Friday, December 12, 2008

SSNP ups the ante on its allies

After 20 days of waiting, my new ISP has finally connected my service.

Whilst offline, I conducted some reading and engaged in interesting conversations with a variety of people. One such person was a source from within the SSNP, whom I frequently use to receive updates on the activities of the party.

It appears the election of Assad Hardan as president of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) has brought along some substantial change.

According to my source, the SSNP has put its political allies on notice (Hezbollah, Amal, FPM, Marada) that its votes in the 2009 parliamentary elections will not be in vain. The SSNP expects something in return.

Traditionally, the SSNP has played the role of the little pushover child among its allies. The SSNP would join the lists of Hezbollah and Amal, gain a few seats in the Lebanese parliament, but when it arrived to the moment where the SSNP needed its allies to support a bill it has introduced into parliament (the Civil Marriage Bill for example), Hezbollah and Amal conveniently disappear.

SSNP, the Syrian spokesman in Lebanon?

The treatment of the SSNP as an irrelevant party in Lebanon has stemmed from the belief among Lebanese that the SSNP was simply an attachment to the Syrian Ba'ath regime, has no real support in Lebanon, and would simply disappear once the Syrians withdrew.

Heads, particularly among its allies, began to turn after the 2005 parliamentary elections. They were the first elections free of Syria, and the first real test of support for Lebanon's political parties, especially the SSNP whom most had written off. The SSNP's voting power was felt in the Christian battle between Michel Aoun's FPM and the LF/Kataeb, where SSNP supporters in the Christian regions voted heavily for the FPM in key electorates, significantly contributing to its victories.

Three years since the election, most Lebanese parties are coming to the reality that the SSNP is indeed part of the Lebanese political process, has support among Lebanese, and needs to be treated as such ... well at least that's how Assad Hardan would like to view it. Therefore, he has put his allies on notice.

With us or against us

Should the SSNP join the lists of the Opposition in the upcoming elections, it expects full support from Hezbollah/Amal/FPM on its agenda. I assume this is a veiled reference to the SSNP's strong desire for secular reform in the country (something it has been demanding for 70 years), commencing with the Civil Marriage Bill.

The SSNP, according to my source, has apparently warned that if its allies do not agree to its agenda, it will pull out of the Opposition list and run independently, ultimately aiding March 14 in key areas such as North and Mount Lebanon.

Tension with the Future Movement

It is unlikely that March 14 will be able to exploit a possible division after the Future Movement's massacre of SSNP members in Halba in May. The SSNP is still demanding that the Future Movement turn the perpretators to justice, and has apparently sent a list of names to Hariri.

The FM have yet to comply, frustrating the SSNP who have stated that they willingly turn its members to the authorities each time a crime is committed, and expects the same from the FM.

Hardan swings SSNP into action

Assad Hardan, a prominent SSNP militant during the Lebanese Civil War, is apparently renowned within party circles for his ability to stir action.

Following his election, the party held a large conference in Beirut to debate every topic related to the SSNP and the Middle East. Everything including sectarianism, Iraq, the party's relationship with the Syrian regime, its alliance with Hezbollah, peace with Israel, its controversial symbols, and Antoun Saadeh's philosophy were discussed.

Hardan has formed several internal sub-committees to assess the progress of the SSNP on all its fronts, whether it be environment, political or education. It is worth noting that the SSNP's internal power structure is perhaps the only democratic process of a major Arab party.

It regularly holds elections to change its president and high council (shadow cabinet). Not all members have voting rights, and those that do are appointed by committees. It isn't as straight forward as a Western democracy, and it took a bit of an explanation for me to understand the process.

What is the SSNP?

For those who are unaware of the SSNP, the party is one of the region's oldest and calls for the unification of a Greater Syrian nation. It was founded by a leading academic of the early 20th century, Antoun Saadeh, who was subsequently assassinated/executed in 1949 by the Lebanese firing squad for his political activities. Saadeh based the idea of a Syrian nation on a scientific and anthropological analysis of the world, which concluded that each nation has evolved naturally.

Using such techniques, Saadeh found that the Syrian nation was defined by natural geographic boundaries (mountains to the North and East that separated it from Anatolia and Persia, the Mediterranean Sea to the West, and the Syrian desert to the South). He concluded that a natural socio-economic interaction has always taken place within these boundaries to the point where the people of the Fertile Crescent developed distinctive characteristics that separated it from neighbouring civilisations, such as Persia, Anatolia, Arabia and Africa.

However, Saadeh's boundaries of the Syrian nation differ from general historian thought that has the original Greater Syria boundaries restricted to the Euphrates, and does not include Mesopotamia. This discrepancy can be attributed, in my opinion, to the fact that Saadeh based his conclusion on a variety of scientific disciplines including biology, anthropology, and sociology, whereas historians tend to only analyse from a social scientific perspective. Saadeh appeared to be influenced by Darwinism and the nationalist current of the 19th century.

