The Eagles of the Whirlwind
A militia allied with the Syrian government is gaining ground and popularity. But it’s not just fighting to preserve President Bashar al-Assad’s state — it’s trying to redraw the borders of the Middle East.
SADAD, Syria — Walking through the nearly deserted streets of this ancient Syriac Orthodox town, roughly 35 miles southwest of the city of Homs, Adonis Nasr pointed to the posters plastered along the walls of fighters who died defending the area, describing in detail the role each person played.
“When the Nusra Front came in there was no one around to defend the village except our comrades from the SSNP,” said the 35-year-old media officer, a Lebanese national, in reference to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Nasr, who had a rifle slung over one shoulder and a camera in his other hand, is a member of the SSNP’s military wing known as the Eagles of the Whirlwind. “It was hard,” he said, recounting the battle against the Nusra Front in late 2014. “We found bodies of villagers they slaughtered and dropped in the wells.” The Syrian authorities, he said, had to bring in divers to fish the bodies out.
Sadad, which lies in the Homs desert, is something of a frontier town. Usually known for its wine and arak, an anise-based liquor, its collection of single-story mud homes and low-rise brick buildings have hit the headlines during the war for fending off attacks from both the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and, more recently, the Islamic State. Now the town is relatively secure — in no small part due to SSNP fighters, who played a crucial role in holding down the fort.
Although there has been little coverage of the SSNP — a secular Lebanese-Syrian party and one of the oldest political movements in the modern Middle East — it has been playing an active role both on the battlefield and in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. As a result, it has gone from a relatively unknown group to one of the most popular alternatives to the ruling Baath party in government-controlled areas. Party officials say there are approximately 8,000 fighters belonging to the group fighting across Syria, whereas the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the figure closer to 6,000.
Nasr stopped walking and paused in front of the poster of Alaa Noon. The 18-year-old Lebanese from Hawek — a village on the Lebanese-Syrian border — joined the party when he was a mere 12 years old. He began fighting at the age of 16. One of the first to carry a weapon against militants in the countryside of Qusayr, a city in western Syria not far from his hometown, Noon started to request deployments with the party to other front lines, eventually ending up in Sadad in 2014 to fight against the Nusra Front. He was killed by a Kornet missile, which hit the militarized pickup he and his comrades were operating inside the village.
“It took two years for the SSNP to retrieve his body,” said Nasr, who had attended Noon’s funeral in Hawek two days earlier. “They found his bones in an orchard and identified him by the metal plate he had in his shoulder from an old operation.”
Two weeks after attending Noon’s funeral, and just 10 days after our walk through Sadad, Nasr was also killed. On Feb. 19, he, along with four comrades, were hit by a missile in the Latakia countryside after capturing the village of Kansaba from rebel groups.
SSNP officials connected his death to the military support given by the United States and Turkey to opposition groups fighting in the area.
“He was killed by an American TOW missile as he was taking photos of Turkish ammunition and equipment in the area left behind by the militants,” said an SSNP commander fighting in Latakia.
A veteran member of the SSNP — he joined when he was 16 years old in the late 1990s — Nasr knew Syria and the SSNP cadres almost better than anyone, regularly leaving his home in Choueifat, in south Beirut, to travel across the war-torn country in order to record videos and document the actions of the party. As the man behind the SSNP’s “martyrdom” videos, he recorded the fighters as they recited the words they wanted to be remembered by, coaxing the ones who stumbled across their lines.
“It’s not that they’re afraid of death; none of us are afraid to die. We all believe in what we’re doing,” he said. Rather, “it pains them to record something like this knowing that at some point their families would have to watch them.”
Thousands of mourners from Syria and Lebanon — including party members, fighters, and political officials — attended his funeral in Beirut. The event was a small indication, not just of how integral the party has been in the ongoing war in Syria, but of how much it has grown in popularity. As a result of its reputation as an effective fighting force in Syria, party officials say its membership has increased “by the thousands” since the start of the war.
The SSNP, which was created in 1932 by Lebanese intellectual Antoun Saadeh, says it is fighting for the future of Syria — but its conception of the country goes far beyond the state that colonial powers carved into existence following World War I. Saadeh’s notion of Greater Syria — which encompasses modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, as well as parts of Turkey and Iran — was attractive to those unconvinced by Arab nationalism. For SSNP members, Arab nationalism is seen as an ideology heavily rooted in Arab Sunni culture, which in itself excludes a significant section of society.
While many consider the SSNP to be a party for the minorities, party officials say the movement includes people of all sects, including Sunni Arabs.
“It is not a party of minorities, but a party for all Syrians, because it is built on Syrian nationalism, not on sects or ethnicity or language,” said Nasr. “We have Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Sunnis, Druze, Shiites. Everything.”
As the SSNP rose in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, rival parties, such as the communists, began comparing the movement’s ideology and symbolism with Nazism in hopes of scaring people away from the party. Yet party members deny these accusations, explaining the group’s logo is actually based on a combination of the Christian cross and Islamic crescent, as well as an ancient Syrian logo found in Samara dating back over 5,000 years.
