Resurgence of the SSNP in Syria: An Ideological Opponent of the Regime Gets a Boost from the Conflict
Posted by Matthew Barber on Friday, December 19th, 2014
by 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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.