Footnotes on the SSNP—Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs

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.

Dr. John Eibner and Nouhad Samaan (right) in Homs

Dr. John Eibner and Nouhad Samaan (right) 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.

Sample Concepts of a Christian-Shi’a Alliance in Iraq

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

With the fragmentation of Iraq and Syria primarily along sectarian fault-lines- principally that of the Shi’a vs. Sunni dynamic- third way ethno-religious groups such as the Christians find themselves caught in the middle. Lacking organizational coherence, unity and strength to form their own separatist projects, Christians in Iraq and Syria generally find themselves forming alliances with one major player or another in the respective conflicts. In Syria, two choices exist: the regime and irregular aligned forces (e.g. the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Wadi al-Nasara in Homs province) or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) autonomous administration. In Qamishli, the dichotomy of regime vs. PYD administration has played out in the split of the original ‘Sutoro’ militia of the Syriac Union Party (SUP), whereby the SUP loyalist Sutoro has tied itself to the PYD, while a ‘Sootoro’ in Qamishli is aligned with the regime.

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Merry Christmas from the pro-Assad militia Muqawama Suriya last year. For similar outreach and on the Qamishli situation, see this article I wrote.

In Iraq, discrepancies in Christian population by region mean that the main accessible actor to which the majority of Christians at the present time can turn is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For instance, the Dwekh Nawsha militia active in the Nineveh Plains and tied to the Assyrian Patriotic Party- whatever ideals may be espoused of being able to achieve self-sufficiency in arming- finds itself heavily dependent on the Peshmerga. However, there is still a Christian population in Iraq outside areas of KRG control, and it is largely in this context that we find notions of a Christian-Shi’a alliance- something that has ample precedent in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s outreach to Christians (for the latest examples of this phenomenon, see this excellent report by my friend Kareem Shaheen of The Daily Star in Beirut).

To be sure, in Iraq some components of the Sunni insurgency do try to play up the idea of supposedly having Christians in their ranks, principally as part of a Ba’athist superficial cross-sectarian messaging strategy. The most notable case here is the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order/JRTN) of Iraq Ba’ath Party leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation. JRTN claims it is an “extension of the prior Iraqi national army” with members from all ethnicities and religions, including Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, as well as Yezidis, Christians and Mandaeans. Unsurprisingly, such a narrative hardly proves appealing in the face of the dominance of the Islamic State (IS), which has displaced all Christians from Mosul amid a dhimmi pact ultimatum. Though JRTN condemned the displacement, it did not denounce IS by name, opting instead for the conspiracy theory that this tragedy was all the work of the government in Baghdad.

Thus, it should hardly prove surprising that with the militiafication of much of the Baghdad government-aligned forces following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, Shi’a militias in particular can capitalise on the rise of IS and engage in outreach to Christians on the basis of fighting a common enemy. At the most rudimentary level, this takes the form of social media graphics emphasizing affinity between Jesus and Imam Ali.

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Sample graphic of Christian-Shi’a solidarity: “The Messiah forever and oh Ali, grant strength.”

Turning to specifics on the ground, illustrative of Shi’a militia outreach to Christians is the recent case of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, a group headed by Aws al-Khafaji, a one-time figure in Muqtada al-Sadr’s office who reportedly visited Damascus in support of the Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting against Syrian rebels. Indeed, it seems likely that his Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, with similar name, is based on Syria’s Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. For Christmas, Khafaji and his militia paid a visit to the Evangelical Church in Baghdad, with Khafaji delivering a speech inside the church and granting an interview. In the latter, he emphasized: “On this day, Christmas Day, we want to send a message to the whole world that the religion of Islam is a religion of compassion and brotherhood. The religion of Islam calls on us to protect our Christian brothers…Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh [IS guys] that forced the Christians to leave. Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh that destroyed the churches. Indeed we respect the churches….We defend our country, our lands and every religion present in our country.”

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“The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces wish you a Merry Christmas”- featuring Christian-Muslim unity symbolism and the militia’s logo on the top-right.

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“Iraq brings us together. The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces congratulate you on the occasion of Christmas.”

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Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces fighters outside the church with their flags.

