Syrian tribal leader Nawaf al-Bashir rejoins Assad regime after years of supporting rebels

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Nawaf al-Bashir (L) with a Syrian opposition official. File photo

ARA News 

Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, leader of the Baggara tribe in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate and a former member of the Syrian Parliament, who in 2012 defected from the regime to Turkish-backed rebels and fought the Kurds in northern Syria, is now forming pro-Assad militias and condemns the Syrian opposition.

Al-Bashir, whose tribe historically had tensions with the Kurds, in January 2012 apologised during a press conference in Istanbul for praising Assad in an interview on the Syrian-state TV. “I apologize to the Syrian people for the words I have said. I now declare that we want nothing but to topple the regime,” he said. In thew same conference the Arab tribal leader pledged that he’ll fully support the Syrian opposition against Assad.

In July 2012, al-Bashir impeded attempts to reach a consensus on Kurdish rights, after attacking the Kurds during an opposition meeting in Cairo.

On 23 December 2012, al-Bashir was among 70 tribal leaders and commanders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who had gathered in Urfa with support of Turkey, and later moved to the town of Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye in Kurdish) in northeastern Syriaafter the withdrawal of the Assad regime, the pro-Kurdish media reported.

“Turkey has presented us with a model of a political Islam of which we can be proud,” the tribal head told Reuters from Ras al-Ayn November 2012.

According to media affiliated to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Nawaf al-Bashir played an important role in attacks on the mixed town of Ras al-Ain, where Bashir’s Euphrates Liberation Brigade and other FSA groups jointly with Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front fought for months with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

“Nawaf al-Bashir has played an important role in the attacks on the Kurdish town of Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain). Several secret meetings took place in 2012 between al-Bashir and the Turkish secret service to develop a plan of attack against the Kurds,” the pro-PYD Firat News Agency reported in August 2013.

Several battles took place between Kurdish fighters and Syrian rebel groups between November 2012 and July 2013. Finally in July 2013, the YPG took full control over the town, and Nawaf al-Bashir fled to Turkey.

In 2016, the tribal head started to switch his position. In November 2016, recordings were leaked of al-Bashir praising the Syrian government and cursing the opposition.

“I have no support, my relationship with Saudi is zero and subzero, they are claiming to be Islamists, and Qatar only supports Muslim Brotherhood people, and we are not Muslim Brotherhood and we are not… not Islamists, so we have no support,” he said.

After the Syrian opposition lost the battle for Aleppo in December 2016, the tribal leader returned to Damascus in January, and pledged loyalty to Assad and the Syrian army. The tribal leader realized that the future of the Syrian opposition was in jeopardy due to the Russian and Iranian support for Assad, and rejoined the ‘winning side.’

The Syria news website El Dorar reported on 31 January that al-Bashir opened recruitment offices in Aleppo and Homs to recruit Arabs for a pro-Assad militia backed by Iran and headed by Muhammed al-Baqir to play a future role in Deir ez-Zor –Bashir’s hometown.

“Syrian Arab tribal leaders do not have authority over their tribesmen if they cannot deliver resources to them,” Nicholas A. Heras, Washington-based Analyst at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told ARA News.

“This also means that these tribal leaders do not have prestige, which means they have no social power. The Assad government can offer them, and through them their tribesmen, money, weapons, and guarantees of autonomy,” he said.

“Nawaf al-Bashir is a test case for how this can be done by the Assad government, to bring back under the authority of the Assad-led state formerly prominent defectors,” Heras said in an interview with ARA News on Sunday.

The latest edition of the Islamic State’s [ISIS] propaganda magazine Rumiyah suggested that Assad had meetings with several tribal leaders from Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa to form tribal militias, following the example of Sunni tribes that joined the Shia dominated Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq to fight ISIS.

“Nawaf al-Bashir is a well-known political opportunist. Most likely, Tehran and Damascus promised the Sheikh a prestigious and lucrative role in Eastern Syria,” Tobias Schneider, a Washington-based defence analyst, told ARA News.

“He probably also concluded that there was little hope for him to return to his former standing on the coattails of either Turkish or American policy,” Schneider said.

“The Syrian regime and Iran have been working intensely at re-building their patronage and Arab tribal networks across the country,” he added.

Leith Abou Fadel, the CEO of Syrian news agency al-Masdar, told ARA News that the tribal leader is ‘opportunistic’.

“It was kind of an opportunist move. In 2012, he joined the opposition because they were gaining ground. Now, he rejoins the government after the opposition lost ground,” Fadel stated.

Nawaf returns to Damascus and embraces regime officials

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News 

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