Dera’a, Syria: Tribalism unleashed?!

Monday, 4. April 2011

as published in http://blog.goethe.de/transit/archives/60-Deraa,-Syria-Tribalism-unleashed!.html

As if to prove how revolution spreads, Dera’a has suddenly become the heart of the supposed Syrian revolt against president Assad and his family. Until recently Dera’a was just a small city mainly occupied with hiding its main occupation, the smuggle of cigarettes and other products over the nearby Syrian-Jordanian border. It is a case in point for the true nature of revolution, one markedly messier than the clean break from a dirty past that it likes to present itself as. In fact, it is a nature in which the civil plight for greater freedom and ultimate happiness mixes with the long denied, and suppressed, reality of tribalism in Syria, and with a Syrian and local economy that is mainly present underground.
During a trip from Damascus to Amman when I lived in Damascus until about a year ago, I got to talk with a good friend, and the subject soon turned to Dera’a. He told me how the Jordanian border guards were having a hard time stopping the smuggling, mainly cigarettes. And how sometimes they had to strip bare whole cars to find the cigarettes smuggled under a false bottom. As one of the Dutch students, who was taking a summer course at the institute I worked for, found out to her distress after taking a cheap ride from Damascus to Amman, the main business of her chauffeur was not so much taxi-ing her, but rather using her as a cover to smuggle all kinds of products.It is indicative for the integral role smuggling plays for the clans around the Syrian-Jordanian border, that the normally lively market of Ramtha, on the Jordanian side of the border, ruled by the Al Zoubi tribe, has been empty since the protests broke out in Dera’a.
Another friend told me how Dera’a is basically a no-go area, where the Syrian government has no de-facto control, and things are governed by local tribes, of which most are deeply entangled in smuggling business. Generally, the border guards, at least the Syrian ones, are deeply in on the smuggle and are dependent on it to supplement their meager salary.With these stories in mind, the clear-cut heart and start of an upcoming Syrian Revolt, which Dera’a is presented as, appears a lot more dimensional than just embodying a break with the dictatorial past. A genuine and justified plight for greater freedom mixes conspicuously with a tribalism still very much alive and with a local economy fully dependant on the smuggle of goods. It is this complicated, hidden reality of socio-political relations that is so easily and happily overlooked by revolutionaries all over the Middle East, and by the media covering the ‘revolts’. It is a tribalism in which the rule of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, is much more important than the call for revolution, as the media make of it.

What is happening now in Dera’a is first of all a protest against the regime, demanding more freedom and prosperity. Moreover it is also very much a revolt of one group of tribes, namely those from Dera’a, against the government itself, which in turn is dominated by the Alawi tribes (a split-off of the shi’ite denomination of Islam). When protests spiraled, the government moved in as it is used to and has done earlier in Dera’a, as well as in other places, according to stories I heard while living in Syria, about the Damascus suburb of Jeramana and an area close to ancient Palmyra. With increasing tensions in the region, the government in Syria is on high alert – and clearly they reacted even stronger than they normally would, to quell discontent.

Naturally, there is a lot of civil discontent in a thoroughly suppressive state like Syria, and after living there for one and a half year I cannot but agree that the current state of corruption, suppression and lack of liberty is highly frustrating, the more so for Syrians who do not have a choice. Forcing a choice out of this state of inertia is therefore a justified reaction in Syria, as it is anywhere in the Middle East. Nonetheless there remains the danger that, with freedom from the government gained, another beast is unleashed. A beast formed by decades of suppressed and denied social-political feelings, and decades of essentially different forms and expressions of factionalism and tribalism, that run much deeper than the notorious Syrian secret service can reach.

Ruben Elsinga took his MSc. in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He has lived in Damascus, Syria for one and a half years, where he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Academic Studies.

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