An even more interesting case of Shi’a-Christian alliance in Iraq is that of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and its creation of the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions.” The particular social media pages advertising this concept are not associated with Assyrian identity symbolism but rather Syriac/Aramean. The group is of particular interest because it bases the work with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali on the grounds of Kurdish betrayal and handing over of areas to IS. It should be noted that this sense of disappointment and distrust of Kurdish forces in light of the fall of many areas of Ninawa province is not limited to Christians but is also a sentiment felt by many Yezidis.

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“Syriac Sons’ Brigades”- a Facebook page promoting the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” as part of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. The page describes itself as follows: “For the defence of our land and homeland: Syriac Christian brigades.” The symbol used is employed by proponents of Syriac and Aramean Christian identity in opposition to Assyrian identity narrative. Cover photo features “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” insignia on left.

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Promotional video for “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions,” featuring a procession with the Christian cross, flag of Iraq (right) and the flag of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. Those marching in this procession are wearing Kata’ib al-Imam Ali shirts.

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The cohort of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali featuring the Christian cross.

The true size of this Syriac brigade is unclear, and it is hardly evident that it is some kind of major military force in the Nineveh plains. Nonetheless, it is of great interest particularly with the playing up of affinity between Shi’a and Christians. The promotional video features an interview with one Sheikh Ahmad al-Rubai’e, who emphasizes: “And we see that with the companions of Imam al-Hussein [key figure in Shi’a Islam] were groups of Christian soldiers, and today also the Christians go with whosoever supports Hussein.”

In the end, the two-way choice between the Shi’a and the Kurds for Iraq’s Christians was inevitable. Not all Christians are going to trust the KRG and its forces, and in the end, the Shi’a militias do not pose for them the existential threat from IS that has come to be the main authority in all major majority Sunni localities outside of government control. The situation is ever further from the ideal of a coherent, national Iraqi army to maintain order.

 

Syria Year-End Predictions and Analysis – by Joshua Landis (28 December 2014)

Year-end Predictions and Analysis by Joshua LandisMurad Basha Mosque
Syria Comment 28 December 2014

Syria will become increasingly fragmented in 2015. The Somalia-ization of the country is inevitable so long as the international community degrades all centers of power in Syria and the opposition fails to unite.

Who owns what?

The four strongest authorities in Syria are the Assad government, ISIS, Nusra, and the Kurds. They rule close to 95% of Syrian territory. The Assad government rules 45% of the land and perhaps 65% of the population, give or take. ISIS rules 35%, but controls less than 3 million people. Kurds may control about 8% or 9% of Syria and Nusra another 5%. This leaves the hundreds of additional militias controlling the remaining 5%, but in some areas “No FSA faction can operate without Nusra’s approval.” Jihadis prevailed in 2014.

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Thanks to @deSyracuse for his maps. Click on it to go to his site and use interactive features

 

All authorities will become weaker, with the possible exception of the Kurds. The United States is at war with all important Arab factions. It is actively bombing ISIS and Nusra, while sanctioning Assad.  Although Washington has been funding a “train and equip” project to the tune of half a billion dollars, it appears to have neither urgency nor teeth. Coalition forces are divided on objectives. This means that all centers of authority in Syria are being degraded while none are being built up. It means no one can win. The Assad regime, ISIS, and Nusra are all likely to see their power diminish over the coming year. The FSA militias have become practically irrelevant and must take orders from the radicals. The educated and worldly activists who played such a vital role in launching the revolution have been pushed aside and are today without influence. One can interpret this either as: a) Liberals and democrats in Syria were such a small elite that they were quickly swept aside by the tide of sectarians, fascists, and Islamists; or B) Assad intentionally destroyed the liberals and moderates so that he would face only extremists, leaving the world to face an either-or choice: Assad or al-Qaida. The reality is probably a measure of both.

