The rise of the SSNP militia. A sign of strength or hardship?

A distinguishing mark of modern asymmetric warfare is a wide variety of militias and formations fighting for one or the other side. Non-professional fighters, loosely organised into groups and largely uncontrolled by any kind of supreme command, can inflict horrible damage on an enemy. At the same time, they can easily be recruited, trained and armed. This also makes them the weapon of choice for governments both having a weak or overstretched regular army and willing to fight a war without frontlines, effectively decentralising warfare.

The conflict in Syria is no exception and has seen dozens of different armed groups fighting beside the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on Syrian soil. One of those groups that has recently gained some momentum and whose men are increasingly pictured battling their enemies is the militia of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). 

An SSNP technical during the battle of the al-Ghab plains, source

Men fighting under the party’s Zawba'a-logo have been seen in a fighting role since early 2014. Before that, occasionally photographs were publicised showing supporters of the SSNP, however, they do not bear arms. After all, searching on twitter will reveal pictures of their men, holding weapons, posing as early as during the end phase of the battle of Homs in January/February 2014.

The assembling and deployment of the SSNP's Nusur az-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Hurricane) might, at first glimpse, look a little arbitrarily and even carried out coincidentally, but is just another example of how sectarian the war in Syria has become. To fully understand that, one must go into both the SSNP’s political program and the party’s history.

To analyse the rise of Syrian Social Nationalist Party as a militia, it would be too lengthy to write a whole history dossier about it. In fact, yet there are several well written, though sometimes a little aged, reports about the SSNP’s very own worldview, e.g. here and here. Those reports explain the ideological basis of the party: a strong believe in the forming of a future so called 'Greater Syria' with clear references to Assyrian history and the Assyrian kingdom and with an evenly strong rejection of both Pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. This led to a bloody rivalry between the Baath-Party and the SSNP during their early years and the latter being officially banned in Syria between 1955 and 2005. 

Map of 'Greater Syria', source

Map of 'Greater Syria'. Note the references to Assyrian history as well as the Zawba'a-logo, source

Though the party claims to be standing for secular politics, its history reveals that it is a movement which has its roots inside the Christian minority, and to a lesser extent inside the Druze society, being themselves mostly loyal to the regime and seeing it as their protector from Islamist forces, however, without being necessarily Baathist.

The reason that an SSNP militia was not active before 2014 is the existence of the National Defence Forces (NDF) which relied heavily on the administrative help of the Syrian Social Nationalists. Back then, SSNP followers fought under the flag of the NDF, though SSNP insignias, like those of other political or ethnic movements, were sporadically shown, e.g. on the posters of those who had died in battle.

Raed Ibrahim Baraka, fallen on October 27th 2013 in Daraa. Note the Zawba'a-logo (top left) and the Druze symbol (top right), source

One could argue that the rise of a new militia was a sign of a renewed rise of Bashar al-Assad’s government, providing a new force to fight against ISIS, Jabhat an-Nusra and dozens of rebel units. But rather, it is just the other way around.

In the following months after their first encounters in January 2014 in Homs, Nusur az-Zawba’a were reportedly engaged in major fighting near Kessab/Latakia (April 2014), Damascus (April/May 2014), Morek/Hama (November 2014, April 2015), Daraa governorate (February 2015), Tha'lah Military Airbase/as-Suwayda (June 2015) and lately in Zabadani/Rif Dimashq (since July 2015) as well as in the once again ignited confrontation in the north western hillside region of Latakia. However, by far the most pictures showing SSNP militiamen at the scene originate from the battle of az-Zabadani.

SSNP militiamen at Tha'lah Military Airbase, source

All of the cities/regions named above hosted a considerable Christian population before the war (or still host it). Given the fact that there have been strong ties between NDF and SSNP, the fighters deployed to those battlegrounds are predominantly locals.

Interestingly, the regime has split the SSNP fighters from the regular NDF, although the latter is more or less considered to be a loyal force. Although it is hard to verify, this could be a sign for that especially Christians since late 2013 have hesitated to join the NDF and other Baath-ideology militias so that the militia was specifically ‘outsourced’ for them. Even pro-regime news outlets list them separately from the NDF, at least since early 2015. This speaks against the theory of the SSNP still being part of NDF and just being rhetorically separated. As the Christians have mostly been at Assad’s side and rely on him as their saviour from Islamist revenge, it would be telling enough to be in the need for a special militia to attract those men to fight.

Burial of a fallen SSNP fighter. Especially note that the fallen fighter’s coffin is only draped by an SSNP flag and does not show a Syrian flag at all, source

This would basically mean that a self-proclaimed secular power like the Syrian regime has to rely on politically and religiously defined groups to attract their own people to join. Of course, the flying personal of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) as well as elite units like the SAA’s 4th Division and Republican Guard have been dominated by Alawite, Christian and Druze soldiers for decades. But now they have issues trying to attract men from these loyalist communities.

The battles in which SSNP has been deployed are in areas largely inhabited by Christians or at least home to a substantial Christian minority. It is understandable and no wonder that minority biased units fight the hardest when they act inside ‘their’ cities and face an enemy they see as a threat against their people. For example, Homs hosted the second largest Syrian Christian population before the war broke out. Kessab’s population was even up to 80% Christian, the remaining 20% mostly being Alawite. Daraa, az-Zabadani and as-Suwayda are home to a considerable Christian minority as well, however, Druze being the dominating ethnic-religious group in the latter governorate. This leads to the conclusion that under the SSNP logo things did not change much and that the over-all character of the Nusur az-Zawba’a got closer to one of a Christian militia, or at least one of the Syrian minorities.

As for az-Zabadani, there have been discussions on the social media whether the men of Nusur az-Zawba’a fighting there are mostly made up of locals like it is presumed for the aforementioned battle scenes. Though it cannot be verified exactly, it should be very much the case that the members of the militia are at least from az-Zabadani District, if not from the town itself. Both, the district and the town, were also the home of a Christian minority which applies to the case of sending fighters to regions they are emotionally linked to. Moreover, pictures we saw from the battle of az-Zabadani show SSNP militiamen being in the first line of fire. This makes definitely sense in a house-to-house combat situation where being in possession of locals and their knowing of the certain developments and buildings is crucial.

Fighters of Nusur az-Zawba'a during the battle of az-Zabadani, source


So should the rise of the Nusur az-Zawba’a be seen as a sign of strength or rather of hardship as I asked in the headline?

Certainly, the SSNP can be considered a useful militia in certain territories. Its repeated emergence during major battles in all over Syria and their fight alongside Hezbollah troops is a sign that they are trusted by the government.

However, we have also seen that the officially secular regime relies more and more on sectarian militias or rather those which have a certain religious or political background. A clear sign for that even the loyalist side is not acting as united as many might think. Confusingly enough, the SSNP, as mentioned above, has a long history of animosity against the Baath party. Although politically the party has took the position of a bloc party and two of its members are ministers in the current cabinet, it is still widely considered as kind of an opposition party.

Ironically, some of the major battles in 2014/2015 were fought in fact with the participation of a militia that was banned for dozens of years under the rule of the very party, for which it now takes up arms.