a gun.
Where once they served as a host community to Syrian and foreign jihadis streaming into Iraq by the thousands to fight U.S.-led forces, Deir Ezzour's tribesmen now say they look across the border to Iraq and see a democracy they wish to emulate in Syria.
They also argue for a fair share of the revenues from the oil and gas fields among which they live, and complain about a lack of education and rights.
Most surprising of all, and contrary to predictions, the heavily armed tribes have, by and large, not resorted to arms when attacked by the security forces, though some tribesmen say that situation cannot last and warn of civil war if the regime continues to kill unarmed protestors.
Once aboard the uprising, the tribes quickly transformed Deir Ezzour province into a bastion of rebellion.
A week after the Khalifa family received their dead son, protesters set fire to offices of the ruling Baath Party. A week after that security forces opened fire on a Friday protest in Deir Ezzour that was attended by several thousand people, some of whom pelted with stones buses carrying secret police and thugs. Evening sit-ins in the newly named Freedom Square soon became routine.
The protests spread down the Euphrates River to the border town of Albou Kamal, where enraged residents burned posters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who, along with Iran, Russia and China, had refused to condemn the Syrian regime’s crackdown on protestors.
“We know who supports us and who is against us, and we will not forget these positions,” said an opposition leader in Deir Ezzour at the time.
By early June, tens of thousands were out on the streets, led by members of Sufuk al-Khalifa’s tribe. Secret police and soldiers surrounded a main square to protect a giant statue of Syria’s former dictator, Hafez al-Assad, from being destroyed. It was later removed before protesters could get to it.
Already, most of the hundreds of posters of Assad that stare down from walls across all Syrian cities have been ripped down or burned in Deir Ezzour, while a statue of Basel al-Assad, the president’s late elder brother, has been toppled and burned. The square that bore his name is now called Martyrs’ Square.
“The regime made a big mistake when its security forces killed protesters in a tribal society that believes in revenge,” said 22-year-old Raad, a student at Damascus University and an activist from the Local Coordination Committee (LCC) in Deir Ezzour.
Once the Albu Sariaha tribe started protesting, the region’s two largest tribes, the Baqara, which counts around 400,000 members in Deir Ezzour province, and the Aaqidat, which numbers some half a million, began to join in.
“We are angry about the years of humiliation. We only had a university built here a few years ago. Before that our sons had to travel to Aleppo, Homs or Damascus to study,” said Abu Khalaf, a leader of the Aaqidat tribe.
“The regime’s officials view us as Bedouin tribes, deserving only a second rate citizenship. If we had a democratic system we would get our rights as all other Syrian citizens, no more, no less.”
Surprisingly, despite acknowledging the problems in neighboring Iraq — where Syria’s tribes have extended family ties — the Aaqidat tribesman praised the country's democratically-elected parliament, even as he warned of the lengths he and others would go to bring the same to Syria.
“We want a peaceful democratic change in Syria and we don’t welcome the Iraqi or Libyan model,” said Abu Khalaf. “But if Bashar doesn’t make the democratic change we will be going toward a civil war, not back to the old days.”
Through July, protest numbers on the streets of Deir Ezzour rose exponentially. On July 1, activists reported 30,000 people chanting for the end of the regime, as security forces withdrew to their barracks and to checkpoints around the city.
A week later the number had risen to 50,000 and by mid-July more than 120,000 people marched, as the city observed its first full strike. “Why are you shutting down? Are you with these bastards?” demanded the secret police, according to an activist, before opening fire and killing several people.
“The behavior of these security services only deepens the current crisis and … raises doubts on the reform process,” said a statement by the Deir Ezzour Chamber of Commerce, an extremely rare criticism of the regime by a public institution.
“The Deir Ezzour Chamber has long warned of the economic and social crisis engulfing the eastern region. However, no serious effort has been made at solving this as the security services continue to act with impunity and to intervene in all details of citizens’ lives.”
First among those socio-economic grievances has been oil.
“Some people ask: Why should we oppose the Assad regime?” said the Aaqidat tribesman. “I answer them with one sentence: ‘Where are the Syrian oil revenues?’”
Deir Ezzour is the center of the country's oil and gas industry, which the International Monetary Fund in a March 2010 estimated earns the state about $3 billion per year — money, the tribes say, they see precious little of.
“We see foreign and Syrian companies working in the oil fields but our sons have no jobs in these oil companies,” Abu Khalaf said. “We get the bad smoke, the pollution and diseases, but no money.”
On July 29, an estimated 200,000 protesters came together after Friday prayers. “Today our city is a liberated city,” said Abu Furat, a 28-year-old protester at the time, before warning: “I heard the regime is preparing a large number of soldiers to finish our uprising.”
He was right.
The following day, Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the Baqara tribe was arrested in Damascus. Hours before his arrest Bashir told Reuters he was striving to stop armed resistance to a military assault on Deir Ezzour and to convince inhabitants to stick to peaceful methods, despite killings by security forces.
“The people firing on the protesters are regime thugs and security service henchmen,” Bashir told AFP back in April. “They take us for slaves — for four decades now they have subjected us to indiscriminate affronts and killings.”
Indeed, a peaceful transition to democracy had long been a priority for the surprising leader of the Baqara, a man in his late 40s or early 50s, fluent in English, educated at university in the West who held regular meetings with foreign diplomats and was an original signatory to the 2005 Damascus Declaration, the first unified opposition statement calling for democracy in Syria.
According to reports, Bashir has been banned from travelling outside Syria for the past 16 years and said he has been interrogated by the secret police more than 75 times.
As Bashir was jailed, tanks, troops and regime thugs rolled into Deir Ezzour, killing 25 people in two days, according to a citizen journalist reporting for Avaazx, a global human rights group.
An activist reported that some 1,000 members of the Baqara tribe, brandishing their AK-47s had swept into Deir Ezzour, in clear message of intent against the regime. Yet the serious fighting many had feared did not materialize as it appeared the Baqara tribesmen honored their leader’s wish for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Thousands of residents fled as tanks shelled the city. “They are shelling the houses indiscriminately and entire families are getting killed,” an Avaaz citizen journalist reported.
As the bombardment subsided, a campaign of mass arrests ensued. With communications severely disrupted during the 15-day assault, gathering accurate casualty figures was almost impossible, but activists estimated as many as 150 people had been killed and hundreds more arrested.
Any loyalty left to the regime among Deir Ezzour’s fiercely proud tribes appeared to have been fully severed.
“The regime was using us to protect the border with Iraq or send bad people to Iraq to do those bloody suicide bombings. But now we understand the game,” said Khali, 30, an unemployed university graduate from Albu Kamal.
Smuggling across the border with Iraq had been the only job Khali could find in his home town, but that had all but dried up over the past three months.
“Now we want proper jobs, proper education and a proper life,” he said.
But with no reports of Bashir’s release and a resumption of attacks on protest centers across the Deir Ezzour region, a tribal leader of the Meshahada, from a village near to Albu Kamal, warned that the behavior of Syria’s tribes might not continue to surprise for much longer.
“The regime wants us to use our weapons against the army and security forces so that it has a green light to finish the peaceful democratic uprising,” said Abu Firas, the 50-year-old leader of the Meshahada.
“I called all my tribesmen not to show weapons or use them. We will work hard to keep our uprising peaceful, but I cannot say what will happen in two months if the regime maintains the military crackdown on us.”
Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand reported from Beirut. The identity of a reporter inside Syria has been withheld for security reasons. Also for security reasons, the names of some sources in this story have been changed and others withheld.