The Assad government strengthened its control over major cities, while losing control over rural areas. It gained ground in the Damascus suburbs, Kalamoun, Homs and Aleppo, but it lost territory in others, such as Idlib, the Golan, Deraa and the Jazira. This strategy reveals Assad’s urban bias. He believes he can regain the support of the urban middle classes who fear the radicalized and poorer country-folk. The Baath originally relied on rural support against the cities. But as it went bankrupt and turned away from subsidies and socialism toward neo-liberal policies mixed with a heavy dose of corruption, it turned its back on the urban poor and struggling countryside. Today the regime is trying to turn the rich against the poor in an effort to convince them that the revolution was a pipe-dream and that they must fight “terrorism.” Collapsing oil revenues in Iran and Russia mean that Assad will have to suffer with less money in 2015. But so too will the rebels because they are as reliant on oil money as the regime. All incomes will take a nosedive. Ninety percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to the UN. But poverty can get worse.

NusraJihadis and extremists prevailed

Although 2014 began with US-backed militias teaming up with the Islamic Front and Nusra to drive ISIS “out of Syria,” they failed. They succeeded in expelling ISIS from Idlib province and villages north of Aleppo, but Nusra quickly routed the pro-US rebels and asserted itself over the Idlib region. It has also spread its power in Deraa and planted its flag on the Golan. Nusra refrains from swallowing up FSA militias in part because their purported independence is useful. As one USA vetted fighter in Northern Syria explained, “Nusra lets groups vetted by the United States keep the appearance of independence, so that they will continue to receive American supplies.” Once received, the radicals have the authority to commandeer the advanced arms. This is why the US is abandoning the vetted FSA militias and beginning its policy of “train and equip,” an effort to build a Syrian Army completely controlled by the US. Washington explains that the new force will be used to fight ISIS, then weaken Assad with the goal of forcing him to first accept a political solution and then leave the country. This is unrealistic, but what else can the US say it is doing?

ISThe creation of new states was the rage in 2014.

ISIS began the craze with the announcement of the Islamic State shortly after its leader, Baghdadi, declared himself Caliph. Nusra followed suit with the declaration of an Emirate. The Kurds showed restraint by refusing to declare their independence, but made considerable headway in that direction. Rojava, the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan, is now on everyone’s lips. In the last months of 2013, the PYD announced an interim government divided into three non-contiguous autonomous areas or cantons, Afrin, Jazira and Kobani and military service was declared compulsory in July 2014. The war against ISIS has strengthened the state attributes of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan received new direct military aid from many countries. Rojava gained US and international backing for its military efforts, especially in the battle for Kobani. Although the region has been depopulated, the new partnership between the PYD and Washington is big. Even Turkey was forced to break its embargo on the PYD.

The Great Sorting Out and Rise of Religious Nationalism

Religious nationalism has become the dominant ideology in the Middle East. The “secular” nationalism that was once the hallmark of post colonial regimes and leaders, such as Nasser, Assad, Hussein, Bourgiba, Arafat, and Boumediene is moribund. Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have reacted against this trend. Is their reaction a harbinger of Islamist retreat more broadly or merely a hiccup? Hard to tell, but my guess is that 2015 will see religious identities harden throughout the Levant. This means bad news for reconciling Syria’s waring parties. The Levant Front, the most recent effort by Syria’s many militias to unify, does not look more promising than past efforts. The Syrian opposition seems to be organized along regional and local village and clan lines, hence its inability to unite. Traditional loyalties of religion, village and family have trumped national ones. The only ideology able to attract followers on a national scope is Islam.

I have spoken at some length about the “Great Sorting Out” that I believe is taking place in the Levant countries. The Syrian civil war fits into a larger pattern of nation-building in which the many ethnic and religious communities of the region are caught in a brutal struggle for primacy and survival. It is strikingly similar the nation-building process that dominated Central Europe during WWII. Multi-ethnic and mutli-religious lands are being transformed into boringly homogenous nations. We are witnessing the rearrangement of populations in the region to better fit the nation states that were fixed after WWI.

