The SSNP ‘Hurricane’ in the Syrian Conflict: Syria and South Lebanon Are the Same Battlefield
For the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), little has changed over the past few decades. Zahar Abi Assaf, who hails from Suweida, and Khaled al-Azraq and Mohammed Qanaa from Aleppo, and countless other Syrians were killed in action in South Lebanon in the 1980s fighting the Israeli occupation. A few weeks ago, Mohammed Awad, who hails from Almat in the Jbeil district of Lebanon, was killed fighting in Homs, almost 30 years later, in what many SSNP members believe is the same “trench and battlefield” as South Lebanon.
SSNP members in Lebanon see themselves as directly concerned with the conflict in Syria. For them, the Syrian army and President Bashar al-Assad best represent their choices and attitudes, whether in politics or ideology.
In effect, this is nothing new. To be sure, the strategic alliance between the SSNP leadership and the late President Hafez al-Assad had been forged in the late 1970s. Though throughout their alliance in Lebanon during the war and after, many SSNP members felt unfairly harassed by Syrian security services on Syrian soil, this has slowly receded under Bashar al-Assad.
Today, SSNP members no longer conceal their involvement in the Syrian conflict. It is their battle, they believe, more than it is the battle of most other factions, as it involves the “fertile crescent” - or Greater Syria - that they have long advocated.
In truth, Antoun Saadeh, founder of the party, was among the first to warn against the danger of Wahhabism and the risk it poses to the Levant. In one of his essays, Saadeh wrote, “The movement led by Ibn Saud carries a political threat to Syria. One of the paradoxes of this political call, which has a religious guise, is that it attempts to portray the Wahhabi movement, which takes Mohammedism [i.e. Islam] back to the simple and limited nomadic Arab interpretation, as a movement for religious reform.”
Anyone crossing Maqdisi Street off Hamra Street in Beirut these days will notice the SSNP’s new posters, depicting the party’s red hurricane logo, quotes from Saadeh, and portraits of SSNP members who have died recently in battles alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah.
“This war has been pretty much imposed on Syria,” said Bashar al-Yazigi, head of the SSNP political bureau in Syria. In the view of SSNP members, the armed terrorist groups are implementing an Israeli-American agenda. They say, “The Americans admit they are arming and training them in Jordan and Turkey, while Israel has given medical assistance to hundreds of wounded terrorists, and supplied them with information.”
The SSNP in Lebanon had previously refrained from publicly admitting this role for several reasons, including avoiding incitement against and targeting of SSNP members in Lebanon and Syria, and maintaining secrecy as long as possible, according to sources in Beirut familiar with the party’s military activities. However, the expanding scope of the battles, and the fact that SSNP fighters are present in many areas now, has made going public inevitable, especially since a number of Lebanese SSNP fighters have been killed.
Since the start of the unrest in Syria, no SSNP members participated in anti-regime demonstrations, with the exception of a few who belong to the SSNP faction led by Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar. On the contrary, they went out in counter-demonstrations, raising Syrian flags, both in and outside Syria, and held civilian events in support of the Syrian government and the army. Today, they profess these attitudes publicly.
“The SSNP’s alignment on the side of President Assad and the Syrian army is natural,” Yazigi said, and added, “It is not logical for the Nationalists [SSNP members] to be on side of a ‘revolution’ that raises the flag of the French mandate, when their party was founded to fight the latter and had sacrificed martyrs in the battle against it.”
The Targeting of SSNP Members
The armed groups did not spare SSNP members, cadres, and their families from harassment. Safwan Salman, vice chairperson of the party in Damascus, said, “Our belief is an open, progressive idea. The party is present in every village and city in Syria, and in every religion and sect, but their belief is exclusionary and backward,” in reference to the Syrian opposition.
He continued, “The foreign-backed opposition is seeking to create sharp sectarian rifts and fragment Syrian society, and therefore, our party is a threat. Our party is a civil movement that transcends sects, combats extremism, and penetrates into all segments of the Syrian people.”
In the Idlib governorate, for example, the SSNP stepped up its presence in the years leading up to the crisis. However, the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the governorate rendered a showdown with the SSNP inevitable.
Soon, Dr. Samir Qanatri, SSNP general coordinator in Idlib and the head of the Pharmacists Syndicate in Syria, was assassinated inside his pharmacy in August 2011. This was followed by a systematic campaign to drive out SSNP supporters from the governorate countryside.
Many SSNP members fled to the city, while others moved to Suweida and Damascus. In addition, SSNP members were kidnapped and executed. Safwan explained, “The assassination of Qanatri is the first assassination of a political figure. The martyr was targeted because of his role in helping the displaced that had fled to Turkish camps return, and in mediation with the government to secure the release of detainees and de-escalate the situation in Idlib.”
In Aleppo and its countryside, the militants drove out the Syrian Nationalists early on, seizing their homes and properties, and vandalizing their offices in the districts they took over, a year and a half ago. In Hama, the Syrian Nationalists fled to the city from the countryside, while a number of them went to Silmiyeh, where the SSNP was able to put together armed brigades to fight alongside the army and the National Defense Forces against opposition fighters.
The situation is not much different in Homs and the Damascus countryside. However, the Syrian Nationalists who fled from Homs, the villages surrounding Qusayr, and Qusayr itself have formed militias, and, together with residents, helped defend the villages of the Orontes Basin and liberate the villages of Arjun, Hamidiya, al-Dabaa airport, and some districts of the old city of Homs.
In the northeast, the Syrian Nationalists were driven out from the city of Deir al-Zour. Some fled to Hassakeh, while Syrian Nationalists in Qamishli have kept a low profile as Kurdish fighters took over the city. In the city of Ras al-Ain, the first place that al-Nusra Front militants chose to ransack was the SSNP office.
The SSNP on the Battlefront
Although military sources were reluctant to disclose which areas in particular SSNP fighters are active in, social media pages, including some run by Syrian Nationalists, often post images and news about fighters from the party together with the locations of their operations. This is in addition to the reports published by Syrian opposition sources.
According to reports from multiple sources, SSNP fighters are primarily deployed in the governorates of Homs and Damascus. In the former, they are active in places like the neighborhood of Bab Hood, the villages of Wadi al-Nasara, Krak des Chevaliers, and the towns of Zara and Tal Kalakh, in addition to Qusayr and its countryside in villages like Rableh, Ghassaniyeh, and al-Naem, and eastward in Qalamoun’s villages.
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 and Deir Shirobim.
SSNP fighters are also active in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana and other areas of Ghouta. The SSNP is also present in towns in the Tartous governorate, especially Marmarita and Safita. The SSNP is the most formidable military force in Suweida other than the Syrian army, having intensified over the past few months its activities in the city and the villages of the governorate along the border with Jordan and in hot spots in the governorate of Daraa.