The Islamic State identity and legacies of Baath rule in Syria’s northeast

By Kevin Mazur, Princeton University

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Nations and Nationalism” workshop hosted at the University of Southern California, February 6, 2015.

The rapid territorial expansion of the Islamic State and the obedience of populations under its control in Syria owe much to the group’s military and economic resources and the fear they engender. But no authority can rule through pure force or pure charisma in perpetuity, which raises an important question: What are the prospects that a religiously inspired state strikes root in the areas of Syria currently controlled by the Islamic State? Because the Islamic State’s takeover is hardly a year old and fighting is ongoing in much of this territory, it is too early to say definitively whether local populations will absorb the severe ideology of their rulers. Yet any entity seeking to control Syria’s northeast will have to either displace or adapt to the set of state-society relations formed by the Baath regime’s indirect rule and penetration of the tribes in this area. While the Islamic State is working to forge a ruler-ruled relationship in line with its vision of society, it has also has to work through these existing structures, suggesting that its project will be no simple task.

Syria’s northeastern region, stretching from just east of Aleppo to the Iraq border, is primarily inhabited by semi-sedentary and recently sedentarized people of Sunni Arab, tribal extraction. They share the Sunni and Arab identity of the leaders of the Islamic State, but that does not mean that there is an organic solidarity between the local society and an authority claiming Islamic religious legitimacy. Compared to their non-tribal (though also Sunni Arab) neighbors, Syrians of tribal background tend to be engaged in more mobile occupations (e.g., livestock grazing and long-distance trucking) and have greater mutual obligations and duties among extended kin. Religion has historically played a weaker role in structuring their social life, though linkages to the Gulf diminished this difference in recent years. Before the coming of the Islamic State, for example, women’s dress was less tightly controlled and religious practices and discourse carried less symbolic power in Manbij, a primarily tribal city, than they did in al-Bab, a nearby primarily non-tribal city.[1] On the other hand, labor migration and tribal linkages to the Gulf have been a conduit for more austere forms of religious practice to make their way into northeastern Syrian society.[2]

It is, at the present moment, difficult to judge the extent to which the Islamic State’s ideology has been absorbed by the populations under its rule. Social actors have an incentive to hide their true preferences when they deviate from those of the prevailing political authority, a behavior that Timur Kuran refers to as “preference falsification.”[3] There have, however, been instances where local populations reveal their hostility toward the Islamic State in spite of the reprisal this position invites; clashes have broken out in several cities under Islamic State control between local populations and Islamic State forces when the latter have confronted local women who refuse to wear the niqab (face veil).[4] Such exceptions to the rule of preference falsification provide some indication that the absorption of the Islamic State’s political vision has been uneven at best.

The cultural distance between ruler and ruled, and the skirmishes it engenders, would be unremarkable if the Islamic State were displacing an authority that had long been firmly rooted in the local society and its customs and traditions. Yet the disconnection between the ideology of central political authorities and the practices of the local populations in Syria’s northeast is nothing new. Rather, it is one of the techniques by which the Syrian state ruled the region. The Baathist state never attempted to penetrate society and shape it according to its developmental vision as it did in other areas of the country.[5] As a result, leaders of local communities became accustomed to the sort of preference falsification required to project allegiance to an ideological regime while making minimal alterations to life unobserved by that regime. In contrast to the other regions of the country, the Syrian state’s presence – in terms of public services, presence of security forces, and general efforts to “modernize” or remake society in its image – was relatively light. Little effort was made to develop direct relations between subject and state in this region, and political relations between state and locality were run primarily through wujuha, the leaders of local communities. For example, outside of the major cities of Hassakeh and Deir al-Zor, police and the state justice system would handle petty crime but routinely allow tribal leaders to adjudicate major crimes like rape or murder.[6]

The Baath government managed the northeast through a policy of divide-and-rule, empowering particular tribes at the expense of others and building linkages to lower level figures outside of the formal structure of tribes. By apportioning seats in the Parliament for tribal leaders and providing access to lucrative jobs in the military and security services, the regime purchased the loyalty and assistance of many tribal communities that it used to put down challenges to its rule. By creating loyalties outside tribal structures and exacerbating inequality between and within tribes, these regime policies had the additional effect of upending traditional hierarchies between tribes and weakening solidarities within tribes.[7]