Some new borders are being drawn, such as those around the Kurdish regions of Iraq and perhaps Syria, but mostly, what we are seeing is the ethnic cleansing of the smaller minorities and rearranging of populations to fit their borders. This means that the smaller minorities of the region, those that are scattered, such as the Christians, Armenians, Roma, Bahai, Mandaeans, and Jews, before they massed in Palestine and forced out the Palestinians, will likely be swept from the region. The “compact minorities,” those that live together in one region, are more capable of defending themselves, such as the Jews of Israel, the Shiites of Lebanon, the Alawites (so far), and the Druze (who have simply been lucky). But the smaller compact minorities, such as the Yazidis, Assyrians, Ismailis, and Shabaks—may God protect them.

JunudRahmanSyria is locked into perpetual war

The great powers are determined to support their Syrian proxies enough that they will not lose, but not enough to win. This means prolonged struggle. Most regional civil wars have come to an end only with foreign intervention. Lebanon and Iraq had foreign powers disarm militias in order to facilitate state-building and political compromise. No foreign power is likely to intervene in Syria to disarm radicals or nurse moderates back into the political center.

Has the US changed its position on Syria?

Officially, the US continues to see Bashar al-Assad as a “dead man walking” and to insist that he “step aside.” Secretary of State Kerry began the year at the Geneva peace talks announcing that Bashar al-Assad had lost all legitimacy. He added that no one could conceive of his playing a role in the future of Syria. This week General Allen, Obama’s special envoy said, “as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.” The United States finds talking to Assad too ideologically costly. But it equally finds the notion of unifying & arming the opposition too costly & improbable. Thus, Washington seems determined to stick to a narrow policy of counter-terrorism—killing ISIS and Nusra when opportunity presents itself and keeping them on their heels. Washington sees the Syria problem as unfixable. The American people want no part of it, hence the threatened “no” vote in congress when the issue was bombing Assad for his use of chemical weapons as well as the more recent cutting of 300 million dollars of additional support from a larger spending bill that was earmarked for Syria’s “moderate” militias.

But if US talking points about Assad remain unchanged, underlying realities have shifted. Exactly one year ago, Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote in a prescient article, entitled “Assad Is the Least Worst Option in Syria,” that “we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad—and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse.” That something, which was Nusra and ISIS, sucked the United States back into the region this summer. When ISIS swept through Sunni Iraq without a real fight and threatened to conquer Irbil and Baghdad, President Obama was forced to go to war. He could not allow al-Qaida to rule Iraq. Once President Obama threatened to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the US effectively became an ally of the Assad regime and Iran, like it or not.

The Syrian peace talks that Russia has announced for 2015 may seem like a joke, but they are perhaps designed to get the US to officially accept the fact that Assad may remain leader of Syria. After all, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov assured the press that he “was in contact with our American partners” about the peace talks. It is hard to believe that Obama will climb down from his stand that Assad must step aside unless Assad makes real concessions and can draw the US-recognized Syrian Opposition Coalition into negotiations. The chance that this could happen seem slim.

Is the Syrian Army a Bulwark against Extremism?

In the bowels of the Pentagon, officers probably look at Assad’s state as a bulwark against ISIS and Nusra. They cannot allow it to be destroyed for fear that the the Jihadists will sweep into Damascus and Syria’s cities. Once ensconced in the capital, they would own Syria. What is more, a new wave of refugees would flee from Syria into Lebanon and Jordan, possibly overwhelming both governments. Certainly Baathists, security personnel, and regime apparatchiks would flee. If Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shiites believed that they were no longer safe due to religious persecution, refugee numbers could reach into the millions. America’s policy has been to contain the violence in Syria. Regime collapse could defeat that policy, just as regime survival seems to defeat it. Most of America’s allies and the Syrian opposition insist that US war planes should be bombing Assad as well as ISIS. The US cannot risk an extremist victory by destroying the Syrian Army. But US politicians also want to weaken the regime. Israel wants to destroy its advanced missile systems. Syria is a perfect case where US military planners may want a policy quite different from that set out by politicians.

The Syrian army is likely to remain weak and over-extended. It is desperate for soldiers and alienating its own supporters with draconian draft measures. Syrian National Defense Forces or popular militias will do more of the work. As Aron Lund has pointed out, they tend to be local forces that are reluctant to move out of their home districts or travel beyond their villages. This is part of the overall fragmentation.