“The Nazi party is a racist party because, among other things, it was based on the Aryan race, and they looked at others as lesser citizens,” said one source within the party. “The SSNP is the opposite, as it completely rejects the notion of race, and works towards making every citizen equal. The party is anti-racist, anti-sectarian and anti-discrimination.”
The SSNP has always been involved in military activities throughout its history, starting with attacks on Jewish militias in Palestine in 1936. It maintained a tumultuous relationship with the Syrian and Lebanese states, forcing it to operate secretly for several decades across the two countries.
Under President Hafez al-Assad, the SSNP was seen as a threat to the Arab nationalism of his rival Baath Party, and all but banned — even as it was allowed to operate almost as an arm to the Syrian state inside Lebanon. It was only after Bashar al-Assad came to power that the party officially was allowed to participate in the political arena, in an attempt to allow a limited form of political activity.
Today, the SSNP is a strong ally of Hezbollah. When clashes erupted between the party and its domestic rivals in May 2008, it dispatched its cadres to fight alongside Hezbollah on the streets of Beirut and in the north. According to party sources, the SSNP viewed the struggle “as a war on the resistance [against Israel], and so it was our duty to participate and protect the resistance.”
In Syria today, the SSNP sees the war as an attempt to partition Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon along ethno-sectarian lines. “What is happening now in Syria is worse than what [Mark] Sykes and [Francois-Georges] Picot did when they divided the region,” said a military source within the party. “Our fight there is to keep Syria whole, and more and more people are coming to understand our point of view.”
For the SSNP, Greater Syria is not just an abstract concept — it’s a particular culture. It has its own “national holidays,” its own national anthem, and party members greet one another with a salute and chant of “Long live Syria!” Its youth camps and workshops center around promoting secularism, and a way of life that encourages people to view themselves as Syrian first.
New members describe the all-encompassing worldview as one of the party’s major selling points.
“When someone joins, we teach them to leave everything behind that causes discrimination in society,” said Maha Saeed, a new member from Homs governorate. “We work hard on changing people from within, because this makes a better society.”
“For us, when you have protesters coming out of mosques instead of universities, it is not a genuine revolution,” said Hassan Sakr, head of the SSNP’s foreign affairs department. “We think the war in Syria is not a struggle between the government and the opposition, but rather a war on Syria itself to divide the country and taking it back to the Dark Ages.”
Today, the SSNP can be found fighting on the front lines across Syria. The Eagles of the Whirlwind, its military wing, has sent hundreds of fighters to each of the provinces of Homs, Latakia, Damascus, Suwayda, Hama, Quneitra, and Daraa.
With weaponry provided by the Syrian army, SSNP fighters today receive military training from the Syrians, Russians, and Hezbollah, according to party fighters. Although Lebanese SSNP fighters are among their ranks, their proportion within the group’s total fighting force has decreased steadily as more Syrians sign up, said Lebanese and Syrian SSNP sources.
In one of the party’s headquarters, on the edge of the destroyed old city of Homs, cadres and party members alike wander in and out. Inside, the walls — like in all party offices — are adorned with posters of Antoun Saadeh, the map of Greater Syria, and fighters who have been killed in the battles.
Sitting in one of the rooms are two relatively new Syrian members, Majd, a Sunni from the northern governorate of Idlib, and Ahmad, an Alawite from Latakia.
“I didn’t really know much about the party before the war, because like everyone, everything around us was about the Baath Party,” said Ahmad, who joined approximately six months ago. He saw the party as an antidote to the rising sectarianism that was tearing the country apart. “When the war started, it became clear people were looking at religion more as an identity rather than a belief, and this is destructive.”
“I am from Syria, and therefore I am Syrian first,” he said. “This is what the SSNP represents and is trying to push in society.”
Majd, who fled Idlib with his family in 2013 after the Nusra Front took over his hometown of Salqin, joined the SSNP in 2014. “This crisis has produced a new reality, and people are realizing that the Baath idea of Arabism has collapsed,” he said. “Arabism has shown that Syrians only have the Syrians, and that they have been abandoned by the Arabs.”
One commander from Homs, a 26-year-old nicknamed “The Russian” because of his mixed Syrian-Russian heritage, joined the discussion. He, too, joined the party in the past four years, soon after the war started.
“I started as a neighborhood fighter protecting the area against attacks from armed groups” in old Homs city, he said. “I joined because I believe in what the SSNP represents; that it wants to keep Syria whole.”
“The SSNP is not about going out to fight and then just going home,” he said. “It’s an entire lifestyle and attitude towards making the Syrian society better.”
The SSNP’s growing popularity in Syria has been won the hard way — on the front lines of the country’s bloody war.
On an overcast day in the town of Suqaylabiyah, on the outskirts of Sahl al-Ghab, a crucial front line that connects Hama to opposition-controlled Idlib, Nasr and veteran SSNP fighters stood atop a deserted building that had been turned into an SSNP outpost. They were discussing the latest military maneuvers.
