The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) Expansion in Syria
By Jesse McDonald – @JJMcDonald10 – – April 22
What does the future hold for political groups operating in the Syrian theater? The plethora of loyalist militias and whether they fall under the central governments authority is something to monitor. However, there are forces also politically represented who have remained obedient without straying too far outside the regimes orbit. One group in particular developing quite rapidly at the grassroots level is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which the remaining of this article focuses on.
Now, there is a faction of the SSNP which initially joined the opposition, including its leader Ali Haidar, who is currently the Syrian Minister for Reconciliation (an extremely important ministry). This split, known as the intifada bloc, never caused too much of a headache (as evidenced by Ali Haidar’s appointment). In fact, Haidar is quoted as saying he is opposed to a complete break with the regime since that also entails a break with its popular base. As a result, SSNP headquarters in Beirut and Haidar in Damascus seem to have reconciled, an act needed considering they are united on standing with Assad.
This paper will highlight the SSNP’s sudden influence in Syria since the war began, in part due to their relationship with both the Assad regime and Ba’ath Party. It explores the possibility of some form of cohesive partnership between the SSNP and Ba’ath in the years ahead. A partnership generated by the necessity to maintain and hold allies during this delicate phase. Then, showcasing several areas in Syria where the SSNP has flourished will be presented, before ending on the party’s connections to Hezbollah and Russia.
Ironically, one of the characteristics which hurt the SSNP in the past, namely competition with the Ba’ath, may in fact be a great asset looking to the future. The two parties have always been close (going back to the 1940s), but it was the SSNP ultimately banned in Syria from 1955 until 2005. Previous competition stemmed mostly from similarities opposed to outright hostility based on solid discrepancies rooted in their core. Both competed for members who often switched party lines. For lack of a better term, these feuding cousins appear to have sued for peace during Syria’s current turbulent environment. War can bring historical political rivals closer together when allies are desperately needed.
The Assad’s have always been closer to the Syrian nationalism side of their Arabism vision compared to one focused on a traditional Michel Aflaq –type Ba’athism. Additionally, and more importantly, numerous Syrian political groups with initial SSNP leanings eventually merged into the Ba’ath Party. One example being Akram al- Hawrani- a leading figure in Syrian politics and one of the SSNP’s first members. Akram helped found the National Youth Party, becoming its leader in 1939. Negotiations for cooperation with the SSNP failed, so Hawrani turned the National Youth Party into the Arab Socialist Party in January 1950, before merging with the Ba’ath Party in 1953.
Ghassan Jadid, a leading member of the SSNP in the 1940s and 1950s, rose to the position of defense chief for the party in 1954. His brother Salah, first paid his allegiance to the SSNP before switching over to the Ba’ath in the 1950s. Salah Jadid was one of the five members of the secret Military Committee catapulting the Ba’ath to power in Syria. Hafez al-Assad was another one of these five members.
Hafez al- Assad was married to Anisa Makhlouf al-Assad, Bashar’s mother, who was an active member of the SSNP before her marriage to Hafez. Anisa’s brother, Mohammad, was also a member and one of his sons, Rami Makhlouf, recently declared he was a party member in 2013. Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s first-cousin, is considered the wealthiest man in Syria with vast influence over multiple sectors of Syrian society. It goes without saying his addition would be a major boost to the SSNP’s role in the years ahead. A declaration of support by a figure of Rami’s magnitude would have been unfathomable years ago.
BA’ATH / SSNP UNION?
As somewhat touched upon above, such a shift of allegiance is not staggering considering the two parties interests overlap in many ways. Championing secularism, espousing anti- Zionist views, attracting minorities, and passionately defending the integrity of the Syrian nation are a few common attributes that have brought these two closer. Melting together behind a matching vision for Syria, and considering the ease both have targeting similar support networks, enables the SSNP and Ba’ath a certain degree of flexibility to join forces. Any potential ‘merger’ works for the Ba’ath in this regard while simultaneously allowing the SSNP valuable time to attract followers and reestablish themselves in society after fifty years sitting on the sideline. High ranking officials in the Assad / Mahklouf camp have an avenue, by working together more with their SSNP allies, to preserve their status without disrupting any assets or the day-to-day affairs of running the country. A smooth transition could very well occur even if no formal announcement or legal procedure makes it official.
