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Despite provocation, Syria's powerful tribes cling to peaceful protests

Syrian tribes embrace nonviolent resistance, defying stereotypes

Syria bedouin tribes protests 2011 8 27Enlarge
Syrian bedouins outside their tent in the desert of Widyan al-Rabih, 37 miles southeast of Damascus, on November 24, 2009. (Louai Beshara /AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The blistering August sun beats down and bakes Deir Ezzour, a sprawling city of tribes nestled between the deserts of eastern Syria and the lush green banks of the Euphrates River, which flows across the nearby border into Iraq. 

“The city is boiling,” a Deir Ezzour local said during the long bus ride east from Damascus through the vast and little populated scrubland. It was not only the fierce sun he was referring to.

Security forces on Wednesday killed two people in Mayadeen, 30 miles southwest of Deir Ezzour, while tanks rumbled back into where activists say there have been near daily protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the start of the month.

The ongoing assault follows a 15-day attack on the city of Deir Ezzour itself, declared over on Aug. 17 when a military source told the state-run news agency, SANA, that the army was leaving “after completing their mission of ridding the city of the armed terrorist groups that terrorized citizens and vandalized public and private property.”

Many residents of the city, however, have another story. Theirs begins with a killing.

On May 13, the Khalifa family of Deir Ezzour received the worst possible delivery: The body of their son, Sufuk al-Khalifa, a soldier in the army who had been killed, authorities told them, by the “armed gangs” the regime claimed to be battling in the central city of Homs.

Sufuk, a graduate in satellite imaging from a French university, left behind his wife and an 18-month-old child.

Then locals began to piece together a very different kind of story from those who knew Sufuk. Far from killing protestors in Homs, he had joined them, and was shot and killed after having defected from the army.

Having witnessed, in the first two months of the uprising, only small, sporadic protests against a regime that had long bought a measure of loyalty by permitting Deir Ezzour’s tribes to keep arms (unique among communities in Syria) and earn lucrative money smuggling gas and commodities to and from Iraq, the tribes now began to throw their weight behind the opposition.

It began through adherence to the ancient tribal code of honor and retribution. Sufuk al-Khalifa belonged to the Albu Sariaha tribe and his killing demanded a response.

But rather than attacking the regime with weapons, the tribesmen decided to seek their revenge doing what hundreds of thousands had been doing in other parts of Syria for weeks before: They went to the street demanding freedom.

It was the first of a number of surprising moves by Syria’s eastern tribes which reveals them in a light much different than the caricature picture of the remote Bedouin tribesman, an ignorant social conservative, resistant to rule by a civic state and seeking only the power he can wield at the end of a gun.

Where once they served as a host community to Syrian and foreign jihadis streaming into Iraq by the thousands to fight U.S.-led forces, Deir Ezzour's tribesmen now say they look across the border to Iraq and see a democracy they wish to emulate in Syria.

They also argue for a fair share of the revenues from the oil and gas fields among which they live, and complain about a lack of education and rights.

Most surprising of all, and contrary to predictions, the heavily armed tribes have, by and large, not resorted to arms when attacked by the security forces, though some tribesmen say that situation cannot last and warn of civil war if the regime continues to kill unarmed protestors.

Once aboard the uprising, the tribes quickly transformed Deir Ezzour province into a bastion of rebellion.

A week after the Khalifa family received their dead son, protesters set fire to offices of the ruling Baath Party. A week after that security forces opened fire on a Friday protest in Deir Ezzour that was attended by several thousand people, some of whom pelted with stones buses carrying secret police and thugs. Evening sit-ins in the newly named Freedom Square soon became routine.

The protests spread down the Euphrates River to the border town of Albou Kamal, where enraged residents burned posters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who, along with Iran, Russia and China, had refused to condemn the Syrian regime’s crackdown on protestors.

“We know