The Kurds no longer pay much heed to traditional tribal structures, but the tribal system still dominates Arab society in Syria.
Long protected by Syria’s Baath regime, Arab tribal leaders have retained their status as notables and their capacity for political mobilization. The main tribe in Tal Abyad district is the Jays, divided into three powerful clans: the Bou Assaf, who are close to the YPG, and the Jamilah and Bou Jarada, who are very anti-YPG. Less prominent local tribes are the Naim, Hannada, Baggara, and Annaza. Two Turkmen collectives, the Slouk and Hamam Turkmen, also constitute tribes.
The Jays is a warrior tribe with strong ties to Turkey and a history of conflict with the Kurds of Kobane, whose agricultural lands are nearby. Before the war, the tribe was close to the Assad regime; once government forces withdrew in July 2012, it tried to behave like the master of the region. After periods of chaos and rebel takeover, the YPG occupied Tal Abyad city for a few days in March 2013, spurring some of the clans from Jays and other Arab tribes to ask for help from al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (which including IS cadres at the time). In addition to pushing the YPG out of the district, this Arab alliance displaced the entire Kurdish population, destroying their homes in the process.
Later, once IS began its takeover in east Syria, the clans within Jays took different paths: the Jamilah and Bou Jarada supported the organization, while the Bou Assaf helped create the rebel group Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade) and participated in liberating Tal Abyad from IS forces in 2015 (its name eventually changed to Jabhat Thuwar al-Raqqa). Likewise, members of the Naim, Baggara, and Annaza tribes took part in the liberation of Raqqa under the banner of Liwa Suqur al-Raqqa (Raqqa Hawks Brigade). Yet several prominent tribal militia leaders defected to the Assad regime in 2017, and the loyalty of those who remain with the Syrian Defense Forces is dubious.
The Hannada tribe remained largely neutral during these conflicts. This puts it in a good position to resolve problems between other tribes, with Hannada member Aissa Ibrahim currently serving as chief of the Tal Abyad Reconciliation Committee. This September, however, a conscription operation by the Kurdish security force Asayesh went badly in the Hannada rural stronghold of Khaldya. About fifty men were arrested amid local protests, and one of them died while being transferred to Tal Abyad. This pushed the whole tribe into opposition against the YPG. The Kurds have also kept a tight grip on local Turkmen communities, since they supported IS and have a natural affinity with Turkey.
Currently, Arab refugees from Tal Abyad are keen to return to the district by force with Turkey’s help. Many of them have trained in Turkish military camps in Sanliurfa and Akcakale, the border town nearest Tal Abyad. These young trainees may be used as the vanguard to “liberate” the district, similar to how the Turkish army used proxies when invading the Kurdish district of Afrin in northwest Syria. This strategy has an even better chance of succeeding (and avoiding international outcry) in Tal Abyad because the majority of the population is Arab, unlike in Afrin where Kurds are more numerous. For instance, the Sukhanya clan fled Tal Abyad in May 2015 and sought refuge in Turkey, and their homes have since been confiscated by the YPG. Today, they regularly demonstrate on the Turkish side of the border to demand the YPG’s departure, and their militia is ready to participate in any advance against the town.