Active in Syria since the 1930s and sharing a long history with the Ba’ath Party puts the SSNP in a unique position. This is a party whose rich literature coupled with an abundance of educational publications available to Syrian’s provides a foundation to cultivate future generations. Entrenched in the political landscape with a structural organization already in place has allowed the party to accelerate their outreach to Syrian communities. Not only is the regime aware of their activities, they actively join in some of the SSNP’s celebrations. Such events include, honoring Syrian soldiers who have died, culture seminars, opening offices and publicly teaching SSNP ideology, which will be explored below. Notwithstanding, Ba’ath Party officials direct participation in these events, exhibits a level of understanding between both parties. Trust is further solidified following years of the regime fighting together with the SSNP’s militia- Eagles of the Whirlwind.
SSNP SPREADS ITS WINGS
Over the last couple years (2014-present), the SSNP has significantly increased its presence throughout Syria, particularly in Homs and Hama, but also in Latakia, Damascus and its suburbs. Their growth in these governorates primarily centers around towns and cities inhabited by minorities but this should not take away from the fact that the party is indeed expanding. Becoming the second largest party in Syria behind only the Ba’ath. It appears the SSNP is able to accomplish this in coordination with the regime, not in spite or because of any rebellion due to regime weakness or inability to act.
The following are several displays of the SSNP’s activities in Syria, beginning in Homs.
The SSNP’s stronghold in Homs is located in the city of Homs’ Old City neighborhood. Here, SSNP members are in full control of certain areas, even conducting security checks and manning checkpoints. Vehicles are checked for bombs by local SSNP men and party celebrations are guarded by armed members. These acts point to confidence in the regime and the local population.
SSNP HOMS FB POST on 3.13.16 OPENING A NEW OFFICE IN THE OLD CITY PART OF HOMS FOR THE FIRST TIME IN OVER 50 YEARS. SSNP LEADER IN HOMS-NIHAD SAMAAN ADDRESSED THE CROWD.
However, such overwhelming freedom from a party banned until as recently as 2005 does not seem to be threatening the regime. The regime is instead delegating authority to a trusted partner who as of now does not challenge Assad or circumvent his authority. In fact, the two parties participate together at speeches, rallies, seminars and anniversary events in the city.
SSNP HOMS FB POST 11.17.17 CELEBRATING WITH THE BA’ATH PARTY ON THE SSNP’s FOUNDING ANNIVERSARY.
The SSNP has a big following in Wadi al-Nasara (‘Valley of the Christians’) in western Homs and also in the towns of Sadad and al-Qaryatayn- members are most likely gelled with NDF or SAA units in these two cities. However, there are indications Sadad is completely controlled by local fighters in the SSNP. Nevertheless, the SSNP’s freedom to operate, often with members of the Ba’ath Party, is quite striking.
In Hama, the SSNP is most visible in the towns of Marhdeh, Suqaylabiyah, and Salamiyah, with fighters participating in battles on the provinces eastern countryside front. Marhdeh and Suqaylabiyah, in northern Hama, have been on the front lines for years and SSNP fighters were with government troops spearheading assaults on rebel positions stationed in adjacent towns (such as Halfaya). The city of Salamiyah (birthplace of Fatimid Caliphate) has witnessed its share of attacks with local Isma’ili men joining the SSNP to defend their town. Consequently, since fighters with the SSNP in these three cities are often locals, as danger recedes, the SSNP is already fairly entrenched to carry out municipal administration. As recently as last November the party opened a radio center in Marhdeh but have had offices serving local needs for a couple years at these three locations.
SSNP Hama FB post on 8.1.17 showing SSNP members handing out candy to Syrian troops in Marhdeh
SSNP Salamiyah FB post on 12.1.17 celebrating the party’s founding anniversary. Syrian Peoples Assembly member and SSNP figure Mazen Azzouz (who was born in Salamiyah) attended along with a member of the Ba’ath Party in Hama.
