The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority and Control

By Chatty, Dawn | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority and Control


Chatty, Dawn, The Middle East Journal


Little information is available regarding contemporary relations between Bedouin tribes and the Syrian state apparatus. These ties are mainly expressed through relationships of patronage and clientism between tribal leaders and state operatives. The Bedouin tribes of Syria continue to function as groups tied in networks of real and fictive kinship; these bonds provide the tribal members with a solidarity and cohesiveness which the state has not been able to suppress despite decades of effort.

This article merges two interests: one revolves around concepts of Bedouin identity, revisiting the meaning of being tribal, nomadic, and pastoral; the other is taken up with what can be called development studies but is, in effect, Syrian government policy efforts at managing a previously uncontrolled tribal entity which often regarded itself as a "state within a state."1 Very little information is generally available regarding contemporary relations between the tribes and the apparatus of the state in Syria. These ties are mainly expressed through the relationships of patronage and clientism between tribal leaders and state operatives. It is argued here that the Bedouin tribes of Syria continue to function as groups tied in networks of real and fictive kinship and that these bonds provide the tribal members with a solidarity and cohesiveness which the state has not been able to suppress despite decades of effort.

Much of the following analysis of the transformations of the past few decades is based on personal experience and communications.2 Fieldwork was conducted in the semi-arid steppe land (Badia) of central Syria, as well as on the Lebanon-Syria border, where significant tribal activity and interaction with the state takes place. This article commences with a brief review of the nature of the (Bedouin) tribes in Greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham). It then examines the 20th century history of pacification, rejection, and revival (1900-70). This is followed by a discussion of the significant changes to Bedouin tribal society in Syria during the past three decades under the Ba'th regime and, in particular, after the "Correctionist Movement" of Hafiz al-Asad and his son Bashar. It posits that, despite the formal annulling of the Bedouin tribes' legal status in Syrian law in 1958 and the determined effort to wipe out tribalism in the Ba'th Party Constitution, alternative perceptions of authority and power attached to tribal leaders have continued to exist in the Badia. These allegiances and preferences for customary law ('urf) in contrast to state law (qanun), have been informally acknowledged and tolerated by the state. By doing so, the state has avoided having its own authority tested in these tribal territories. This relationship was made more explicit when the Asad family called upon tribal leaders to assist in the Hama Blockade of 1982, which followed the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist opposition to the Ba'th regime in the late 1970s. This article contends that post-1982, a marked change in government attitude permitted the Bedouin leadership to manage and transform critical state development efforts to support their own status and customary leadership.

THE NATURE OF BEDOUIN TRIBES

The social organization of Bedouin tribes has been described by many as based on the opposing and parallel segmentation of units at various levels of reality and fiction. The Arab expression "I against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; my brother, my cousin, and I against the world" perfectly describes this layered outlook on alliances and enmity among tribes. The entire tribe ascribes to an origin based on real and fictive blood ties going back to an apical ancestor - Adnan or Qahtan - giving it a pyramid-like structure with real, living units at its base and the mythical ancestor at the top. The segmentation refers to the way in which the tribe is divided into smaller parallel sections - 'ashiiras and 'afkhadhs - sub-tribes or clans and lineages, and then at the base, large extended groups of related households sometimes called bayts or qawm/aqwam.

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