Screen grab of a propoganda video posted last weekd on YouTube by IS militants showing Shaitat tribespeople returning to their villages. 

The bodies of 230 people were discovered last week in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The victims were members of the Sunni Shaitat tribe, which has refused to pledge loyalty to the Islamic State jihadist group, largely due to economic reasons.

The 70,000 to 150,000 members of the Shaitat tribe live in three different towns in Syria: Gharanij, Abou Hamam and Kashkiye.

Map showing where the bodies were discovered.

After negotiations with tribal leaders, the Islamic State group allowed thousands of Shaitat to return to their villages, but only under certain conditions. For instance, the locals were required to turn over their weapons to the jihadist group as well as agree to respect a nightly curfew. Moreover, all gatherings are prohibited.

Members of the Shaitat tribe from Kashkiye discovered the 230 bodies last Wednesday, the day after they had returned to their village. Word about the mass burial site spread to the activists working with the campaign "Deir Ezzor is being massacred in silence," who are hostile to the jihadist organisation. A member of their team rushed to the area to film and document the evidence.

WARNING: The images below may shock viewers.

ِScreen grab from a video showing the bodies, filmed by the activists of the campaign "Deir Ezzor is being massacred in silence".

"The bodies weren’t even buried, and some had their heads cut off"

Abou Ahmad is a member of the group "Deir Ezzor is being massacred in silence".

The mass grave was discovered near the village of Kashkiye. Our activist went to the site and secretly filmed the mass grave. We deleted the sound of his voice from the video so he could not be identified by the Islamic State group. He also took almost 200 photos in the hope that we might be able to identify the victims. For the time being, we have only been able to identify about a dozen of them.

To date, 230 bodies have been discovered. However, the search is ongoing and, unfortunately, it is very likely that more will be found. The bodies weren’t even buried; they were simply left on the ground.

In order to return to their village, the head of each household was required to turn over a firearm to the Islamic State organisation. Some families, who didn’t own a firearm, were forced to go buy one in order to return to their homes. The residents of Kashkiye alone turned over 4,500 firearms to the jihadists.

Photo recently posted on Twitter showing firearms that the tribsemen gave up to the IS jihadists. 

The Shaitat tribe members living in the villages of Gharanij and Kashkiyé were allowed to return home, but those from the village of Abou Hamam have not yet gained authorisation from the Islamic State group.

A media source close to the Islamic State group filmed Gharanij residents returning to their village on November 26. (Propaganda images)

The residents of Kashkiye returned to their village on December 16.

Islamic State vs. Shaitat tribe: a war over oil

This massacre illustrates the complex relations between IS and the Syrian tribes in the territories under its control. Deir Ezzor is a prime example. In June 2014, after several weeks of fighting, the Islamic State group defeated the jihadist groups al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, which had previously controlled a large part of the zone.

Many members of the local tribes, including the Chouheil and Aachara, then served in these Islamist groups that were IS’s rivals. However, after the Islamic State group’s victory, some of the local fighters swapped sides and joined IS. However, the majority of the members of the Shaitat tribe refused to join IS. This decision was partially to protect the tribe’s economic interests. The Shaitat tribe wanted to retain control over several oil deposits, including "al-Omr", which is one of the most important deposits in the region. Since, it has fallen under IS control.

In August 2014, the Shaitat tribe declared a "revolt" against IS. They didn’t hesitate to ask for aid and weapons from the Syrian government despite the fact that they had previously been fighting the regime. Violent clashes broke out between Shaitat fighters and IS jihadists, but IS quickly gained the upper hand. It is at this moment in time that the people found in the mass grave are thought to have been killed. After this bloody defeat, some members of the Shaitat tribe joined a militia group fighting IS alongside the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The jihadist organisation seems to have no qualms about massacring members of tribes hostile to their cause, even if the tribes are Sunni.

In early November 2014, IS massacred 200 members of the hostile Albounimer tribe, including women and children, in the western province of Al-Anbar. In the east, in the province of Salaheddine, the jihadist group kidnapped dozens of members of the Joubour tribe. A tribal chief cited by Reuters said this was because the tribe had recently picked up arms against IS.

When contacted by FRANCE 24, an IS militant in Deir-Ezzor denied that the 230 bodies were victims of his group — though he did say that he had participated in the executions of dozens of Shaitat tribespeople. He suggested that the massacre was the result of in-fighting that has been causing havoc in the tribe over the past few years. We were not able to verify this version of the events.