The SSNP is also very active in the city of Latakia, hosting sporting matches, excursions for the youth, and training seminars. The province of Latakia is an Alawite, and subsequently Assad stronghold, so the SSNP’s activities in this area is something to pay attention to. Lastly, the countryside and suburbs of Damascus with an SSNP presence are the cities of Maaloula, Zabadani and Saidnaya (Eagles Whirlwind fought in all three cities) located outside the capital, with an office also in Damascus. The SSNP’s flag openly waiving in Damascus, even if solely for visual effects, is significant for a party beginning to taste freedom under Bashar’s regime.
SSNP FB POST SHOWING A YOUTH TRAINING FACILITY IN LATAKIA
SSNP DAMASCUS FB POST ON 6.11.17 SHOWING MEMBERS DISTRIBUTING FOOD AS PART OF A SOCIAL WELFARE PROGRAM IN THE CAPITAL
SSNP DAMASCUS FB POST ON 3.22.17 SHOWING MEMBERS IN THE CAPITAL HANDING OUT SWEETS TO PEDESTRIANS ON MOTHERS DAY
The regime forming local committees or delegating security still ensures movements and decisions are under the watchful eye of the central government. Changes, such as conceding room for organizations like the SSNP to maneuver, have been imposed out of necessity. The Assad regime is aware that on their own they will not be enough to guarantee its power. Weapons provided to the SSNP or sensitive decisions ultimately rests with high level regime officials. This might explain why the SSNP is able to: stage rallies; open media centers and headquarters throughout several cities; hold seminars, conduct training sessions in party ideology as well as fitness exercises; hand out leaflets to civilians informing them of the parties message; and organize blood drives for Syrian troops (the list goes on). All of the above suggest regime trust in the SSNP. If Rami Makhlouf is indeed a SSNP comrade, and considering his families history of allegiance to the party, coupled with an overlapping interests between the SSNP and Ba’ath parties, such developments might be an early indicator of a new alliance.
High ranking officials will head to the party which preserves their interests while ambitious individuals with the means will follow in search of prosperity. For decades the Ba’ath was the only option. Consequently, people joined. The situation in Syria might not allow for the Ba’ath to continue as it did before the war. Hence, gravitating, or blending in with various elements of the SSNP could be a viable option to safeguard their status moving forward.
SSNP FB POST SHOWING NEW MEMBERS BEING SWORN IN ON 8.26.17 IN HAMA
Distributing leaflets in Homs city on anniversary of SSNP’s founding FB post 11.17.17
SSNP’s ALLIANCE WITH HEZBOLLAH IN SYRIA
Given Hezbollah’s vital and dominant position in Syria’s war, the organizations link to the SSNP is relevant when analyzing what role the SSNP could play in the years ahead. Upholding a Syrian nationalist attitude, re-establishing control of cities (SSNP fights with SAA and Hezbollah to do this), maintaining and even expanding economic hegemony and not upsetting support coming from Damascus to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon remain priorities for Assad. The SSNP is not, for the moment at least, deemed a threat in the matters mentioned above. There aren’t sweeping reports of looting, violence, or insubordination (plaguing many regime militias) in the areas they have most clout. Perhaps this signals a degree of comfort on the part of the regime to allow SSNP added freedom. Garnering the trust of Hezbollah also certainly helps. Moreover, the SSNP is in a political alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon (March 8th) and the two sides fight together at times in Syria.
SSNP FB POST SHOWING SSNP FLAGS ALONGSIDE HEZBOLLAH’S AND LEBANON’S FLAG
EXAMPLES WHERE THE SSNP & HEZBOLLAH FOUGHT ON THE SAME FRONT IN SYRIA
There are not many independent Syrian forces fighting with the SAA and Hezbollah, certainly not while also representing a political party. Below features several strategic Syrian cities and provinces where Hezbollah and the SSNP fought together. This section is not going to delve into every front or town, but rather, inform the reader on areas of higher interest that witnessed a more sustained presence of fighters. Let’s begin with the historical town of Maaloula near Damascus.
