Enraged by the sight of a red “swastika” on a flag in the streets of Beirut in 2009, Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens grabbed a pen and set off to deface the banner, knowing full well it was a political emblem that merely resembled the Nazi symbol. What he didn’t know was that his act of defiance would soon earn him a punch in the face.
The journalist, who succumbed a few years later to pneumonia as a complication of esophageal cancer, came face to fist that day with supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which he not-so-lovingly referred to as a fascist organization in a subsequent article. Since its inception in the 1930s, the SSNP has often, rightly or wrongly, been labeled Nazi-esque by its critics. It has always been “anticolonial, secular and revolutionary,” says Sami Moubayed, founder of the Damascus History Foundation. Once an enemy of the ruling Baath Party — it was outlawed in Syria until 2005 — the SSNP has slowly moved away from the fringes and closer to the mainstream, where some analysts believe it will play an important role in Syrian governance in the years to come.
“They’ve already been defending civilians on the ground, and they’ve become the second most influential party after the Baath Party in Syria.”
An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 SSNP fighters, known as Eagles of the Whirlwind, support the Assad regime by pushing back against Sunni rebels and jihadists across Syria. The regime’s troops have been so depleted by years of fighting that “they’ve been relying on proxy militias” like the SSNP, says Chris Solomon, a senior political analyst for Global Risk Insights. Grassroots support for the SSNP is strong, especially among Syria’s minority communities, namely Christian sects, Shia and Kurds, who have come to rely on the party’s fighters to protect them from Sunni rebels. SSNP militia ingratiate themselves by dying to protect these communities, so much so that a lot of them “view [the SSNP] as an alternative to the Baath Party,” Solomon says, which has been “letting them down.”
On the political front, SSNP chief Ali Haidar serves as Assad’s State Minister for National Reconciliation Affairs, a prime position for setting the tone for the country’s future. “They’ve already been defending civilians on the ground, and they’ve become the second most influential party after the Baath Party in Syria,” Solomon says. Based mainly in Lebanon for decades — hence the presence of the flag that offended Hitchens — the party has a lot of contacts in Beirut who “would still support them from within the Lebanese government,” Solomon adds, noting that the SSNP also gets along with Hezbollah and draws support even from Moscow.
Moubayed agrees that the SSNP will play an important role in Syria. The Baath Party’s call for Arab unity, he says, died when the Arab world was carved into nation states after World War II. Freedom cries, meanwhile, have fallen on deaf ears since the occupation of Iraq and amid the mayhem of Syria, Libya and Yemen. The regime seems to be “going nowhere,” Moubayed admits, but it needs new ways of reaching out to the people. “[Baathists] will have to rely on a trusted and nationalistic party to reach grassroots Syrians, and only the SSNP has the clout to do that,” he says.
While indeed nationalist — the SSNP has uniforms, salutes and dreams of a Greater Syria encompassing Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan and Palestine — “no one’s really sure whether they’re right wing or left wing,” Solomon says. They’ve sounded more left wing in recent years, but they still talk of an expansionist vision. But for now they are using the Syrian civil war and possibly their involvement in the Syrian government, Solomon explains, to “open new opportunities in the event of any kind of political transition.” The party faithful deny that they’re fascists; while known for being anti-Zionist, the SSNP prides itself on welcoming all Syrians. It upholds Syrian nationalism, as opposed to Arab nationalism, and is seen as championing women and minorities.
Not everyone believes the SSNP will gain a foothold in a coalition government. Mona Alami, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, says it’s “a bit too premature to wonder” what a post–civil war Syria will look like because it’s all up for grabs until one side wins. “I do not think the SSNP today is a significant enough player to influence the shape of the new Syria, even if its ally [Assad] ultimately wins,” she says. Moubayed, while acknowledging that the regime needs SSNP support to reach the people, expects the party to gain only a few seats in the Syrian government.
But Solomon is more optimistic about the SSNP’s chances. He sees potential for it to “step into places where the Baath Party might be losing support.” In those cases, if there happen to be free and fair elections, he says, given the party’s rising popularity among minority groups, “you could see the SSNP step into a greater role in the Syrian parliament.” And if Americans orchestrate any sort of political transition? In that case, he says, the U.S. could “see the SSNP as a possible alternative to Assad.”
Whatever the SSNP’s role, Western journalists are advised not to mess with the party’s flag.