Tribalism remains a primary form of communal identity among Arab Sunnis across Syria, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas. As a powerful source of socio-political mobilization, Syrian Arab tribalism has shaped the conflict since the first demonstrations against the al-Assad government were led by disaffected tribesmen in the northeastern city of al-Hasakah in February 2011. The popular anger mobilized in Dera’a governorate by inter-tribal activist networks of mainly young and displaced tribesmen over the arrest and murder of two tribal youths fueled a national uprising (for Syrian Arab tribal networks, see Terrorism Monitor, June 1, 2012). Currently, Syrian Arab tribal groups are active participants in pro and anti-Assad militias, as soldiers in the Syrian military and as members of tribally-organized militias that are concerned with protecting their tribe and its autonomy from both the Syrian state and the armed opposition.
Of particular concern in the context of Syria’s civil war is the possibility of an alliance, however temporary, between Syria’s Arab tribes and militant Salafist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front). In the north-eastern governorates of al-Raqqa, al-Hasakah and Deir al-Zor collectively referred to as al-Jazirah (bordering Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east), the majority Arab Sunni tribal population coexists uneasily with groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra that have a strong presence in the region. A tribal shaykh of a major tribal confederation in the area asserted that, without international support, Syrian tribes would do what they had to do to protect their assets, including working with militant Salafist groups or even Iran.