Posted by Matthew Barber on Friday, January 2nd, 2015
by John Eibner
Dr. John Eibner is the CEO of Christian Solidarity International USA and member of CSI’s International Management. He has directed research and advocacy campaigns on behalf of endangered Christian communities in the Caucuses and the broader Middle East, and has traveled into the Sudan over 100 times to document and combat its slave trade where he was involved in efforts that freed tens of thousands of Black Christian and traditionalist slaves. He has recently performed aid-delivery and fact-finding missions in both Syria and Iraq.
Following Joel Veldkamp’s recent illuminating article about the SSNP for Syria Comment, I want to offer two footnotes in the form of comments given me by Nouhad Samaan, head of the SSNP in Homs.
I had an encounter with Mr. Samaan on the 20th of November, 2014 while on a trip conducting visitation to CSI’s humanitarian aid partners in Damascus, Saydnaya, Maaloula, Homs, Wadi al-Nazara, and Tartus. The doings of Syrian political parties were not on my agenda, as all of my meetings were with displaced people, volunteer aid workers, church personnel, and the Grand Mufti. However, CSI has a strong interest in helping create conditions for the return of displaced Syrians to their homes, and my curiosity had been aroused after hearing from friends that the SSNP has been rapidly gaining popularity among secular-minded Syrians, becoming a political force of some significance, especially, though by no means exclusively, within the Christian community. I had also taken note in old Homs of the SSNP logo sewn on the sleeves of uniformed soldiers at checkpoints, and stamped on the side-walls of streets.
I therefore accepted an offer to meet Nouhad Samaan, the primary SSNP leadership figure for Homs, who now carries significant responsibility for governance in a strategically-important city center. Mr. Samaan was eager to promote awareness regarding efforts his once-banned political party has been making, following the evacuation of rebels in May 2014, to shore up security and create conditions for repair and reconstruction in the thoroughly-ruined old city of Homs.
My first footnote is extracted from the content of my conversation with Mr. Samaan. This is the substance of his remarks to me:
The Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) has a long history of opposition to the Baath Party, and has paid dearly for it over many decades. But in the current crisis, the government felt they needed our party because we face the same enemy—one that wants to destroy all of us who represent secular principles and the rights of minorities. The threat is existential. From the earliest days of the anti-government demonstrations in the spring of 2011, we detected that a strong undercurrent of religious supremacism had been unleashed. We are very sensitive to this problem. It is one that has plagued this part of the world for the past 1,400 years. The Damascus massacre of 1860 and the genocide of Christians 100 years ago marked high tides of this destructive phenomenon in modern times. In response to the current high tide of sectarian intolerance, our Party decided to cooperate with the government.
The SSNP was legalized already in 2005. But our acceptance of responsibility for governance in certain areas dates from the autumn of 2013. Our party, like all the historic parties in this part of the world, has always had a militia. The SSNP militia participated in the military operations that drove the rebels out of the predominantly Christian village of Sadad, near Homs, in November 2013. The rebels had religiously cleansed the village. But once Sadad was under the control of the SSNP forces, the Christians were free to return. After the expulsion of the rebels, President Assad accepted the presence of the SSNP militia as the force to guarantee the security of the Sadad and its environs. The same thing happened in Saydnaya and Marmarita.
After the evacuation of rebels from the old city of Homs last May, the SSNP assumed the leading role in providing security and establishing an infrastructure to support the return of the local population. Security, of course, was the number one priority. We had to deal with booby traps left behind by the rebels and ward off bands of thieves. The old city has been so badly damaged that fewer than 2,000 people, out of a pre-conflict population of 150,000 have been able to return to their homes. We are still in the phase of cleaning up the mess. Most dwellings are currently uninhabitable, and many side-streets are still littered with debris. But clean-up is well underway, a few shops have reopened, as have two schools, which now have about 300 students between them.
One of our great challenges will be to create conditions in old Homs that will encourage the minorities to return to their homes. After what has happened to them, they feel vulnerable and insecure. The Christian community is a source of stability. The destruction of the Christian community would therefore lead to yet more instability. The demographics of Syria are changing, and it is not for the good of the country. The two schools that have reopened in Homs are state schools. If the Christians are able to reopen their own schools, it will be a great incentive for Christian families to return. Right now the churches do not seem to have the funds to rebuild and run Christian schools.
My second footnote is a comment sent to me by Nouhad Samaan after he read Joel Velkamp’s article. He remarks on the religious composition of the SSNP and the party’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War:
I am an Orthodox Christian, but we have members from all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups. While the SSNP was founded by a Christian, the SSNP leader here in Syria is currently led by a Muslim, Nazir al-Athma. In fact, the martyr whose picture was posted with the Syria Comment article was not a Christian, though he fought and died in Sadad, a “Christian” village. The three martyrs that died before him in Sadad were also non-Christians. They were from three different religious groups: Shiite, Sunni, and Alawite. We have martyrs from all the various communities. Members of our multi-ethnic and multi-religious party have fought throughout Syria.
Regarding our role in the Lebanese Civil War, yes we were supported by the Syrian regime back then. But our involvement in that conflict was based on two principles: Firstly, we were part of the Lebanese resistance front against the Israeli occupation, acting in support of Palestinians rights. Secondly, we were opposed to the radical sectarian groups in Lebanon such as Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces.
As Joel Veldkamp observed, the current role of the SSNP merits further research. With the Levantine and Mesopotamian state system in disarray, and with the rise of a new de facto Sunni state in the region, it will be interesting to see whether there is place in the new emerging order for a historic party whose nationalistic ideology is based neither on Islam nor Arabism.