Four years ago, the town became one of the war’s front lines, and SSNP fighters, along with other local forces, took a leading role in organizing the town’s defenses. Since then, residents have endured several thousand rocket and mortar attacks from fighters belonging to the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, who are positioned in nearby villages. The damage is most visible on the town’s outskirts, where low-slung buildings have broken balconies and caved-in roofs. Burned-out cars are scattered along roadsides.
The militants wanted to take Suqaylabiyah, said 36-year-old Elias, a local fighter for the SSNP, because it is an important junction between the city of Hama and the government’s strongholds along the Mediterranean coast. During the first wave of attacks, the SSNP and other pro-government militias were the town’s only line of defense, because the Syrian army was occupied with battles in other parts of the country.
“The Syrian army was not around at the time, so it was up to us,” he said, in between intermittent rounds of gunfire from a nearby 23mm anti-aircraft gun.
Their presence, he said, had endeared locals to the party.
“Before the war they used to be scared of the party because it was kind of secret, and they didn’t want problems with the government,” he continued. “As the war progressed and they saw that we acted respectfully in comparison to other pro-government groups, they started to be more interested in who we are and what we represent.”
The SSNP has also flourished in Salamiyeh, a town in Hama’s countryside that is home to Syria’s Ismaili population, a branch of Shiite Islam. The party has opened up several more offices there since 2011, as the town has served as a focal point for the militants due to the fact that it is the government’s main supply route to Aleppo. Today, Nusra Front fighters are positioned to the west of the town, while Islamic State fighters are positioned to the east.
Every evening at 5:30, the main roads leading out of the town are blocked by the army preventing anyone from entering or leaving, a security measure taken after a series of fatal attacks on the roads by militants. Several checkpoints have been installed at the town entrances — some manned by the army, others by groups like the SSNP.
For the past two months, the town has been without water or electricity, cut off at the mains by the militants in the neighboring areas. Today, they are lucky if they get two hours of consecutive power a day. Water is tanked in from other cities, but it is not enough to supply the 220,000 residents.
As one of the more popular local forces, the SSNP is now one of the main parties involved in negotiating the return of water to the town from the militants. “We’re trying to tell them that if they return the water, we can convince the army to halt their military operations against them,” said one of the SSNP men involved in the negotiations. The Nusra Front and elements of the Free Syrian Army control the water supply. “The government is including us in the negotiations, because it needs all the local and civil efforts to help alleviate the situation.”
The rise of the SSNP among Syrians in government-controlled areas is the result of a combination of factors, including the rising sectarian tones of the war, the demise of the Baath Party, the failure of Arab nationalism, and the increasing distrust toward other pro-government militias.
The SSNP serves as a useful ally for the government, but it is unclear if it will still be seen as useful later. As the Baath Party’s staunch Arab nationalist rhetoric seems more and more outdated, the party has the potential to pose a legitimate threat to its power base in the coming years.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, says that in Syria, “today the idea of Greater Syria is back.”
He described the SSNP as an outlet for minorities who consider the dream of pan-Arabism to have ended in failure. “Everything that is being chanted now is that Syria is not Arab, and they see that the Arabs are trying to screw them and flying the black flag of Islam,” says Landis.
That is not to say that everyone is convinced by the ideology of the SSNP. Some residents in Damascus and Aleppo admitted not knowing a lot about the party due to its incredibly secretive role before the war; others consider it to be heavily inspired by the wave of fascism that spread across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.
“I have heard about the SSNP before the war, and I know that were banned about 10 years ago,” said Hashem, a resident of Aleppo. “I view the SSNP as a fascist Arab-Islamophobic party. And from what I’ve heard its nationalist ideology relies heavily on the Nazi party; with its name and with its flag.”
Walid, a resident of Latakia, said that many still think its goal of creating a Greater Syria remains a pipe dream. “People like the SSNP because it’s new to the political process, and because their activities make you feel like you’re doing something for the society,” he said. “But many Baathists mock the SSNP for trying to unite an area that is impossible to be united.”
For now, the party is taking on a larger role in Syria’s official political system: It will have 30 candidates running in the parliamentary elections in April, a significant increase from previous elections. Along with this growth has come questions about what role it will play in the future of Syria, especially if the ruling Baath Party considers its expansion a threat to its power base.
Back in Beirut, Sakr emphasizes that the party’s ambitions do not include seeking power in a post-war Syria. He argued that “society is not ready for our ideology right now,” and that the party lacks the infrastructure to rule the country.
“Our sole purpose is to create a renaissance in Syria and bring the people towards secularism, civic education, and equality between citizens.”
Greater Syria may be the SSNP’s final goal, but right now it is focused on gaining a foothold in the modern, circumscribed version of the nation. And as the calls for partitioning Syria — by both its allies and its foes — become louder, the party increasingly sees its role as an existential battle. Whether the party has a chance to implement its vision of a “renaissance” now depends on the battles raging in the towns and cities across Syria.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
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