The work of the Baath to encourage competition among elements within a single tribe is part of a longer historical process by which tribal populations have come under the influence of the central Syrian state. For much of the Ottoman period, city-based authorities did little to regulate the activities of tribes except as they bore upon the safety and trade of the city. Under French Mandatory rule (1918-1946) and during the post-independence republican period (1946-1958), tribes were gradually drawn under the purview of the Syrian state. State-tribe bargaining took place primarily between governmental officials and heads of tribes as representatives of putatively bounded, unified social groupings during this period. The policies of Baathist governments (1963-present) toward tribes, including land reform, military and security recruitment among tribal groups, and the granting of subsidies to livestock grazing cooperatives, began to touch parts of tribal society below the sheiks with whom governments had formerly negotiated.[8] These contacts between tribal members and the state at points below the leaders of whole tribes encouraged the competition characteristic of the Baath period.

Seen in this light, the Baath penetration of tribal structures represents not a collapse of internally solidary tribes that had previously existed in a stateless vacuum but the continuation of a slow-moving process by which the external pressure of central state authority molds local tribal society. With this history as a guide, we should not be surprised to see new relations and practices to appear under Islamic State rule, but we should also not be surprised if the intra-tribal competition for access to state power characteristic of the Baath period continues. This prediction is borne out by the available evidence, with the Islamic State working through existing networks to exploit (and be exploited by) competition among tribal leaders. In several cases, one local branch of a tribe has joined the Islamic State as a form of competition with and protection from a rival neighbor that had joined Jabhat al-Nusra, the Salafist jihadist group from which the Islamic State split. This sort of rivalry was one of the precipitating factors in the dispute between members of Shaitat tribe in Deir al-Zor province and members of the Islamic State in August 2014, which escalated to the killing of 11 Islamic State members and several hundred members of the tribe. Struggle over oil revenues and harassment of Shaitat members for un-Islamic behavior, such as smoking, figured into the confrontation, but its the immediate catalyst was the Islamic State’s arrest of a man who recently returned to his village after receiving assurances that he would be protected. The arrest came at the behest of another local tribal community, exploiting its closer relationship with the Islamic State to settle an inter-group feud.[9]

The competition to secure the loyalty of local populations in Syria’s northeast has been cast in terms of overarching national, ethnic, and religious identities, some of which challenge not only the right of the current regime to rule but the notion of Syria as a legitimate territorial entity. Patterns of allegiance and compliance on the ground, however, suggest that far more parochial interests are shaping this competition. In the first year of the uprising, President Bashar al-Assad made repeated visits to Syria’s northeast to bolster relations with local sheiks and wujuha. In his November 2011 visit to Raqqah to celebrate Eid al-Adha – an unprecedented trip to the periphery for the head of state – Assad proclaimed that the tribes “were always the national repository of the traditions and authentic positions in their wataniyya and qawmiyya dimensions.”[10] These visits culminated with pledges of loyalty from several important tribal leaders in Raqqah and Deir Al-Zor, who implored their populations to stay out of demonstrations. Yet many of the earliest pledges of loyalty by societal actors to the Islamic State came from these same tribes.[11] Similarly, Islamic State foreign fighters have complained of the fickleness of the local communities that are nominally allied with the group. The success of the regime in wining a major battle with the Islamic State near Deir Az-Zor in February 2015 can be attributed to fighters from local clans firing RPGs at Islamic State fighters from behind their lines.[12]

The local communities encountered by the Islamic State are neither peak organizations with which a state entity can simply contract to buy the compliance of its subjects nor a set of disconnected individuals lying in wait for a sufficiently convincing ideology around which to structure their political and social lives. Rather, 50 years of Baath divide-and-rule policies laid the groundwork for the shifting alliances that we observe today in Syria’s northeast. The first year of Islamic State control has shown us that local groups in Syria’s northeast are, first and foremost, interested in defending their communities and will partner with the group most likely to make this happen. Any political entity that seeks to gain the sustained, widespread compliance of the area’s local populations will have to work from this inheritance.