Why De Mestura’s Plan Makes Sense

Staffan de Mistura’s UN backed plan makes sense if one sees the future of Syria in the bleakest light, where fragmentation is the rule and regime strength is limited largely to the cities. Because disunity precludes a comprehensive peace plan, de Mistura has come up with the notion of local freezes and sees Aleppo as a likely starting point. Activists have pronounced this plan defeatist, if not pro-Assad, but de Mistura has little choice. He has no army with which to change the balance of power. His mission is to save lives and provide food. If local rebels want out, as they did in Homs, the UN can help. Likewise, if pro-regime towns, such as Nubl and Zahraa, are starving, the UN can try to freeze fighting and get aid in or help officiate a surrender. All sides will have to agree. It is the lowest common denominator, but an essential role that only the UN can fill.

BqfFygOCAAA35uL2014 was the year of ISIS

The past year was ISIS’ year. But 2015 is likely to see ISIS seriously degraded, if not destroyed. The Baghdad government may able to dislodging ISIS from important strongholds in Iraq and shove it back into Syria. It is hard to envisage a new force rising up to take ISIS’s place, however.  ISIS’ success among the rebel militias is founded on its brutal authoritarianism. “Caliph” Baghdadi has copied the Assad and Saddam regimes. It is no surprise that his top 20 officers are largely Iraqi ex-Baathists. The Syrian opposition has not found a way to compromise or unify without the use of force and terror. Thus ISIS is deploying the same paranoid style and traditional loyalties to unify Syria’s fissured society as did the Baath. To succeed it is becoming even more terrifying than the regime it hoped to replace.

[End of Landis analysis]

The following round-ups were sent to me by members of the Syria Comment team.

Handala bin Baal writes:

In the first days of 2014, Nusra, IF and FSA united to expel ISIS. Today, IS controls most of east Syria, and in the areas where ISIS was driven out, Nusra simply finished what ISIS had started and killed, kidnapped and routed most of the western backed rebels in aleppo, idlib, homs and Daraa. The jihadis are stronger than ever in rebel held Syria and Nusra is moving forward with its Islamic emirate. Meanwhile the Syrian army is running out of fucks to give for what happens in Sunni areas of no economical value.
Going into 2014, the syrian army priorities are, reaching nubul and zahraa in Aleppo, maintaining Deir ez zor as main iranian supply base and making sure that things remain under control in Damascus, Homs, and coast by keeping the Sunnis busy in ghoutas, daraa, hama, idlib and jabal al akrad.

When will this war end? When all the people die. Listen to the kid in this video. Out of the mouth of babes… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIrBtCfX4tI#t=724

Ehsani2 writes:

The biggest change in 2014 was the continued confirmation that the regime was not going to fall anytime soon. Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was eliminated. ISIL invited US strikes after senseless beheadings of westerners.

2015 is going to be shaped by who will turn out to be the ultimate winner of Aleppo. Local truce deals will continue to be the preferred outcome by negotiators. The White House may not turn away from its stated goal of Assad-must-step-aside but in practice it will continue to move further from any notion of direct military involvement or regime change. The Syrian opposition has failed to win the hearts and minds of enough congressmen or senators who would pressure a change in strategy in DC. While Syrians will be told that only a political solution exists for their country, fighting will continue. Neither the government nor the opposition will still be ready to negotiate during 2015.

2014 Roundup and 2015 Predictions by Aron Lund

lund2014 Roundup and 2015 Predictions
By Aron Lund
December 25, 2014 for Syria Comment

Lots of things happened in 2014, but the single most important development was the rise of the Islamic State as an independent actor in Syria and as a global bogeyman, shifting the terms of Western and Arab Syria debate. The split between the Islamic State and the rest of the rebels in Syria has changed dynamics within the Syrian opposition and forced other rebels back into the Western/Gulfie fold. It’s also slowly but surely alienating Jabhat al-Nosra from the rebel mainstream. The end result is a somewhat clearer bloc formation but also an overall weakening of the anti-Assad side, particularly the non-jihadi rebels in the north.

