DEIR EZZOUR, Syria — Follow the news on Syria and it might seem that the civil war is playing out along a vertical axis running from Daraa, the uprising’s birthplace in the far south, through the capital Damascus, straight up to restive Homs and Hama and ending in the far north city of Aleppo, the country’s largest.
This is the Syria of the Levant, in the fertile rain shadow of the mountains that run along the eastern Mediterranean coastline.
But east of this urban spine lies the bulk of Syria’s landmass, a vast scrubland, flat, arid and scalding hot — an outgrowth from when colonial cartographers delineated Iraq for the British and Syria and Lebanon for the French.
It is tribal bonds, not urban elites, that matter for those living three hundred miles from the capital, along the lush banks of the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey through eastern Syria and into Iraq’s Anbar province.
“All our fighters are from the tribes,” said Mohammed al-Aghedi, a member of the rebel Military Council for Deir Ezzour, the regional capital. “All the rural areas are under our control and the cities of Deir Ezzour, Mayadeen and Bukamal are a battlefield between us and the Assad army.”
One year ago, GlobalPost reported on the determination of Deir Ezzour’s tribes to maintain peaceful protests, despite killings and the kidnapping by the regime of one of their leaders.
A year on, and the regime’s ongoing violent repression, its failure to address the region’s basic needs and its policy of using the tribes to smuggle Islamic militants into Iraq have created a lethal blowback, both for its own struggle for survival and the fate of Syria’s civil war.
“The relationship was that between a monkey and a lion,” Abu Bargas, a Bedouin tribesman, told GlobalPost. “The moment the monkey falls from its perch the lion will eat it.”
Abu Bargas, with a face like tough leather, a traditional red and black scarf slung over his head, eagerly recounts “heroic adventures” smuggling foreign jihadis across the border at the behest of Syrian state security after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Speaking to GlobalPost in a village between Deir Ezzour and Hassake, he said his tribe, the Shammar, went from smuggling sheep, guns and gas from Iraq into Syria — and drugs and diesel the other way — to ferrying hundreds of Arab Islamist militants “from Algeria, Tunisia, Kuwait, Yemen and mostly from Saudi Arabia” to wreak chaos in Iraq.
Political security officers “under Brigadier General Mohammed Mansoura,” he said, “were organizing the fighters from Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut airports. And then I and other smugglers organized the last 20 miles or so.”
Rather than cash payments, he said he would receive lucrative favors: The release of captured tribesmen or impounded goods; false passports; a blind eye from security services along the border.
The administration of US President George W. Bush had repeatedly accused Syrian authorities of funneling foreign fighters into Iraq, an accusation denied by Damascus.
“The Assad regime wanted to engage the Americans in Iraq to stop them thinking about invading Syria,” said Sheikh Abu Hamza of the massive Baghara tribe, who is also imam of a mosque in Deir Ezzour city.
Abu Hamza said “hundreds” of the jihadis that the regime had sent to Iraq subsequently were arrested and imprisoned when they returned to Syria.
“How can a secular Allawite regime sponsor radical Sunni groups to fight for an Islamic state while it won’t let a Syrian citizen even establish an Islamic charity?” asked Abu Bargas. “This is the monkey and the lion: Today the same people who were smuggling fighters on behalf of the regime are smuggling fighters to attack the regime.”
On July 5, Iraq’s foreign minister said Al Qaeda-linked fighters were flowing from Iraq into Syria.
Abu Hamza said many jihadis jailed after returning from Iraq have since been released. “They spent years in jail and want to take revenge on the regime. They have close contacts to Al Qaeda and radical fighters in Iraq who have begun to look to Syria as a fertile land for jihad,” he said.
More from GlobalPost: Syria: The new land of jihad?
After his high profile defection last month, regime insider Nawaf Fares, former ambassador to Baghdad and leader of Deir Ezzour’s Jarrah tribe — a branch of Aghedat tribal coalition which numbers more than one million people — said he had played an important role moving foreign jihadis into Iraq.
“After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the regime in Syria … formed an alliance with Al Qaeda. All Arabs and other foreigners were encouraged to go to Iraq via Syria and their movements were facilitated by the Syrian government,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.
Fares was keen to insist he defected after giving up on hopes of Assad reforming the regime. But a reporter for Abu Dhabi’s The National, an expert on Arab tribes, said Fares had initially armed his Jarrah tribesmen, based along the Bukamal border crossing with Iraq, against the protesters.
As a former leader of the ruling Baath Party in Deir Ezzour, Fares could also count on party loyalists to join the ‘tribal shabiha,’ pro-regime militias, or chatif in the local dialect.
One such loyalist was 32-year-old Amid, who only gave his first name. “I and many other government employees believed we were defending the country from traitors and criminal groups,” Amid told GlobalPost. “I did many bad deeds and hurt many peaceful protesters.”
Amid said many chatif like him switched sides — in observation of deeply rooted tribal codes of honor and revenge — after witnessing the violence the army meted out against tribesmen in the opposition.
“My cousin, a doctor, was arrested because he was treating injured protesters. He was killed after two weeks in prison,” said Amid. “The Assad regime is very good at making enemies and even at making good friends into enemies.”
Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected on August 6 after just two months in the job, is also from Deir Ezzour.
Fares’ defection followed months of bombardment by regime forces stationed on the edge of Deir Ezzour which has left much of the sprawling low-rise city in ruins. During a recent trip, a GlobalPost reporter found the city largely empty, most families having fled to nearby Raqqa and Hassake, or to Damascus.
Government presence in the city was virtually nil, with police stations abandoned, hospitals and clinics closed, banks shuttered, and bakeries empty. A few remaining residents were seen burying dead relatives in their garden, while the injured were treated in make-shift home clinics.
Neglect by central government will not come as something new to Deir Ezzour’s residents.
Alongside the Kurds in the far north-east, Syria’s Al Jazira region (named after the Arabic for island, denoting the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers) accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s oil and gas output and is a major farming area.
More from GlobalPost: Syria: The Kurdish conundrum
For decades, tribesmen like Abu Hammoud, who lives on a tributary to the Euphrates, complained bitterly that little of the billions of dollars of annual revenue reaped by Damascus was ever invested back in their region.
Still, said Abu Hammoud, with his crop farm along the banks of the Khabur River, and with a cut from lucrative smuggling to and from Iraq, he used to make around $20,000 a year, plenty to support his wife and seven children.
Then, around 2005, Assad began lifting the Soviet-era subsidies his father had used to placate his population for decades. By 2008, the price of diesel had quadrupled, said Abu Hammoud, raising the cost of running his vital irrigation pumps.
Seeds and fertilizer, which were also subsidized, went up in price, just as the region was in the middle of a devastating four-year drought.
“Our region was run by a mafia network: Some farmers bribed local officials or security men for permission to dig random, deep wells. This further hurt the water reserves,” said Abu Hammoud.
After selling his wife’s gold, Abu Hammoud moved his family to a village near Duma, the satellite town north-east of Damascus which saw the largest and most sustained anti-regime protests last year, before being shelled and largely depopulated over the past three months.
Now Abu Hammoud is back in his village on the banks of the Khabur.
“We had oil and water, but we couldn’t irrigate our land because the wells were dry and the price of diesel was too high,” he said. “We have a local proverb that says ‘He who eats of the Sultan’s food, should wield the Sultan’s sword.’ The regime gives us no food and wants us to be slaves. As we get nothing from the regime we will lose nothing if it falls.”