Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the War in Syria

 By Jesse J. McDonald

The larger and more influential groups fighting in Syria have garnered much media attention for all the obvious reasons.  However, one organization is sparsely mentioned considering it has existed since 1932[1].  This party is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).  Members do not come from one  religious background (although often portrayed as a Christian organization).  Members are not technically fighting for the Ba’ath party to indefinitely remain in power.  Members are not involved to protect the interest of powerful foreign governments.  Members also are not participating on the conviction of any divine religious mandate.  So what are individuals in the SSNP fighting for in Syria?  In order to grasp the SSNP’s outlook and motivation to join the Syrian conflict one must take a closer diagnosis of the party’s beginning stages as well as its founder.  A full analysis of the SSNP’s history however is beyond the scope of this article since much is widely known.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to provide a brief background in order for the reader to gain a perspective of the party’s views regarding the Syrian nation and how they fit into the current battle.  The preceding section will shed light on their relationship with the Syrian Ba’ath regime followed by some of the SSNP’s recent military activities in Syria and what this could entail looking to the future.

Founded in 1932 by Antoun Saadeh, a Greek Orthodox Christian from just outside Beirut[2], he felt that a long history of subservience to foreign occupation and intellectual and economic decadence had left a population with no direction, no true self -identity and no belief in self-worth.  The SSNP’s ideology is thoroughly secular (their first reform principle calls for the separation of religion and state) so consequently they are not as concerned with various religious affiliations or ethnicities.  The elimination of social barriers between the various sects and creeds is a basic principle of the SSNP.  Saadeh wrote a letter from prison in 1935 emphasizing this point by saying the SSNP is united in a single faith- “Syria for the Syrians.”[3]  National loyalty should surpass and supersede religious and ethnic loyalties and affiliations.  The party therefore, Saadeh wrote, is not based on the principle of xenophobia but on the principle of social nationalism.  This nationalist ideology is based neither on Islam nor on Arabism.  Hence, minority groups in Syria and Lebanon were immediately attracted to their message.

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There are four fundamental pillars to the SSNP’s nation- freedom, duty, organization, and power- which are symbolized by the four pointers on their flag.[4]

Nevertheless, the SSNP found it difficult to gain more power and influence over the years in both Lebanon and Syria.  The death of Antoun Saadeh in 1949 certainly diminished the cogency of the SSNP considering his personality and literary accomplishments created a cult-like following.[5]  This setback is also partially due to its ideological outlook in a region populated predominantly by Arab Muslims and the politicking of nationalism by those ruling in the two abovementioned countries.  Syria in particular has had in the Ba’ath regime not only a competing ideology for the hearts of minorities but also has been more successful at drawing Sunni’s into its orbit.

The SSNP has a long history of opposition to the Ba’ath Party and over the decades has suffered the consequences.  The party was only recently legalized again in 2005 (banned in 1955) under Bashar al-Assad’s “reformation” and integrated into the “National Progressive Front.”  In fact, the leader of the SSNP in Syria- Ali Haidar- is the Syrian Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs.[6]  However, tensions came to a boiling point in 1955 when an SSNP member shot and killed Lieutenant Colonel ‘Adnan al-Maliki, a leading Ba’athist and one of the most powerful officers in the Syrian army.  The killing of al-Maliki created a bitter atmosphere between the two parties and witnessed thousands of SSNP members sent to prison.  One SSNP affiliated Facebook page last November honored those party members who suffered in Syrian jails after the killing of al-Maliki claiming they were falsely accused.  Interestingly, this post first pays respect to Hafez al-Assad and reiterates how Bashar has now strengthened their presence.