Even more, the IS capture of Mosul in June, which threatened to bring down the Iraqi state–already rotting from the inside–has changed the international and regional dynamics. Now we have a US-led international military intervention in both countries, with mission creep in one or more directions being almost inevitable over time. And with all eyes on the Islamic State, Western media/political debate are increasingly beginning to describe the Syrian war as a counter-terrorism issue and have lost track of the fundamentals in a rather worrying way. This might seem like good news for Bashar, and it is – but so far not good enough to rehabilitate his regime politically or make it strong enough to claw back the parts of Syria that it lost. We’ll see how this develops. (The US is already flying air support for the Syrian Arab Army in Deir al-Zor, but it’s not something we’re supposed to talk about.)

In 2015, there are a few things to watch, including of course the Aleppo situation and the UN freeze, the international aerial campaign and whether it will burst the Islamic State bubble or not, the various international realignments, and the (lack of) efforts to contain Lebanon’s northeastern meltdown. But if I were to point to one single factor that gets nowhere near the attention it deserves and that could suddenly turn Syria upside down, it’s the regime’s fraying base: finances, infrastructure, and perhaps manpower.

The fuel crisis and other internal systemic failures are growing and may at some point become unmanageable. It’s winter now and that’s of course part of the reason, but it seems more profound than that. From the looks of it, Bashar has simply run out of money and the infrastructure has deteriorated too far over four years of war. In addition, the IS is currently hitting key energy nodes like the Shaer fields and the US bombings in the east are sapping overall fuel supply. Iranian and Russian supplies are what has kept the regime afloat so far, but now their own economies are under terrific strain, due to the plunging oil price and sanctions. International humanitarian aid is not keeping up with rising needs either, and donor fatigue is already a major problem – 2015 will undoubtedly be worse. So, will the pressure ease up or not? If not, how long can this go on without something breaking?

Related to this, there’s an increasing number of reports about the dire manpower situation on the regime side. There are reports of the SAA rounding up young men in regime territory, renewed enforcement of travel bans for military-age males, and rumors of a general mobilization that – even if false – reflect a genuine concern. Why is this becoming an issue now? One reason is probably that Assad has trouble paying his footsoldiers, or that Iran and others aren’t chipping in in the same way they used to. Another is that Iraqi Shia militias have drifted back across the border to fight the Islamic State in their homeland since June. Another is that Bashar will need more people than he currently has to sustain an increasingly ambitious military posture: he wants to secure gains in Damascus/Homs, hold the fort in Hama and Deraa and the northwest, and also tip the scales in Aleppo. More fundamentally, the militiafication of the regime seems to have advanced to a point where it’s having trouble shifting forces around according to military needs. Even if Assad has tens of thousands of available reserves on paper, many of them are now essentially village guards and sectarian/tribal militias that won’t go voluntarily to fight outside their home areas and that would in many cases be fairly useless if compelled to do so.

To be clear, the regime remains at an advantage in purely military terms and seems to be within reach of a breakthrough in Aleppo – that’s a potential game-changer. And Bashar continues to reap the benefits of fighting an opposition so venal and dysfunctional that no one wants to help it to power anymore – except maybe Erdogan. That remains his trump card. But if Bashar was betting that time is on his side, it’s really not and this must surely affect regime calculations, now that the UN freeze plan, the rise of the Islamic State, and other international dynamics are starting to offer new political horizons.

Aron Lund,
editor of Syria in Crisis

Resurgence of the SSNP in Syria: An Ideological Opponent of the Regime Gets a Boost from the Conflict

University of Chicagoby Joel Veldkamp

Joel Veldkamp is an MA candidate at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle East Studies. He lived in Damascus, Syria from September 2010 until May 2011. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelman42

The Facebook page of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Homs branch recently boasted: “The families of Homs return to their homes and thank the Party for providing security for them.”

