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Syria’s wild, wild east

During the Iraq war, Syria’s tribes smuggled in Al Qaeda to fight the US. Now they’re helping them fight Assad.

Syria east 2012 8 14Enlarge
Smoke billows on August 4, 2012 in the Damascus suburb of Tadamun, the scene of heavy fighting which was retaken by government troops in the afternoon. The Syrian army now has the whole of the capital under its control, a brigadier-general told journalists visiting the southern neighbourhood which the general said was the last rebel bastion in the city to revert to army hands. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

DEIR EZZOUR, Syria — Follow the news on Syria and it might seem that the civil war is playing out along a vertical axis running from Daraa, the uprising’s birthplace in the far south, through the capital Damascus, straight up to restive Homs and Hama and ending in the far north city of Aleppo, the country’s largest.

This is the Syria of the Levant, in the fertile rain shadow of the mountains that run along the eastern Mediterranean coastline.

But east of this urban spine lies the bulk of Syria’s landmass, a vast scrubland, flat, arid and scalding hot — an outgrowth from when colonial cartographers delineated Iraq for the British and Syria and Lebanon for the French.

It is tribal bonds, not urban elites, that matter for those living three hundred miles from the capital, along the lush banks of the Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey through eastern Syria and into Iraq’s Anbar province.

“All our fighters are from the tribes,” said Mohammed al-Aghedi, a member of the rebel Military Council for Deir Ezzour, the regional capital. “All the rural areas are under our control and the cities of Deir Ezzour, Mayadeen and Bukamal are a battlefield between us and the Assad army.”

One year ago, GlobalPost reported on the determination of Deir Ezzour’s tribes to maintain peaceful protests, despite killings and the kidnapping by the regime of one of their leaders.

More from GlobalPost: Despite provocation, Syria's powerful tribes cling to peaceful protests

A year on, and the regime’s ongoing violent repression, its failure to address the region’s basic needs and its policy of using the tribes to smuggle Islamic militants into Iraq have created a lethal blowback, both for its own struggle for survival and the fate of Syria’s civil war.

“The relationship was that between a monkey and a lion,” Abu Bargas, a Bedouin tribesman, told GlobalPost. “The moment the monkey falls from its perch the lion will eat it.”

Abu Bargas, with a face like tough leather, a traditional red and black scarf slung over his head, eagerly recounts “heroic adventures” smuggling foreign jihadis across the border at the behest of Syrian state security after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Speaking to GlobalPost in a village between Deir Ezzour and Hassake, he said his tribe, the Shammar, went from smuggling sheep, guns and gas from Iraq into Syria — and drugs and diesel the other way — to ferrying hundreds of Arab Islamist militants “from Algeria, Tunisia, Kuwait, Yemen and mostly from Saudi Arabia” to wreak chaos in Iraq.

Political security officers “under Brigadier General Mohammed Mansoura,” he said, “were organizing the fighters from Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut airports. And then I and other smugglers organized the last 20 miles or so.”

Rather than cash payments, he said he would receive lucrative favors: The release of captured tribesmen or impounded goods; false passports; a blind eye from security services along the border. 

The administration of US President George W. Bush had repeatedly accused Syrian authorities of funneling foreign fighters into Iraq, an accusation denied by Damascus.

“The Assad regime wanted to engage the Americans in Iraq to stop them thinking about invading Syria,” said Sheikh Abu Hamza of the massive Baghara tribe, who is also imam of a mosque in Deir Ezzour city.

Abu Hamza said “hundreds” of the jihadis that the regime had sent to Iraq subsequently were arrested and imprisoned when they returned to Syria.

“How can a secular Allawite regime sponsor radical Sunni groups to fight for an Islamic state while it won’t let a Syrian citizen even establish an Islamic charity?” asked Abu Bargas. “This is the monkey and the lion: Today the same people who were smuggling fighters on behalf of the regime are smuggling fighters to attack the regime.”

On July 5, Iraq’s foreign minister said Al Qaeda-linked fighters were flowing from Iraq into Syria.

Abu Hamza said many jihadis jailed after returning from Iraq have since been released. “They spent years in jail and want to take revenge on the regime. They have close contacts to Al Qaeda and radical fighters in Iraq who have begun to look to Syria as a fertile land for jihad,” he said.

More from GlobalPost: Syria: The new land of jihad?

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