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IS courts Sunni tribes with carrot and stick

PALMYRA: An image grab taken from a video made available by Jihadist media outlet Welayat Homs on July 4, 2015 allegedly shows 25 Syrian government soldiers kneeling as, what appears to be children or teenagers, wearing desert camouflage walk beneath them in the ancient amphitheatre. - AFP

PALMYRA: An image grab taken from a video made available by Jihadist media outlet Welayat Homs on July 4, 2015 allegedly shows 25 Syrian government soldiers kneeling as, what appears to be children or teenagers, wearing desert camouflage walk beneath them in the ancient amphitheatre. - AFP

BEIRUT: Wearing a white headscarf and a traditional black cloak, the Iraqi tribal sheikh addressed his peers: “We’re all in the same boat, the (Islamic) State is our state.” “We say to our families that our swords and those of our brothers, the soldiers of the (Islamic) State are directed against the same enemy,” he said in a video released by IS, addressing some 30 tribal figures, some clutching Kalashnikovs.

The sheikh from the Iraqi city of Ramadi which fell to IS on May 15 was one of several tribal leaders in Syria and Iraq who have pledged their support for the jihadist group. IS appears to have recognized the importance of Syria and Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes early on as it seized control of large parts of both countries last year.

Using a combination of promises and threats, IS is working hard to win over the tribes, analysts say, but so far with mixed results. Both countries are home to tribes from various sects and ethnicities, but IS considers non-Sunnis to be heretics and has confined its outreach to fellow Sunnis. In Syria, the country’s approximately 15 Sunni tribes account for some 15 percent of the population, though many Syrian Sunnis are not affiliated with a tribe.

In Iraq, there are no official numbers, but tribal allegiances are important in many of the country’s provinces, particularly in the west and centre, as well as in northern Mosul. Experts say IS has used a carrot-and-stick approach with Sunni Arab tribes in both countries, playing on local grievances but also exploiting fear.

Protection, grievances, fear
Haian Dukhan and Sinan Hawat, authors of a study on IS’s relations with eastern Syria’s tribes, said three main factors were at play. Those include “economic benefits and protection... the fear factor, skillfully exploited and mastered by IS,” and grievances “which make the tribes accept or tolerate IS in the face of a common enemy.”

IS’s focus on winning over tribal support follows in the footsteps of Syria’s former president Hafez al-Assad, father and predecessor of President Bashar Al-Assad. Under his rule, tribes were “co-opted” with official posts and subsidies and “were part of the formidable populist powers that shored up the regime,” Dukhan and Hawat wrote. In exchange, they backed the government in confrontations with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement and Kurds seeking autonomous rule. But the relationship withered with the economic opening overseen by Bashar Al-Assad, which meant fewer state jobs and rising resentment. “IS attempted to fill the gap created by the withdrawal of the state. It provided an alternative structure of clientelism and patronage,” Dukhan and Hawat wrote.

The extremist group has also made the cost of defiance high. In 2014, when the Sunni Shaitat tribe rose up against the group, IS slaughtered more than 900 of its members in Deir Ezzor province. “It subtly invites recruits either to choose the winning horse or die,” the study said. Despite the incentives to join, and the consequences of failing to, Syria’s tribes have been divided in response to the group. “I challenge you to find a clan or a tribe that has pledged allegiance in its entirety to Daesh (IS) or (Al-Qaeda affiliate) Al- Nusra Front or the rebels,” Sheikh Nawaf Al-Mulhem, a tribal leader and member of parliament from Syria’s central Homs province, told AFP. “There are individuals who support them, but they do not represent the whole tribe,” he said.—AFP

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This article was published on 06/07/2015