According to reports I’ve received from colleagues in Syria, this boast is not empty. Following the retaking of Homs’ Old City from the rebels in May of this year, the regime has turned over responsibility for security and administration in the Old City to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and its militia.

flag of Syrian Social Nationalist Party

Indeed, this Facebook post from September 18 is accompanied by a photo album of Homs’ Old City that resembles a victory parade: photo after photo of Old City homes and alleyways decorated with the flags and slogans of the SSNP—the red “hurricane,” posters of the party’s martyrs, and the phrases “Eagles of the Hurricane” and “Long live [Greater] Syria.”

flags of Syrian Social Nationalist Party hang in Homs

“Go back only two years, and we would not see the party’s symbol or slogan except on the inside of houses and in secret,” the post says. “Ask the people of Homs about the Nationalists, and one of them will answer you, laughing, ‘I asked them for a flag of the party to hang in my house but there were none left, so I painted the “hurricane” on the entrance to my house myself.’”

The SSNP, which recently celebrated its 82nd anniversary to much positive coverage from Syrian state media, has a long and tortured relationship with Damascus. Founded by the Lebanese Greek Orthodox intellectual Antoine Saada in 1932, when the postcolonial future of the region was still up for grabs, the SSNP was devoted to secularism and a particular version of pan-Syrian nationalism that saw the area now covered by the nation-states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, and even Cyprus, as a single historical nation, which should be united as such.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party

As it happened, after the European evacuation, residents of the French Mandate area were divided between supporters of an independent Lebanon and the pan-Arabists, leaving little oxygen for Saada’s pan-Syrianism. While the SSNP proved very influential for its small size, its several coup attempts in Lebanon and Syria failed and earned it great enmity on the part of those governments. Saada himself was executed by Lebanese police after the Syrian strongman Husni al-Zaim delivered him into their custody. But in the Second Lebanese Civil War, Hafiz al-Assad nurtured the Party as a tool of Damascus’ interests. It entered the war with Syrian sponsorship and under considerable Syrian influence. An SSNP member was arrested for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel in 1982 and was later released by the Syrians after they took control of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Party remained officially banned in Syria until 2005 when it was integrated into the Baath Party’s “National Progressive Front.”

Assad and the Syrian Social Nationalist Part

Interestingly, in its public social media statements, the Party does not gloss over this history of strife. While strongly endorsing Bashar al-Assad’s reelection bid, including his image in most of their public events, and toeing the regime’s line on the war (sample SANA headline: “What is happening in Syria is an American-Israeli scheme funded by the Gulf”), the Party’s social media outlets recount the struggle with the Ba’ath and their predecessors in dramatic tones:

“The words ‘Long Live [Greater] Syria’ would bring trouble to the one who uttered them publicly, from one branch of security or another.  The ‘Nationalist’ party, as it is termed today, was stricken from Syria in the 1950s, prohibited from political work, and its members put in prison. These prosecutions diminished in the 70s but didn’t end. Even in the recent period, the party was not a member of the National Progressive Front [It was, in fact, from 2005 to 2012], and its principles intellectually contradict the Front’s principle of complete Arab unity. Because of this, it was legally not licensed and its members were not permitted to practice overt political work.”

If this rhetoric is representative, the SSNP is keen to retain its ideological independence from the regime—perhaps more so now, in the space created by the crisis, than before. “This has never been the party in power or the party of interests. …This is the party of the people, of the defenders of the people.”

Martyrdom narratives notwithstanding, the SSNP benefitted tremendously from legalization in 2005. A Greek Catholic friend from the Qalamoun region (like most young Syrian professionals, himself a member of the Ba’ath party) writes, “The SSNP is very popular, especially in Christian areas like Wadi al-Nasara. They are very organized and active. In the last ten years, they showed a lot of interest in people. In my town, they were always organizing youth activities—museum trips, pool outings.” A widely-cited (but probably unverifiable) figure puts the total membership of the SSNP in Syria at 100,000.

With the onset of the crisis, as the SSNP Homs’ Facebook page puts it, “the party’s status has changed radically—what it was before the Syrian crisis is not what it is after.” My friend writes that as the violence began, “The SSNP started training people in Wadi Nasara, in self-defense, in using weapons, in first aid.” When the regime began organizing the National Defense Forces in various towns, “they went to the church leaders, to the local Ba’ath Party and to the SSNP.” In some areas of Syria, the SSNP fighters form merely a part of the NDF; in other areas, “they are the leaders:” “They don’t just hold guns and stand at the entrance. They are law enforcement in some of these towns. Their support and guns come from the government.”