A delegation from SSNP’s leadership presented condolences and congratulations on the death of three reporters from al-Manar crew in Maaloula Syria on March 14, 2014. Asad Hardan was part of this delegation while head of SSNP’s political bureau, Ali Qansu, expressed his condolences on behalf of the SSNP in a statement to al-Manar (showing the strong partnership with such high level representation). It is important to remember that when fighting erupted in Maaloula in 2013, Hezbollah was fighting with the Syrian army and members of the SSNP for control of the ancient Christian town. In September of that same year, allied rebels alongside what was then al-Nusra, briefly took control of a section of Maaloula. However, Hezbollah and their allies mentioned above were able to regain control and drive the rebels out. It was at this time, when residents and media outlets began to investigate what had just occurred, al-Manar’s crew was ambushed and killed. Such instances of cooperation however further strengthen Hezbollah’s and the Assad regime’s argument that they are the protectors of minorities. Bashar paid a visit to Maaloula, where residents still speak Aramaic, the following Easter and Hezbollah has the ability to demonstrate their bodyguard role for Christians in Lebanon as well as in Syria.
Other examples of Hezbollah fighting side by side, or at least in the same town, as the SSNP:
The mountains of Latakia province have been a particularly deadly area for the Eagles of the Whirlwind. The Kurd Mountains (Jabal al-Akrad) and also the towns of Kabani and Kinsaba are several hot spots where members of Hezbollah and the SSNP found themselves fighting on the same front. According to Fars News Agency, in 2016 large number of reinforcements from the provinces of Tartous and Homs were sent to the Northwestern battlefields where many were to replace the Desert Hawks (Liwa Suqour al-Sahra) in Jabal al-Akrad. The SSNP were one of these groups tasked with protecting captured territory. Besides holding territory, SSNP fighters have been very active as part of offensives in the countryside of Latakia over the years.
In addition to fighting with Hezbollah in Latakia countryside, SSNP fighters were also stationed together in the Qalamoun region along the Syria-Lebanon border, primarily in the battle to retake the town of Qaryatayn. The following is from one report out of Fars News Agency: The Syrian army’s 81st and 120th brigades of the 2nd Division- in close coordination with the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP), Dara’a Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield), and Liwa Suqour Al-Sahra (Desert Hawks Brigade)- liberated several sites from ISIL near the strategic city of Quaryatayn in Homs provinces’ Southeastern countryside. Homs province is another part of Syria with a heavy SSNP presence. Speaking with members based in Homs city, the party plays an overwhelming role in security, checking for car bombs, and making sure vital services are running properly.
In 2015 the Syrian army pushed to gain control of the strategic town of Zabadani. According to several media reports, the units involved were from the Syrian army’s 63rd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division, in coordination with Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (NDF), and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). The Eagles Whirlwind were mostly stationed in the eastern sections of Zabadani acting as a bulwark against attempts by forces from the FSA, Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham to infiltrate into the city. While the SSNP’s forces were stationed in the East, Hezbollah alongside the Syrian army, were spearheading the advance in the western sections. Similar to reports coming out of Latakia countryside, indications point to the Eagles of the Whirlwind acting more as protectors of a secured territory as opposed to a force on the front lines of an attack. Perhaps such a maneuver is strategic from the Assad regime or perhaps this simply comes down to a lack of experience / manpower from those fighting under the Eagles emblem.
To close this section, both parties are also present in Hama province. Specifically, in the northern countryside of the province, with the city of Mahrdeh being a focal point. The strategic town sits along a highway connecting the provincial capital and is considered one the largest Christian cities in Syria. There is a definite SSNP presence with a growing local party office, along with a local NDF unit. When offensives were launched from Mahrdeh, particularly on the town of Halfaya, SSNP forces were on the front lines alongside (reports of) Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah’s presence in Mahrdeh was addressed thanks to a letter by a group calling themselves ‘Syrian Christians for Peace.’
