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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.

last month, regime insider Nawaf Fares, former ambassador to Baghdad and leader of Deir Ezzour’s Jarrah tribe — a branch of Aghedat tribal coalition which numbers more than one million people — said he had played an important role moving foreign jihadis into Iraq.

“After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the regime in Syria … formed an alliance with Al Qaeda. All Arabs and other foreigners were encouraged to go to Iraq via Syria and their movements were facilitated by the Syrian government,” he told the Sunday Telegraph.

Fares was keen to insist he defected after giving up on hopes of Assad reforming the regime. But a reporter for Abu Dhabi’s The National, an expert on Arab tribes, said Fares had initially armed his Jarrah tribesmen, based along the Bukamal border crossing with Iraq, against the protesters.

As a former leader of the ruling Baath Party in Deir Ezzour, Fares could also count on party loyalists to join the ‘tribal shabiha,’ pro-regime militias, or chatif in the local dialect.

One such loyalist was 32-year-old Amid, who only gave his first name. “I and many other government employees believed we were defending the country from traitors and criminal groups,” Amid told GlobalPost. “I did many bad deeds and hurt many peaceful protesters.”

Amid said many chatif like him switched sides — in observation of deeply rooted tribal codes of honor and revenge — after witnessing the violence the army meted out against tribesmen in the opposition.

“My cousin, a doctor, was arrested because he was treating injured protesters. He was killed after two weeks in prison,” said Amid. “The Assad regime is very good at making enemies and even at making good friends into enemies.”

Former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected on August 6 after just two months in the job, is also from Deir Ezzour.

Fares’ defection followed months of bombardment by regime forces stationed on the edge of Deir Ezzour which has left much of the sprawling low-rise city in ruins. During a recent trip, a GlobalPost reporter found the city largely empty, most families having fled to nearby Raqqa and Hassake, or to Damascus.

Government presence in the city was virtually nil, with police stations abandoned, hospitals and clinics closed, banks shuttered, and bakeries empty. A few remaining residents were seen burying dead relatives in their garden, while the injured were treated in make-shift home clinics.

Neglect by central government will not come as something new to Deir Ezzour’s residents.

Alongside the Kurds in the far north-east, Syria’s Al Jazira region (named after the Arabic for island, denoting the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers) accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s oil and gas output and is a major farming area.

More from GlobalPost: Syria: The Kurdish conundrum

For decades, tribesmen like Abu Hammoud, who lives on a tributary to the Euphrates, complained bitterly that little of the billions of dollars of annual revenue reaped by Damascus was ever invested back in their region.

Still, said Abu Hammoud, with his crop farm along the banks of the Khabur River, and with a cut from lucrative smuggling to and from Iraq, he used to make around $20,000 a year, plenty to support his wife and seven children.

Then, around 2005, Assad began lifting the Soviet-era subsidies his father had used to placate his population for decades. By 2008, the price of diesel had quadrupled, said Abu Hammoud, raising the cost of running his vital irrigation pumps.

Seeds and fertilizer, which were also subsidized, went up in price, just as the region was in the middle of a devastating four-year drought.

“Our region was run by a mafia network: Some farmers bribed local officials or security men for permission to dig random, deep wells. This further hurt the water reserves,” said Abu Hammoud.

After selling his wife’s gold, Abu Hammoud moved his family to a village near Duma, the satellite town north-east of Damascus which saw the largest and most sustained anti-regime protests last year, before being shelled and largely depopulated over the past three months.

More from GlobalPost: Down and out in Damascus

Now Abu Hammoud is back in his village on the banks of the Khabur.

“We had oil and water, but we couldn’t irrigate our land because the wells were dry and the price of diesel was too high,” he said. “We have a local proverb that says ‘He who eats of the Sultan’s food, should wield the Sultan’s sword.’ The regime gives us no food and wants us to be slaves. As we get nothing from the regime we will lose nothing if it falls.”