Dr Haian Dukhan, Lecturer in Politics & International Relations
The Syrian Civil War has raged on for many years and has witnessed a decade of atrocities alongside international failure to prevent more. Many atrocities remain hidden due to the longevity of the conflict and the inability of UN investigators to access large parts of the country so far. One of the atrocities that remained hidden from international public opinion was the al-Tadamoon massacre that took place in 2013. The massacre was unveiled to the media last year due to the efforts of academics working at the University of Amsterdam’s Holocaust and Genocide Centre (Chulov, 2022). Other crimes against humanity committed during the war remain an enigma to academics and policy analysts who study terrorism and political violence. During my 10 years in academia, I have tried to study the relationship between Jihadist militant groups and the local communities in Syria and Iraq. One of the issues that has always puzzled me about the behaviour of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) is why the group committed horrific acts of violence against the local population during the height of its power between 2014 and 2016. I tried to answer the question by highlighting the case of the ISIS massacre of the Sheitat tribe in the rural areas of eastern Syrian in 2014. Donald G. Dutton (2007) studies how massacres can be used strategically as a weapon of terror during civil wars. This was exactly the case here, in that ISIS wanted to monopolise the act of violence in its territory and warn the local community in Syria and Iraq about the consequences of collaborating with Western powers to fight against it.
During the Syrian Civil War, state authorities in the rural areas of the country receded, leading to a sharp rise in tribal solidarities. Members of the tribes started controlling the oil and gas fields within their territories. The renowned Sheitat tribe in Deir ez-Zor was one of the tribes that acquired power in its area and established a militia that fought against the Syrian regime in 2013. Militia leaders monopolised the profits from the oil fields for their own benefit or that of their extended family, neglecting other parts of the tribe. Around this time, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) sent Syrian jihadists who were already in Iraq, and Iraqi experts in guerrilla warfare to eastern Syria and established a branch for the group in Syria. In 2014, the leader of ISI announced the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate and the establishment of what he described as an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (SISI). ISIS started asking tribal leaders to issue statements of loyalty to the Islamic State (Jawdat, 2013). This was the beginning of the acquisition of the allegiance of one tribe after another in most of the areas the group controlled. When ISIS established its military presence in the area, it had already planned to teach the tribes of eastern Syria a lesson by subjugating and disciplining members of the Sheitat tribe as an example (Dukhan, 2014).
As a result of extreme religious rules, some members of the Sheitat tribe attacked and burnt the headquarters of ISIS in July 2014. ISIS began a military campaign against the three villages that lasted for two weeks. On the 14th of August, many Sheitat fighters escaped among the civilians while the rest died fighting until their last breath. The following weeks witnessed a merciless massacre that ISIS committed against the local community in eastern Syria. ISIS released a video that showed their fighters implementing mass beheadings, crucifixions, and mass shootings of men who were waiting their turn to die (Fernandez, 2015; Al Jazeera, 2014)). In the following weeks, ISIS conducted a thorough search of the nearby areas close to Sheitat’s villages and dragged any man who belonged to Sheitat back to their village and then cut off his head. After a month of chasing men of the Sheitat tribe, the massacre stopped. Sources disagree as to just how many lives were lost, but most estimate that there were between seven hundred and a thousand deaths (BBC, 2014).
Theoretically, what do we learn from this massacre? Firstly, massacres are not conducted purely for the purpose of ethnic cleansing, to eliminate the enemies, and reduce their manpower. Instead, they can be used as an act of terror to send a clear message to one’s opponents: you will face a similar fate if you do not surrender. The mass killing by ISIS was deliberately conducted to market its coercive capability in its newly established state. During the American invasion of Iraq between 2003 and 2009, the US was faced with the threat of an Islamist insurgency led by al-Qaeda. The insurgency depleted US force and led to the death of 3000 US soldiers. The US came to the conclusion that in order to defeat al-Qaeda, it needs to create an alliance with the local tribes on the ground. The partnership between the US and the local tribes led to the defeat of al-Qaeda in 2006 and the assassination of its leader: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The new version of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria represented by ISIS learned its lesson the hard way and wanted to direct a strong blow to the local tribes before the US was able to use them again in a similar way to the 2006 counterinsurgency.
Secondly, the instrumentalisation of religious ideology is so clear cut in this case. ISIS employed the practice of takfir, declaring someone to be a heretic, in order to justify the massacre of the members of the Sheitat tribe. In order to justify this mass killing in front of the Muslim community, ISIS’ religious cleric, Abu Abdallah al-Kuwaiti, issued a fatwa in which he described the Sheitat tribe as “an apostate group with fighting capability.” According to the text of the fatwa that was published online, Abu Abdallah al-Kuwait stated that the: Sheitat tribe should be fought like the apostates. As a result of the consensus of Muslim scholars and according to the rules of Sharia law, none should deal with them. No one should release their prisoners. No one should eat their food or marry their women. It is permissible to kill their prisoners and to finish off their wounded men. They must be fought even if they did not start the fighting” (Alraimedia,2015).
Thirdly, the massacre highlights the fragmentation of social ties and the inability of the members of the tribes to coordinate their efforts to fight against ISIS collectively. Lacher (2020) argues that violence creates divisions in the social structure; it either strengthens cohesion or causes fragmentation among groups relying on solidarity among their members to defend themselves against threats. competition among members of Sheitat tribe itself gave ISIS the opportunity to divide and massacre a tribe that revolted against it. Sub-tribal feuds among members of the Sheitat tribe around the spoils of war played a crucial role in enabling ISIS to commit the massacre.
Understanding the motivations of terrorist groups in conducting acts of violence should not be studied in isolation from the historical background of the groups which committed the acts and those at whom the act of violence has been perpetrated.
Al Jazeera, (2014) ‘Islamic State Group “Executes 700” in Syria’, Al Jazeera [Online]. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2014/8/17/islamic-state-group-executes-700-in-syria.
Alraimedia, “Did Abu Abdullah al-Kuwaiti Legalise the Killing of the Sheitat Tribe?” 19 February 2015, https://www.alraimedia.com/article/555203
BBC, (2014) ‘Syria Conflict: 230 Bodies “Found in Mass Grave” in Deir al-Zour’, BBC [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-30515483.
Chulov, M. (2022) ‘Massacre in Tadamon: how two academics hunted down a Syrian war criminal’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/27/massacre-in-tadamon-how-two-academics-hunted-down-a-syrian-war-criminal.
Dutton, D. G. (2007) The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres and Extreme Violence: Why ‘‘Normal’’ People Come to Commit Atrocities, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International.
Dukhan, H. (2014) ‘The ISIS Massacre of the Sheitat Tribe in Der ez-Zor’, Journal of Genocide Research [Online]. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14623528.2021.1979912, 25(1) pp.113-12.
Jawdat, S. (2013) ‘Fourteen Tribes Swear an Oath of loyalty to ISIS as They Did to Bashar al-Assad Before’, All4Syria [Online]. Available at: http://www.all4syria.info/Archive/108595 (In Arabic).
Fernandez, A. M. (2015) ‘Massacre and Media: ISIS and the Case of the Sunni Arab Shaitat Tribe’, MEMRI[Online]. Available at: https://www.memri.org/reports/massacre-and-media-isis-and-case-sunni-arab-shaitat-tribe#_edn9.
Lacher, W. (2020) Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict. London: I. B. Tauris.