Another Syrian Greek Catholic friend, only 14 when the uprising started, regularly posts photos to Facebook of himself holding machine guns and wearing the SSNP patch. In October, he posted photos of himself in Dukhaniyah, near Qunaytrah, after fighting to retake the city for the regime.

Dukhaniya  SSNP youth

Non-Maronite Christians’ attraction to the Party is natural. Writing in 1988, Pipes argued:

“Pure Pan-Syrianism held up as an ideal a geographic unit in which non-Sunnis constitute about half the population; in contrast, they almost disappear in larger Arab units. By bridging the historic gap between Muslims and Christians, Pan-Syrianism promised full citizenship and equality for the latter; by glorifying pre-Islamic antiquity – the civilization that Islam vanquished – it celebrated the common past; and it offered a state that would include nearly all Orthodox Christians within its confines.”

My Greek Catholic friend notes, “It’s convincing even for me. I feel closer to a Palestinian or a Lebanese person than to an Emirati or an Egyptian or a Bedouin.” Jihad el-Zein writes in al-Monitor that today “the SSNP is appearing as the ‘fighting Christians’ party on the side of the Syrian regime.”

In February of this year, al-Akhbar reported that:

“SSNP fighters are primarily deployed in the governorates of Homs and Damascus. …SSNP fighters stood out in the battles of Saddad and Mahin a few months ago, and in Nabek, Fallita, and Maaloula. Currently, they are working to repel attacks by opposition militants against the towns of Sednaya…The SSNP is the most formidable military force in Suweida other than the Syrian army…”

The killing of an SSNP leader from Homs named Subhi al-Eid in the battle for the Christian town of Saddad last November is commemorated on the SSNP Homs’ website and the first anniversary of his martyrdom was marked in a public ceremony this year. SSNP Homs’ Facebook page boasts:

“You ask about the Party’s martyrs in the alleys of Homs and you will receive a good answer, for they are known to the people: this one was martyred here and that one wounded there, at the battles of Saddad and al-Husn and Zara and Kassab and Saydnaya and Maleeha and Maherda and not ending in the Old City of Homs.”

SSNP

While the SSNP does not spout sectarian rhetoric, it goes without saying that Syrian Christians perceived the rebel attacks on the Christian towns of Saddad, Maaloula, Sednaya and Kassab as attacks on their faith group.  One possible interpretation of the SSNP’s vigorous fight against the Syrian opposition is that of a Christian resistance against Sunni Muslim attack.

But there may be an ideological precedent for the SSNP’s role in the Syrian Civil War as well. In Lebanon’s first civil war, the SSNP took up arms on the side of the Chamoun government, in defense of a nation-state it believed should not exist, because other forces were threatening to drag Lebanon into a political union with non-Syrian Egypt. Today, in the face of a rebel movement rife with Islamists and supported by Turkey and the non-Syrian Arab states, the SSNP has again thrown in their lot with a regime they are fundamentally ideologically opposed to. From the 1950s until now, it seems, the SSNP will fight to keep any part of Greater Syria from being absorbed into a pan-Arab or pan-Islamic grouping.

The resurgence of the SSNP deserves much more attention. A wealth of information can be gleaned from the SSNP’s social media outlets alone.

Here I will suggest two possible implications of this resurgence:

1)  For decades, the SSNP’s pan-Syrian ideology was hamstrung by a division of its potential supporters between Lebanese nationalism and Arab nationalism (and later, Islamism). Could it be that the upheaval seen in the Syrian civil war is so great that it will allow for a resuscitation of the SSNP’s program as an ideology of influence in the region?

2)  The Syrian regime’s delegation of responsibility to the SSNP at the battlefront and in administration of “liberated” areas like Homs’ Old City suggest that the “militiafication” of Syria, ably described by Aron Lund on Syria Comment last year, continues apace. The regime is pushing back the opposition using a fragmentary coalition of parties with disparate ideologies and interests—parties that will be in a position to make demands when and if victory ever comes. To the long list of parties in this coalition—including Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderoun, the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, and the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen—we must add the SSNP.