Capture the Flag

What the rebel banner says about Syria's civil war.

ADEM ALTAN/Getty Images
ADEM ALTAN/Getty Images

Deep in the Syrian Archives in Damascus, one can find black-and-white photographs of a military parade that took place in the Syrian capital on Syria’s 17th Independence Day: April 17, 1963. The event occurred only 40 days after the Baath Party seized power. Members of Syria’s top brass were dressed in their military attire, with colorful decorations of medals across their uniforms, and led by the two co-creators of the Baath regime: Deputy Chief of Staff Salah Jadid and Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad. Behind them fluttered the official Syrian flag: a standard with three stripes of green, white, and black and three red stars drawn across the middle.

Nearly half a century later, this same flag is being waved by those seeking to destroy the regime Assad created and obliterate the Baath Party he commanded. But the symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad is being trashed by regime officials, who claim that it is the "flag of the French Mandate" imposed on Syria from 1920 to 1946. According to state-run media, Syrian rebels are using it to restore Western hegemony over Syria, part of a "galactic" Qatari, Israeli, Saudi, and American plot against Damascus.

From 1932 to 1963 (with one short 1958-1961 interruption), the "revolutionary flag" was Syria’s official flag, which explains why it still strikes a nostalgic chord among elderly Syrians. The struggle to return to it speaks volumes about anti-regime Syrians’ national identity and their desire to break with everything that reminds them of 49 years of Baath Party rule — even if it means bringing down Syria’s oldest surviving state symbol.

Attacking the flag as a symbol of colonialism lacks credibility. For years, after all, it had been hailed by state-run Syrian TV on Independence Day as a symbol of Syria’s long fight against the French Mandate, rather than a sign of subservience to it. It had been created in 1932 — during the era of Syria’s first democratically elected civilian president, Muhammad Ali al-Abid — by a parliamentary committee headed by the respected Ibrahim Hananu, one of the leaders of the anti-French revolts in the 1920s, whose name has been immortalized in Syrian history books, even by the Baathists themselves. The colors referred to rulers in Syria’s past — white for the Umayyads, black for the Abbasids, and green for the Rashidun caliphs of Islam.

The flag was hoisted on government buildings on the day of Syria’s independence from France in 1946, and it remained Syria’s flag until 1958, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished it upon the creation of the United Arab Republic. Syrians returned to the green-white-black standard when the union was dissolved in 1961, and it remained in use for almost a year after the Baathists came to power in 1963.

This long history explains why the flag remains such a potent symbol. It had been used by 12 Syrian presidents, starting with Abid and up to Amin al-Hafez in 1964. It survived 14 years of French occupation, one war with Israel, and six coups. The Syrian regime cannot write it off so easily.

That may explain why Syrian officialdom, taken completely aback by the audacity of a new flag, was slow in reacting to the new symbol. After initial hesitation on how to react to the flag controversy, pro-regime commentators began appearing on talk shows, in a clearly systematic campaign, trashing the old flag as having been "created and imposed by the French high commissioner in 1932, against the will of the Syrian people." The story was baseless, of course, and they could not document their argument. They also failed to answer why, if this were true, the people of Syria maintained the "commissioner’s flag" 17 years after the end of the French Mandate.

Commentators also invented an imaginary story that the three stars in the middle of the old flag were a reference to three sectarian states created during the Mandate: the Alawite state, the Druze state, and the Sunni state (though no such states ever existed in Syrian history). "Those carrying the Mandate flag" they barked on TV, "want to divide Syria along sectarian lines and create three confessional states in our midst." In reality, however, the three stars on the old flag, according to the official 1932 decree, referred to "three revolts against the Mandate" — those of the Alawites, the Druze, and northern Syria, headed by Hananu himself. They are symbols of unity, not federalism.

Along with the smear campaign came an attempt by the Syrian regime at increasing popular allegiance to the existing flag. Countless red, white, and black tricolor flags were manufactured for pro-Assad rallies in Damascus — with some people going as far as placing a photo of Assad between the flag’s two green stars. Meanwhile, a state-run campaign was launched to carry the "longest flag in the world" across the Mezzeh Autostrade, the urban artery that runs through the heart of Damascus.

Paying the price for years of Baathism

Syrian officials grumbled. How people could abandon their flag that easily? After all, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts had not challenged the existing flag. Even the Lebanese did not think of changing their cedar flag after years of civil war — it continued to represent every faction of the complex Lebanese system, ranging from Maronite nationalists to Shiite Islamists. Why was Syria different?

The answer, of course, can be found in the Syrian regime’s own malpractices. Until 2003, the regime never promoted true allegiance to the Syrian flag. Long before the outbreak of the revolt, Syrian officials were always seemingly more interested in marketing the flag of the Baath Party, as well as the image of the president, rather than Syrian state symbols. That flag, which is the same as that of Palestine, was copied from the 1916 Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. It consists of the same tricolors as the old Syrian flag — a black, white, and green horizontal triband — plus a red triangle on the left side. Syrians growing up in the 1980s often had a hard time identifying the official flag of Syria because the Baath flag — along with photos of Hafez al-Assad — flew higher at public rallies and in government offices. The Syrian flag fluttering on government buildings was more often than not miserable and torn into pieces by so much neglect.

The result? Generation after generation came of age with little attachment to the Syrian flag — respect for state symbols had been forced upon them, rather than developed with explanation, emotion, and humanity. People felt that the flag meant very little to Syrian officialdom, giving them little reason to hold it in reverence if state officials were themselves seemingly more committed to Baathism than "Syrianism." The same applied to the Baath Party anthem, which was blasted at rallies either side by side with the official Syrian national anthem, or sometimes instead of it. During these ceremonies at state-run schools, the words of the national anthem lost their meaning, and so did the spirit of the flag.

When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, that began to change — reportedly upon the advice of the Turks, who attached great importance to the Turkish flag after Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose to the premiership in 2003. Erdogan firmly believed in the power of the flag to unite all Turks and bridge the gap between his country’s Ottoman past and secular present. After 2003, accordingly, Syria’s official flag began to take precedence over that of the Baath Party. The regime took to the idea and milked it dry, using the flag’s tricolor at every presidential event and even manufacturing it into jackets, watches, bracelets, and caps. The flag became yet another loyalty test to measure fealty to the regime, the state, and the president.

When protests broke out in March 2011, Syrian officials resorted to the flag in any attempt to find a state symbol that Syrians could rally around. But by then it was too late — the two flags had already emerged in Syria, one for the pro-regime street, and one for the opposition. Soon the country would have two armies as well, one for each flag. The state’s abuse of the Syrian flag from 2003 to 2010 made it difficult for the flag to serve as a unifying force in 2011. Syrians wanted a new symbol, and they found it in the independence flag.

The red-striped flag is no more the flag of the regime, however, than the green-striped one is that of the French Mandate. Both assessments are flawed and need to be revisited calmly and seriously by Syria’s new regime, which will likely include figures from the outgoing era uninvolved in the violence and destruction of the past 16 months. Some obviously want to maintain the current flag — as happened in Egypt — while others will push for a Libya-like flag change. A national referendum is vital at some point in the future.

Amid the tumult in Syria today, the colors of the flag may not seem like the most pressing issue. But this controversy raises an important issue for Syria’s future — how Syrians relate to each other as citizens of a common nation. They simply cannot go on judging each other’s patriotism by the color of the flag they are waving. Neither banner can be eliminated from Syrian history. Millions still identify with the current flag, regardless of their views of the regime. Likewise, not everybody who opposes Assad feels at ease with the revolution’s flag. And all of these people are going to have to work together to build a new Syria.

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