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Picture from an SSNP Facebook post praising the Assad’s and honoring those who went to prison after the assassination of al-Maliki. One can clearly notice the pictures of Bashar with SSNP flags

The breaking up of the United Arab Republic (UAR) between Syria and Egypt in 1961 harnessed certain elements of the Syrian Ba’ath regime to focus more on Syria and less on the Arab world.  Those adhering to the latter were pan-Arab nationalists of the old-guard Ba’ath leadership under Michel Aflaq, while those in the former, placing an emphasis on Syria, became known as regionalists (Neo-Ba’ath).  The Assad’s fall into the regionalist camp-an important point when analyzing the close cooperation currently displayed between Bashar’s government and the SSNP.  Such close support is not surprising considering both parties offer a similar set of attractions to roughly the same constituency.  In particular, secularism, which attracts minorities but also appeals to pockets of upper class elites (in this case the Sunni merchant class).

Although the SSNP’s ideology of “Greater Syria” and the Ba’athist outlook on pan-Arabism clashed, the two sides also intimately worked together at times.  Asaad Harden, who is the leader of the SSNP in Lebanon, stated at a conference in 2008 honoring his new leadership position the following, “Our party has found in Damascus the beating heart of the nation…we call on all great Lebanese to realize the truth of the positive role of Syria in preserving Lebanese unity and Arabism.”[7]  In addition, leader of the SSNP in Homs, Nouhad Samaan recently said, “In response to the current high tide of sectarian intolerance, our party decided to cooperate with the (Syrian) government.”[8]  Closer cooperation materialized significantly when both parties softened the tone of their messages.  The SSNP found it useful to ease their criticism of Arabism while the Ba’ath party embraced Syrian nationalism more at the expense of the larger Arab world.  One clear example addressing this originates from an early SSNP pamphlet written by Saadeh stating, “Those who believe that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party seeks Syria’s withdrawal from the Arab world, because they do not distinguish between Syrian national awakening and the pan-Arab cause, are grossly mistaken.  We shall never relinquish our position in the Arab world, nor our mission to the Arab world.”[9]  For now, differences have not gotten in the way of their similarities, even if tentative at times, and this is in large part due to the so-called Islamic State’s advances.  Which brings us to today.

The threats posed by jihadists in Syria strikes at the SSNP’s ideological core.  Any attempts to fracture, divide, or invade the nation will be met with deep hostility from the organization.  Jihadists and their foreign backers are the antithesis of what the SSNP’s vision of an independent Syria represents.  Syrians are suddenly being gathered together by religious affiliations or ethnic groups.  On top of this one can further split depending on which end of the spectrum their religious zeal swings.  Foreigners are beholden to their home countries or wealthy donors.  Ultimately, in the eyes of the SSNP, identity is lost.  In Antoun Saadeh’s first major policy address delivered to members of the SSNP he said, “Every member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party feels that he is being liberated from foreign hegemony and external dominating factors.”[10]  Consequently, the SSNP once again finds itself fighting alongside the Assad government to confront what they view as an existential threat to the unity of Syria and the Syrian people.  For the leaders of the SSNP, the emphasis was on the nation (Syria) and her independence.  Hence their slogan- “survival of the nation.”

The SSNP is no stranger to armed conflicts.  The party was very active during the Lebanese civil war and in addition to fighting the Phalangists on behalf of the Assad government[11], SSNP fighters also engaged Israeli troops stationed in Lebanon with deadly suicide missions.  This may come as a surprise considering many might not associate suicide bombings with secular (in the SSNP’s case also largely Christian) organizations.  However, the SSNP claimed responsibility for eight of the eighteen suicide bombings directed against Israel in southern Lebanon between March and November 1985.[12]  In fact, a young SSNP woman from southern Lebanon is considered to be the first female suicide bomber in the region.  On April 9, 1985, Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”) was 17 years old when she willingly drove her vehicle towards Israeli troops stationed in southern Lebanon.  At least two Israeli soldiers were killed.  Sana’a recorded her own video before the bombing asking, “All young women and my youth to join the ranks of the national resistance because they alone are able to expel the enemy from our land…”  She concluded by saying, “I am going to a greater future, to the unspeakable happiness.”[13]

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Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”)

