The Shammar tribe in North and East Syria

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“The Shammar is not just a traditional tribe; a big part of the tribe is involved in politics”.

The late Sheikh Hamidi talking with SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi.

The Shammar is AANES’ closest ally amongst the Arab tribes in NES. RIC spoke with Tarif Obeid (journalist) and Arwa Ahmed al-Salah (Kongra Star coordinator), both from the Shammar tribe, regarding the significance of the relationship between Shammar and AANES, as well of that between their respective defence forces: Sanadid and YPG/YPJ.

Tribes and the tribal system have long been important in the region. This importance persisted, even as [1] colonialism resulted in the creation of state borders, limiting tribal movement and migration, and [2] strands of Arab nationalism cast the tribe as a backwards part of society that needed to be modernized. A tribe can be defined as a localized group, organized primarily through kinship. Such groups consider themselves culturally distinct based on customs, dialect or language, and origins. There are several different levels of organization. In Arabic, qabila refers to national and trans-national tribal confederations, while ashir refer to individual tribes, which can then be further divided into fukhud (clans), khums (lineages)and, at the lowest level, al-bayt (extended families). Shammar is one of the largest transnational tribal confederations in Syria.

While some tribes have leaders that are close to the Syrian government, others, like Shammar, have had a more antagonistic relationship with Damascus. Former Syrian President and Ba’ath party leader, Hafez al-Assad, despite employing national slogans such as “no tribalism, no sectarianism”, simultaneously sought aid from various tribes to suppress uprisings, and included certain tribes in politics more to achieve his goals. Bashar al-Assad then continued his father’s work, promoting some tribal leaders to prominence to try to build his support base.

AANES has sought to engender positive relations with tribes and has been able to attract tribal leaders to their democratic project. Despite their top-down, patriarchal structure and sometimes conservative outlook, AANES see tribes as playing an important role in promoting ideas of local self-determination and community justice. Through not trying to rigidly impose new structures onto tribes – such as the commune system which initially was mainly working in Kurdish areas – AANES has cultivated understanding with tribal leaders, who trust that the democratic project will benefit all components of society.

Recently, the Sheikh of Shammar in Syria, Hamidi Daham al-Hadi, died aged 86. Hamidi had developed strong relations with Kurdish groups in NES, prior to the establishment of the AANES, and later oversaw the integration of Shammar’s militia, the Sanadid, within the SDF.

As a large tribal confederation, Shammar in Syria maintain close connections with Arabian Peninsula relatives. “At first, relations between Kurds and the Shammar tribe occurred in Iraq. Only later did this transfer to Syria […] when [the late] Sheikh Hamidi went to Syria”, said Obeid.

Tarif Obeid

Obeid said under the rule of the Syrian Ba’athist party, both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez repressed Kurdish and Shammar peoples. “We saw how both the Kurdish and Shammar were excluded from good employment. […] People need to get jobs, and villages need to have schools, but Kurdish and the Shammar were deprived of all of this. Furthermore, they saw that this was planned, it was not coincidence. The result of this situation was that huge numbers of Kurds and Shammar migrated. Kurds travelled to German, and Shammar travelled to Gulf countries”. Obeid reflected that this repression, “made the Kurdish and Shammer feel like strangers within their own country. Historians and philosophers say, ‘abandoned things take revenge’. This situation of retaliation showed when the Syrian uprisings started: Kurds and Shammar raised their voice. […] The situation was peaceful at the start, but it was necessary that the Shammar tribe create an armed group [the Sanadid forces] and the Kurds established their defence too: the YPG and YPJ”.

A YPG/YPJ-Sanadid alliance was paramount in the defeat of ISIS, says Obdeid: “the geographic area of Shammar had ISIS and al-Nusra front. With the help of the Kurds, the Shammar tribe got rid of them. After this happened, the Kurds said, ‘we don’t control your areas, you are our partner’. There was an agreement with Sheikh al-Hadi. They established the Karama army, then the name changed to Sanadid. Now they are under the umbrella of the SDF. This alliance annoys the Syrian regime. They always deny the Kurds; even when the SDF liberated Baghouz. They said the US Coalition took Baghouz. But no, they didn’t, the SDF did and the US Coalition helped them. They want to cancel the Kurdish existence even though the Kurds are doing a great job and sacrificing their fighters”.

The late Sheikh Hamidi, with the Sanadid flag to his right.

He added, “today thousands of terrorists, of different nationalities, remain in prisons here. The AANES, every day, is calling on those militant’s countries to repatriate them; to not consider our areas a bin to throw their garbage”.

Obeid emphasized that, “one of the important things about the Shammar tribe is that they didn’t really get involved in Syrian government. You can see that many of the sheikhs of the Shammar tribe were in jail [in Syria]. Also, you can see people from other tribes in high positions within the Syrian regime, but not from our tribe. This is because the Syrian regime wants you to be a slave to work with them. We refused to do this; we kept our principles and traditions.”

Al-Salah emphasized the significance of the persona of the late Sheikh Hamidi, and how he eagerly took on AANES’ idea of building a ‘democratic nation’: “Sheikh Hamidi had really strong connections and relations. In the time of revolution, he had held a couple of speeches with other Sheikhs and discussed solutions with them. […] His words were very influential on other tribes. He was known as a reference for others. He was gathering heads of tribes to explain the idea of a democratic nation, and saying that we Arabic and Kurdish peoples are brothers. […] He really had trust in the autonomous administration. He was seeing it as a solution to get out of this crisis. Remember; at the beginning of the Syrian uprisings there were many groups like ISIS who were destroying everything”.

Arwa Ahmed al-Salah

While Shammar is its longest ally, AANES seeks to build strong relations with all NES’ tribes & cultivate understanding between tribes. AANES’ understanding of democracy is rooted in encouraging partnership & self-organization of different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups.

On November 20th, the second Syrian tribes’ forum was scheduled. 6,300 sheikhs and tribal leaders from all over NES had arranged to come, to enable intra-Syrian dialogue, discuss internal problems, the security situation, and propose solutions. The first forum was held back in 2019. However, due to the Turkish aerial assault which began on the night of the 19th, the forum was cancelled.