Russia’s military intervention certainly changed the dynamics of the war. In addition to conducting airstrikes, Russian generals are stationed on the ground to assist with reconciliation deals. This aspect of the war, local committees engaged in dialogue, as well as peace talks held in Astana and Sochi, witnessed members of the SSNP partner with the Russians. Ali Haidar (mentioned above), leader in the SSNP and long- time oppositionist to the Assad regime, now is Syria’s Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs, inevitably putting him in contact with Russia. It is also highly likely both sides would have interacted due to the Eagles of the Whirlwind and SAA fighting together.
Recently, a delegation composed of three members of the SSNP held talks with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow. The talks zeroed in on the conference in Sochi and Turkey’s military maneuvers near Afrin. Additionally, Ali Haidar has been working more closely with the Hmeimim – based Russian Coordination Center as one team, to boost local reconciliations throughout Syria. He was recently seen with Russian General Victor Bankov from the coordination center meeting members of local reconciliation committees. Moreover, fighters with the Eagles of the Whirlwind have received medals of excellence from the Russian Ministry of Defense. Further evidence of the growing alliance between the SSNP and another power with influence over Syria’s affairs.
SSNP EAGLES OF THE WHIRLWIND MEMBER RECEIVING A RUSSIAN MEDAL OF EXCELLANCE
ANOTHER SSNP FB POST SHOWING AN EAGLES OF THE WHIRLWIND FIGHTER RECEIVING A RUSSIAN MEDAL
Syria is increasingly under the stewardship of a new class of businessmen with ties to the Assad’s and Makhlouf’s. Reconstruction deals favoring these connected individuals will only benefit them at the expense of Syrian citizens. While still operating under the Ba’ath Party guise, it is uncertain how the party will emerge through the scars of war or restructuring due to possible peace deals. Regardless, the SSNP has a deep-rooted history with many of these power brokers, which is worth paying attention to when analyzing the party’s potential cushion in absorbing Ba’ath party officials. Such a scenario might paint a picture of revamping the political establishment, while in reality nothing much would change, at least in the short term.
The SSNP not only has a close relationship with the Assad’s and Mahklouf’s, but also more so recently, with the Ba’ath Party. Meaning, members are familiar with one another’s vision for Syria, which is currently geared around stabilizing the Syrian state and cohesion of Syrian society. The party is also in a position of strength negotiating reconciliation deals with rebels through Ali Haidar’s ministry. Assad relies on Haidar’s (and the SSNP’s) image as opposition figures to appear more neutral during negotiations. Moreover, the party has an active fighting force (Eagles of the Whirlwind), and a long record of political involevement in Syria, helping cement its position in towns across the country. Figuring the parties intimate friendship with Hezbollah (thus factoring in Iran), and now Russia into the equation, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is in a favorable spot during this critical moment of Syria’s history.
–Al-Akhbar. “Hezbollah military investigation reveals who killed Al-Manar TV crew.” http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/19459
-Al-Akhbar. “Syria’s Ali Haidar: Both Sides Have Extremists.” http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/9716
-Fars News Agency. “Hezbollah Hits ISIL’s Military Positions in Lebanon’s Al-Qalamoun Region.” http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13950121000473
-Fars News Agency. “Syria: Thousands of Fresh Recruits Joining Army’s Imminent Operation in Idlib.” http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13941221000333
-McDonald, Jesse. “The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind & Their Emblem.” Syria Comment. www.joshualandis.com/blog/24853-2/
-Pipes, Daniel. “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition.” Page 102.
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-Seale, Patrick. “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.” Page 63.
-Syria Times. “SSNP Politburo Member to ST: Sochi Congress Must be Based on Current Military Developments in Syria.” http://syriatimes.sy/index.php/editorials/opinion/34516-ssnp-politburo-member-to-st-sochi-congress-must-be-based-on-current-military-developments-in-syria
-Syrian Christians for Peace FaceBook post on April 3, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/syrianchristiansforpeace/
-Zaman Al Wasl. https://www.zamanalwsl.net/index.php?url=news/article/47283