For centuries, Bedouin tribes moved around the vast semi-arid steppe land in Syria, searching for water and pasture for their herds of camels, sheep, and goats. This ecologically sustainable mobility and way of life indelibly contributed to the rich cultural heritage of the country.
About 100 years ago, first under the French mandate and later the new nation-state, a series of policies were implemented to pressure the Bedouin to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle in villages, towns and on the outskirts of cities. As a result, Syria’s nomadic pastoral population declined, from 13 percent of the total population in 1930 to 7 percent in 1953 and less than 2-3 percent by the turn of the millennium.
The few remaining Bedouin communities managed to resist the forces pushing them to settle and continued to make a comfortable living moving around the desert, raising mainly sheep. The Syrian civil war, however, has brought a new set of challenges for these communities, further threatening their traditional livelihoods and culture.
The semi-arid steppe in Syria, called al-Badia in Arabic, makes up about 80 percent of the country’s landmass – 10 million hectares (nearly 25 million acres) of the central and northeastern part of the country, spreading across the provinces of Aleppo, Deir Az Zor, Hamah, al-Hassekeh, Homs, al-Raqqa, and to a lesser extent, Deraa and al-Suwayda provinces to the south.
These governorates became major battlefields in the Syrian civil war, gravely affecting Bedouin herders living there and making a living by selling pastoral products like milk, cheese and meat. Military operations hampered Bedouin efforts to access grazing land, water sources and post-harvest farmland stubble. After 10 years of conflict, many Syrian Bedouin herders can no longer maintain their livelihoods or find sufficient fodder for their herds. Many of them already lost significant portions of their herds and have been internally displaced or pushed across international borders.
Khaled Abu Amer from al-Mawali tribe, for example, told us how the conflict between the regime and opposition forces drove him to leave the countryside of Hama and seek safety in Idlib province in 2018. As a result of his inability to find pasture for his herd there, he lost three-quarters of his sheep.
Since the beginning of the conflict, seeking safety and sanctuary from armed groups, rather than looking after the livestock, became the main priority of Bedouin herders. In some cases, the nomadic herders were besieged by regime forces in opposition-controlled areas along with sedentary civilian populations. This was the case for Bedouin herders who got trapped in eastern Ghouta during the regime’s siege of the area. To avoid starvation, they were forced to slaughter and eat their livestock. As a result, they lost their capital – their herds – and were forced to work as daily wage labourers to survive.
Bedouin herders also faced targeted attacks by both the Syrian government forces and ISIL (ISIS).
Traditionally, Bedouin herders have had the ability to move across borders between states when local conditions became difficult. Over the years, this mobility has made the ruling regimes suspicious of their loyalties. These suspicions rose to the surface during the course of the Syrian civil war. The different factions involved in the conflict became increasingly suspicious of the intentions of the herders who refrained from openly aligning themselves with any group, and therefore were targeted indiscriminately.
For example, in 2018, the Syrian regime forces bombed the tents and the animals of Bedouin herders from al-Omour tribe near the city of Palmyra, claiming that they were members of ISIL. The attack killed four herders and destroyed most of their sheep. The same year, herders from the same tribe had to escape ISIL’s repressive rule and attempts to tax them in the countryside of Palmyra by heading north to the countryside of recently-liberated Raqqa.
After losing much of their mobility and access to natural grazing land, Bedouin herders have been forced to buy fodder, which they can ill afford, to feed their animals. Moreover, as the government’s veterinary services ran out of animal vaccines and routine drugs, it has become harder for herders to keep their animals healthy and productive. Many have been forced to smuggle their herds across the borders to Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey to sell them at reasonable prices. Where this has not been possible, Bedouin have had to sell their sheep in Syria for whatever they can get in order to survive the war.
The impact of Syria’s armed conflict on Bedouin herders is rarely mentioned in the media. Yet among the many narratives of loss and suffering during the Syrian civil war, the Bedouin’s stand out.
Sheepherding makes up a significant part of Syria’s GDP, but the rapid disappearance of Syria’s nomadic herders is not merely an economic loss. Mobile sheep herding is the most efficient and ecologically sound approach to life in the semi-arid lands of Syria. No other occupant can take care of this vast land the way nomadic herders do.
Today, a way of life that has withstood the vicissitudes of cyclical drought, of conflict between tribes, and settled societies for more than a thousand years is shrinking, perhaps irreversibly. As Bedouin herders are forced to settle in villages and towns, take up employment as labourers or seek refuge in neighbouring countries, not only an ancient, sustainable way of life but also a significant component of Syria’s cultural heritage is being lost.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.