Haian Dukhan is a Carnegie postdoctoral fellow at the Central European University’s Centre for Religious Studies. He is the author of "State and Tribes in Syria: Informal Alliances and Conflict Patterns" (Routledge, 2019). Dukhan is a contributor to Fikra Forum.
Ammar Alhamad is an MA student in international relations at Hasan Kalyoncu University in Gaziantep, Turkey. He is from Raqqa and has worked for different international organizations on issues related to the Syrian conflict since 2013. Alhamad is a contributor to Fikra Forum.
Iran is building military, social, and economic influence among eastern Syrian tribes, which are poised to invade SDF-controlled regions in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.
Researchers and analysts often discuss Iran’s use of Shia proxies to bolster the Assad regime in Syria, and on February 26, those militias drew the world’s attention after the Biden administration took its first military action, an airstrike on a facility belonging to an Iran-backed militia in eastern Syria. However, despite the attention these militias have garnered in the media and analytical worlds, little material has appeared regarding another ground-level Iranian strategy in Syria: Iran’s continuous effort to build connections with the Arab tribes in the eastern part of the country. While there is some information about the most influential tribal militia funded and trained by Iran, the Deir Ezzor-based al-Baqir Brigade,mainly composed of members of the al-Baggara tribe, Iran has also targeted tribes in Northeastern Syria—especially in the governorates of al-Hasakah and Raqqa, which were formerly held by ISIS and have since come under Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control. Tribal militias in these two governorates operate only in areas under the Syrian regime’s control and have not clashed with the SDF in its areas. However, these militias are trained and prepared to take over these territories from SDF in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.
Tribal groups are an important aspect of Syrian political life. Previously, the former Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad established patronage networks with the tribes and used them to stabilize the rural areas. The breakdown of these patronage networks between the state and the tribes was instrumental in igniting the uprising against the regime among the tribes in rural areas. During the Syrian conflict, tribal kinship ties were (and are still) used by different actors, including Iran, to mobilize and direct the peaceful and armed activities of tribesmen to further their interests in their battle over Syria. By building a rapport with Eastern Syria’s tribes, Iran is attempting to bolster the Assad regime and acquire leverage against U.S. forces and the SDF east of the Euphrates River. In this way, Iran hopes to solidify its presence in eastern Syria, which Iran considers a strategic connection between its spheres of influence in Lebanon and Iraq.
As part of this strategy, Iran has delivered military, social, and financial support to eastern Syrian tribes, forming a comprehensive bid for enhanced influence in this strategically important region. Raqqa governorate is considered a strategic governorate for Iran that connects the Syrian Jazeera to Aleppo where Iran already has a presence represented by Aleppo’s branch of al-Baqqer brigade. Apart from Deir Ezzor, Syrian oil fields are also concentrated in al-Hasakah governorate. Seizing control of al-Hasakah would enable Iran to ease the impact of sanctions on the Syrian regime, which is currently paying the SDF for shipments of oil. Furthermore, helping Iran are the recurring tensions between the SDF and some members of the Aras tribes in the areas it controls as a result of disagreements on representation in local government and the distribution of the benefits gained from oil and gas sales.
While some have categorized Iran’s involvement in Syria as a ‘quagmire,’ Iran has used every possible tool at its disposal to build its influence in Syria. The instrumentalization of tribal structures in eastern Syria suggests that its policies will have long-lasting effects there, and could even expand further if given the chance. Iran’s policy of building and training tribal militias is likewise seen as a means of reducing U.S. presence there, with these militias announcing their intention to oppose any U.S. presence in eastern Syria.
U.S. policymakers should take these threats seriously, as Iran has provided the militias with the training and the physical means to seize areas controlled by the SDF should the United States withdraw from the region. As Iran continues to develop its social base and connections with the tribes by attempting to convert tribesmen, flattering tribal authority figures, and providing tribes with financial inducements, Iran is likely to have an increasingly popular base.
What helps Iran is the recurring tensions between the SDF and some members of the Aras tribes in the areas it controls as a result of disagreements on representation in local government and the distribution of the benefits gained from oil and gas sales. These wholistic policies have built a foothold for Iran in the region that may have become highly sustainable. Any efforts to legitimately remove Iranian influence from eastern Syria will require operations to combat Iranian social, military, and financial influence in local tribes there, which may prove quite difficult.