Following the Lebanese civil war the SSNP’s military activities significantly abated.  As a result, the group in both Lebanon and Syria witnessed a bit of a lull in its popularity and relevance.  However, the Syrian civil war has rejuvenated the organization both in terms of its military prowess and in its propaganda encountering fewer restrictions.  More Syrians are exposed to the vast amounts of literature from SSNP websites that otherwise may have been confined had the fighting not escalated.  Seemingly symbolic, the SSNP nevertheless had a handful of fighters participating in battles with the Syrian army and National Defense Forces (NDF) during the nascent stages of the war.  It was not until mid to late 2014 however when the SSNP clearly played more of a direct role.  This is especially noticeable from social media sites paying homage to their martyrs killed in battle.  Steadfast in their rejection of the Free Syrian Army and jihadists groups- SSNP members found themselves more involved along the front lines especially around the time Syria experienced an explosion of foreign fighters.  Aligning with the Ba’athists has proven favorable, even if just for the time being, as SSNP fighters are handsomely supplied with weapons and support.

During the past several years the SSNP has become more of an organized fighting force while simultaneously growing in popularity.  The armed wing of the SSNP is Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind) which more or less guarantees security in several towns of Syria after rebels were expelled.  The Assad regime is simply too overstretched and undermanned to govern every city once rebels lose control.  Outsourcing security to other groups with a significant support base has been a tactic used by the regime.  However, such distance may prove costly as those taking advantage, in this case the SSNP, continue to gain power and supporters.

Side by side with the Syrian army, the SSNP has benefited tremendously in the last two years by engaging in more battles against a seasoned enemy.  This particularly holds true in northern Latakia countryside; in the countryside of Homs province near the town of Sadad; as-Suweida province in southwestern Syria close to the Jordanian border; Dara’a province also in southwestern Syria; Damascus countryside (notably in Douma and Ghouta); and around the city of Mahardeh in the countryside of Hama province.  It is reported members are even governing in the old city of Homs.[14]  Such close coordination with the Syrian army also puts them into close contact with Hezballah where the alliance carries into neighboring Lebanon.[15]

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Nusur al-Zawba’a emblem

Most recently they have been very active in the mountainous regions of northern Latakia.  The Assad regime is seeking to secure victories close to their Alawite strongholds while driving an array of jihadists and Islamists groups further away from their supply arteries.  The following fronts are several locations SSNP fighters are stationed in northern Latakia: Jabal al- Turkman; Jabal al-Akrad; Salma and Ghamam and also Deir Hanna.   This strategic launching area for operations adjoins the Turkish border and provides supply routes for Jabhat al-Nusra, Chechens and Turkmen factions.  Additionally, control of this area blocks future advances into Latakia countryside while opening corridors into Idlib province.

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Fighters in Deir Hanna- northern Latakia province. Posted on their social media outlets on 11.17.15

Just south of Latakia in northern Hama province lies an active district with a significant SSNP presence.  Sahl al-Ghab is one such area.  Hotly contested, this plain runs alongside the western coastal mountains as well as being in close proximity to the provincial capital of Hama city.  Controlling the al-Ghab plains creates a buffer zone which is paramount to securing the coastal areas while potentially penetrating into Idlib province not far from the city of Jisr al-Shughur.  Near the al-Ghab plains are the towns of Mahardeh and as-Suqaylabiyah- both Syriac Christian towns located in the northern Hama countryside with a heavy contingent of SSNP fighters.  Situated along one of the front lines to push al-Qaeda aligned jihadists and other Islamists groups further north, both towns are teeming with violent actors and intense battles.  The SSNP has been influential keeping Mahardeh and as-Suqaylabiyah in the overall grasp of the Syrian army. Several hundred SSNP fighters (mostly locals) are on the front lines in or around both towns.