Kevin Mazur is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at Princeton University.



[1] Khaddour, Kheder, and Kevin Mazur. 2013. “The Struggle for Syria’s Regions.” Middle East Report 43(269).

[2] Dukhan, Haian. 2014. “Tribes and Tribalism in the Syrian Uprising.” Syria Studies 6(2): 1–28.

[3] Kuran, Timur. 1995. Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[4] al-Hayat. 2014. “بيعات العشائر لـ «داعش»: تخبط بين الولاء لـ «الدم» و «الولاء والبراء».”بيعات-العشائر-لـ–داعش—تخبط-بين-الولاء-لـ–الدم–و–الولاء-والبراء- (March 12, 2015), Zaman al-Wasl. 2014. “الرقة.. داعش تشتبك مع أبناء إحدى العشائر بذريعة النقا.” اخبار سورياأخبار سوريةزمان الوصل. (March 13, 2015).

[5] Whereas the land reform of the United Arab Republic and early Baath periods greatly reduced the holdings of the old landlord classes in the country’s central region (around Homs and Hama), reforms in the northeast entrenched large landholders of tribal (formerly nomadic) extraction. See Hinnebusch, Raymond A. 1989. Peasant and Bureaucracy in Bat̀hist Syria: The Political Economy of Rural Development. Boulder: Westview Press and Ababsa, Myriam. 2011. “Agrarian Counter-Reform in Syria (2000-2010).” In Agriculture and Reform in Syria, ed. Raymond Hinnebusch. Fife, Scotland; Boulder, CO: University of St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies ; Distributed by Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[6] Rae, Jonathan. 1999. Tribe and State: Management of the Syrian Steppe. PhD dissertation, University of Oxford.

[7] Dukhan, Haian. 2014. “Tribes and Tribalism in the Syrian Uprising.” Syria Studies 6(2): 1–28. One widely circulated story has two shaykhs from the same tribe engaging in an armed dispute over who would get to represent the tribe at the funeral of Hafez al-Asad. See Al-Hal Al-Souri, November 12, 2013,

[8] See Chatty, Dawn. 2010. “The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority and Control.” The Middle East Journal 64(1): 29–49, and Rae, ibid.

[9] al-Ayad, Nasser. 2014. الجهاديون والقبائل السورية : الهيمنة العابرة والمعضلة المزمنة. Arab Reform Initiative. (January 22, 2015), al-Modon. 2014. “الشعيطات.. عشيرة تذوقت طعم الإبادة.” (January 22, 2015).

[10] Assad’s use of both qawmiyya and wataniyya to laud the national belonging of the tribes is characteristic of the regime’s opportunistic approach to the tribal populations. Wataniya refers to nationalism at the level of the modern territorial state, whereas qawmiyya typically refers to pan-Arab nationalism but also carries the connotation of kin-based, tribal belonging. The Syrian state has never given up its official position of seeking the unity of all Arab peoples, yet the project to which it is trying to bind the tribes – preserving the modern territorial Syrian state – stands in direct contradiction to this official rhetoric. Invoking both forms of nationalism is a “kitchen sink” approach to securing tribes’ commitment.

[11] al-Hayat. 2011. “خلال لقائه وفداًً من شيوخ عشائر دير الزور والرقة والحسكة الأسد ينوه بدور العشائر في صون الامن والاستقرار في سورية.”خلال-لقائه-وفداًً-من-شيوخ-عشائر-دير-الزور-والرقة-والحسكة-الأسد-ينوه-بدور-العشائر-في-صون-الامن-والاستقرار-في-س.html (January 21, 2015), Ikteshaf Souria. 2011. “الرئيس الأسد يؤدي صلاة عيد الأضحى المبارك في جامع النور بالرقة.” (January 22, 2015).

[12] al-Araby al-Jadeed. 2015. “‘داعش’ يتراجع بدير الزور أمام قوات النظام بعد اختراقه.” (March 12, 2015).

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