Tribalism and Professional Warlords in Syria

‘Warlord’ is a word that is often used by media outlets, by military brass giving interviews, and by politicians discussing failed states. It is an eye-catching word that is rarely accompanied by good news. It was the collection of warlords that brutalized Liberia from the late 1980’s until the early 2000’s, when a final peace agreement was established under strict international observation. Chechen warlords organized local militias to resist Russian federal domination twice in the 1990’s. And in recent months the word ‘warlord’ has made a resurgence in the journalism pouring from the Syrian Civil War, where regional factionalism has placed significant influence in the hands of localized tribal militias.

A warlord is a well-known or influential local leader who organizes fighters from a specific region or tribe into combat units of varying sizes. In Syria, these tribal militias range from platoon sized, hundred-man outfits to battalion sized formations that consist of over a thousand fighters collected under ideologically aligned groups or commanders. Tribalism in the Levant, and particularly in Syria, is based on a collective linkage within small kinship groups. Such super-state loyalties were influential in destabilizing Assad’s regime during the months following outbreak of the Arab Spring, when the repression tactics and tortures committed by Syrian security forces further alienated rural tribes into collective violence against the government.[i]

Similar tribal and familial ties precipitated the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in a region that became increasingly split along sectarian lines after the destabilization of standing regimes in 2011. Though ISIL fights as a cohesive front, their control over large regions of Iraq and Syria exists as a result of a network of ideologically and tribally connected local groups that are organized and loyal to a central authority. Between 1999 and 2003, three similarly constituted armies fought for control of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

When the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement finally ended the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, the country was divided by three governments who each claimed legitimacy and consisted of extensive networks of militias and armed groups that were frequently dominated by a warlord. These warlords were well known local figures who assembled able men and boys to fight for the cause of a commander that they felt ideologically or ethnically close too. Throughout the 1990’s, the diamond fields and gold mines of the Liberian bush were vied for by dozens of rebel commanders known by monikers like ‘Chuck Norris’ or ‘General Butt Naked’, who committed heinous human rights violations.[ii] While the Liberian conflict lacked a strong standing military to exercise a measure of control, the Syrian armed forces and security institutions have themselves been the perpetrators of a number of war crimes since the conflict’s inception five years ago.

Since 2011, chemical weapons and sectarian violence have been to the Syrian military and to the various rebel groups what child soldiers and ritual cannibalism were to Liberian warlords.[iii] Retribution killings for the violence committed by ISIL are commonplace. Last year, an Iraqi man named Abu Azrael became an overnight sensation on social media from pictures of him strolling through the ruined streets of northern Iraq with an M16 across his back and a hatchet in his hand; he goes by ‘The Angel of Death’ and has allegedly killed over 1500 ISIL fighters personally.[iv] Unlike the Liberian warlords and their ragtag platoon sized units, Abu Azrael and many of the militia commanders and their men that are fighting in Iraq and Syria have received formal military training. This high level of experience and training is especially prevalent within the higher ranks of ISIL.

When the Iraqi military apparatus was disbanded in 2003, hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers serving under Saddam Hussein were left without a job. The Coalition Provisional Authority Order 2, signed on the 23rd of May, 2003, has been criticized as the primary cause of the subsequent Iraqi insurgency and was instrumental in providing ISIL with educated senior commanders and frontline fighters; as of last fall, Saddam-era veterans accounted for four of the suspected seven-to-nine members of the highest military council of ISIL.[v]

When Russian Federal forces first assaulted Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya, they were resisted by many former soviet regular infantrymen and commanders.[vi] The leader of the entire separatist movement, Dzhokhar Dudayev, had been a soviet Air Force General before the collapse of the USSR. His inner circle was a potent combination of former professional officers and government officials that commanded considerable local respect. Together, this quasi-sovereign guerrilla movement bloodied the Russian occupation and eventually repelled them. Though the breakaway region was eventually brought back into the fold by Moscow, this peace was established after over a decade of violence.

In both the Liberian and Chechen conflicts, warlords produced violence on a massive scale for many years. In Liberia, tribes and local religions prohibited a cease-fire until one group overpowered competing factions with extreme external support. In Chechnya, experienced officers maintained a guerrilla war through 2007, and violence was only ended after tens of thousands of civilians and thousands of Russian soldiers had died in the North Caucuses.

The presence of warlords and their analogues on a battlefield indicates the importance of locality and familial networks in a conflict that has the potential for extreme violence towards civilians. Their role in warfighting also includes the possibility for a drawn out, low-intensity conflict that can be fought from basements, community centers and secluded rural villages where decentralized militias are granted resilience. The war in the Levant is its own beast. However, the similarities between this conflict and those in Liberia and Chechnya provide examples of how deeply rooted tribalism and a professionally trained caste of commanders and soldiers can affect the possibility of peace.


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