 Further south, in the countryside of Homs province sits the town of Sadad, which is also a popular front for SSNP fighters.  Inhabited primarily by Syriacs as well, Sadad has been in the spotlight several times due to attacks by al-Qaeda and their allies in addition to the so-called Islamic State.  Opposition fighters and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front first captured Sadad from October 21-28 in 2013.  Human Rights Watch described at the time how 46 Syriacs were killed, some dumped in a well, and churches vandalized.  Forty-one of the dead were civilians including fourteen women and two children.[16]  The Syrian army eventually was able to push these groups out of Sadad after intense clashes.  Two years later at the end of October/ beginning of November 2015, the so-called Islamic State descended upon Sadad after capturing the nearby town of Muheen.  However, locals with help from the Syrian army, in addition to 500 Syriac Christian fighters, including 200 from the SSNP and 200 more Syriac fighters from the Qamishli-based Sootoro militia were able to block any further advancement.[17]  This act of utilizing Sootoro members on a different front outside their sphere of influence was unprecedented in the Syrian conflict.  Considering fighters were transported to Sadad from al-Qamishli in north eastern Syria, via a Russian cargo plane, to defend the town showcased a new level of coordination and cooperation.[18]   

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Fighters with Sootoro in Sadad helping with the defense.  Notice the ‘Gozarto Protection Forces’(GPF) flag on the right which is a combination from another Syriac group- Khabour Guards.  Their flag is similar to the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) based in northern Iraq.

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Sootoro fighters from al-Qamishli in north eastern Syria on their way to Sadad

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More extraordinary was the visit by Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who travelled to Sadad to visit the fighters, attend a funeral, and boost morale as this town is one of the last remaining Syriac towns to hold out against the vast array of rebel and jihadi groups.  Ultimately the SSNP and their allies were successful in beating back the so-called Islamic State.

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Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, visiting fighters in Sadad.

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Christian SSNP fighter from Sadad killed in the nearby town of Muheen

Despite the fact these two cities mentioned above are almost exclusively inhabited by Syriac Christians does not take away from the actuality that members of all faiths find the SSNP attractive and consequently have died fighting for the organization.  Amidst the battle for Sadad several Muslim SSNP members lost their lives fighting not for a Christian city, but in SSNP methodology, a Syrian city.  Fighters of all faiths have been deployed throughout many regions in Syria (as previously mentioned) despite the religious component of a particular city.  Pictured below are a few Muslim SSNP fighters who lost their lives within the last year including two who were killed alongside Christian fighters in or around the town of Sadad.    

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Mohamed Taamer Raslan killed on 11.2.15 near Muheen and Sadad

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Anas Hussein al-Ahmed killed on 11.5.15 near Muheen and Sadad

Important to point out here that in the battle which Anas Hussein (pictured above) was killed, another Muslim as well as a Christian fighter were killed as well.  This is a small sample of Muslims and Christians fighting together regardless if a town has a certain religious element.

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Ahmed Hajj Mahmoud killed on 4.20.16 in Latakia countryside

It is no secret minority groups historically have been drawn to the SSNP’s secularism and inclusive culture of not emphasizing ethnicity or religion.  However, more recently its armed wing (Nusur al-Zawba’a) has been portrayed as a means for the Assad government to pull more Christians into the fight on the side of the Syrian army.  It is interesting to note here that when pro-government media outlets report on the various groups fighting alongside the Syrian army the SSNP is always listed separately from the National Defense Forces (NDF).  Christians in Syria have been extremely hesitant to join the Syrian army or NDF and fight in remote areas far from their ancestral roots.  The popularity of the SSNP on the other hand is allowing many people to join a force where they can exclusively protect their land somewhat independently from the decision makers in Damascus.  We will have to wait and see how this plays out.

Ultimately, the SSNP’s ideology is at odds with the pan-Arab Ba’ath regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The question is not about ideological disagreements at the moment, but rather, how long this marriage of convenience will last.  A Facebook post commemorating the SSNP’s 83rd anniversary (occurred on November 16, 2015) states how they are fighting with the Syrian regime in order to defend their civilization, land, cultural identity, and freedom.[19]  In remarks stated by Daniel Pipes over twenty seven years ago, bearing similarities to their current relationship, he determined that the SSNP’s close alliance with the Assad (Hafez) regime will ultimately not be a platform for future growth.   He went on to further say, “The potential danger was clear; by agreeing to work so closely with Syria’s rulers, the party forfeited the strength that made it an important force over the decades- its visionary politics and fierce independence.  Asad’s success in dictating terms restricted the SSNP’s capacity for autonomous action.  If money and arms from Damascus allowed the SSNP to flourish temporarily, absorption by a police state rendered its future bleak.  Alliance with Damascus contained the likely seeds of the SSNP’s demise.”[20]  The outbreak of the Syrian civil war somewhat muddies the comparison to today simply because neither Assad nor the Ba’ath party can exert quite the same pressures.  After all, their number one priority is survival.  Judging by the amount of propaganda pouring out of SSNP portals boasting about their popularity the future appears bright (at least for the short term).  New recruits sickened by the sheer amount of killing in the name of religion have found the SSNP’s inclusiveness comforting.  In addition, a sense of alienation precipitated by the fighting seems to have fostered a new appreciation (especially the younger generation) for the SSNP’s vision of a “Greater Syria.” Interestingly, many fighters who have died in battle only recently joined the party.  The SSNP’s reputation is clearly resonating but for the time being they are still too reliant on and attached to the Ba’ath party.  However, for many this is also a long term project and what seems certain is that the SSNP will experience a level of independence not seen in decades.

*Jesse J. McDonald is an independent researcher with a background in Middle East Studies.  He spent two years in Cairo and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Footnotes

[1] Saadeh and several of his lieutenants were apprehended on November 16, 1935.  The founding of the party took place in the fall of 1932, but without a specific date, the 16th of November was subsequently adopted by the SSNP as its founding day.

[2] Antoun Saadeh was born on March 1, 1904 in the town of Shweir which is a district of Mt. Lebanon.

[3] Antoun Saadeh, “What Motivated me to Establish the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” SSNP.com.   Note: This letter was written by Saadeh during his first imprisonment in 1935.

[4] There were initially two designs put forward to Saadeh- the current one with four points and another one with three points. The idea being that a slogan displaying three points would avoid similarities with the Nazi emblem.  Saadeh chose the one with four denying there was any similarity.  The SSNP emblem shown above is a convergence of a straight line and semicircular meeting together (some argue a cross and a crescent).

[5] On July 7, 1949, Syrian dictator Husni al-Za’im betrayed Saadeh and delivered him to the Lebanese authorities who tried and executed him within 24 hours.

[6] In 2012, the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) designated Ali Haidar to their Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.

[7] “Asaad Harden assumes SSNP’s reins,” The Daily Star, June 04, 2008.

[8] John Eibner, “Footnotes on the SSNP-Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs,” Syria Comment, January 02, 2015.

[9] Dr. Haytham A. Kader, “Ideology,” SSNP.com

[10] This speech was given on June 1, 1935

[11] Habib al-Shartuni, the man arrested for killing President-Elect Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon in September 1982, was a member of the SSNP.

[12] Daniel Pipes, “Radical Politics and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, August 1988.

[13] Latakia SSNP Facebook post on November 22, 2015.

[14] [14] John Eibner, “Footnotes on the SSNP-Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs,” Syria Comment, January 02, 2015.

[15] The two parties are in the March 8 Alliance (SSNP has two seats out of 128 in the Lebanese parliament).

[16] “Syria: Opposition Abuses During Ground Offensive,” Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2013.

[17] Jack Moore, “Hundreds of Christian Fighters Scramble to Defend Syrian Town as ISIS Advance,” Newsweek, November 10, 2015.

[18] The Sootoro is a Christian self-defense group located primarily in the north eastern Syrian city of Qamishli.  Sootoro members fight on the side of the Syrian army and is not to be confused with the Hasaka based Sutoro which is the armed wing of the Syriac Union Party (SUP).  Sutoro’s more military wing is the Syriac Military Council (MFS) and fights alongside the Kurdish YPG.

[19] SSNP FanPage Facebook post on November 16, 2015.

[20] Daniel Pipes, “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, (Page 129).

 

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