Saadeh's model of governance is mirrored to that of a Western nation-state model. The SSNP has called for a secular, liberal democracy since the 1930s. In a region where the US and the West are having difficulties locating a genuine ally, one would assume that the SSNP appears to be the perfect candidate as it shares its values and whose founder was heavily influenced by Western thinking. Of course, such a marriage would seem acceptable bar one obstacle ... Israel.

The SSNP refuse to recognise Israel's right to exist, and rejects the possibility of including the Jewish nation into its Greater Syria. However, I'm under the impression that this stance towards Israel is being debated within internal circles of the party, particularly considering Bashar al-Assad's demonstrated willingness to sign a peace deal with Tel Aviv.

Where is the SSNP headed?

The party has grown to surprising strengths in Syria, now the second largest political party behind the Ba'ath, and supposedly greater than the much feared Muslim Brotherhood. Not only is it large, but incredibly active with Syrian locals, which is a contrast to its behaviour in Lebanon. Hardan appears to be using the party's political strength in Syria to have a greater say in Lebanon's affairs.

Hardan has launched an ambitious plan to open a series of hospitals and medical clinics throughout Lebanon. Following the conference, the SSNP conducted a major fundraising drive among members and supporters.

This is not new to the SSNP, as it has been quite active in Syria with approval from the Assad regime. However, Lebanon has not witnessed an active SSNP for quite some time. Under 15 years of Syrian rule, the SSNP engaged in little more than that of a spokesman for the Syrian Ba'ath. Indeed, that's how Lebanese began to portray the SSNP, and rightly so. Hardan appears keen to change that image, and demonstrate to the Lebanese people that this party is genuinely active in Lebanese life, just as it is active in Syrian life across the border.

But what is the SSNP trying to seek? It is energetic in Syria, and is attempting to become a key player in Lebanese daily life, but to what end? To boost its supporter base in Lebanon? To become the successor to the Ba'ath in Syria? Has it realised that benevolence wins support? The SSNP, an active participant in the Lebanese Civil War, still has a long way to go to improve its greatly damaged image in Lebanon, which I believe the party is truly aware of.

However, considering that Lebanon only forms a small part in the Syrian nation, and many commentators have written the tiny mountainous entity off as forever doomed, is the SSNP wasting its time in trying to restore its support base in the country?

The wheels have been put in motion, but where is the end of the road? And what can guarantee the SSNP won't return to its previous past of assassinations, murder and corruption? These are no doubt the questions on the mind of many Lebanese. Definitely, it's pleasing to see a party like the SSNP choose an alternative path that is aiming to help Lebanese society, but one can understand if many are feeling weary about the party's attempted resurrection.

4 comments:

Nadim said...

Let us not forget the SSNP's actions in May and let us not forget their brutal assault on Omar Harqous only a few weeks ago.

On paper the SSNP is a wonderful party: Democratic, Secular, Progressive. But it is clear that their violent and murderous past extends well into the present.

Antoun said...

Nadim,

It's true on paper the SSNP appears perfect, but actions do speak louder than words.

But I'm starting to get the opinion that the SSNP's behaviour is much in line with the circumstances of the country.

For example, if we take the SSNP in Syria and compare it to the SSNP in Lebanon, we see remarkable differences.

The SSNP in Syria has no militia, and spends its full-time energy engaging with local communities in local projects, ranging from environment, health to education.

The SSNP in Lebanon, by contrast, has a militia and has its own strongholds.

I believe this behavioural contradiction can be attributed to the differing internal situation in the two states.

Syria, despite being inherently corrupt and authoritarian, enjoys much more internal stability than that of Lebanon, which is forever facing a crisis.

I think the SSNP officially is starting to realise that it cannot continue to have a state of tension with other groups in Lebanon, yet enjoy a state of harmony in Syria.

From what I've been told, it appears that Hardan is trying to inject the same social interaction, that the SSNP currently undertakes in Syria, into Lebanon.

But the lack of security in the country, and the high risk of violence has got not only the SSNP on high alert, but all factions.

If last May revealed anything, it's the fear and paranoia among Lebanese.

The Opposition fear the FM, PSP and LF are building militias. March 14 fear Hezbollah's weapons. At the end of the day, everyone was (and probably is) in the process of building a militia ... just to be sure.

The SSNP's behaviour in Lebanon is rather symptomatic of the tense and insecure climate of the country, but I'm hoping that its positive image in Syria might influence its behaviour in Lebanon to change for the better.

It showed restraint after the Halba massacre last year because it knew if it responded, it would have created an all out war. It also handed the members involved with the Omar Harqous attack to the authorities.

What's important in Lebanon, for all parties, is to build trust and defuse the paranoia that currently exists.

Frankly, I think that a lot of parties in Lebanon prefer the instability to protect their personal interests.

Hopefully the SSNP's new social drive reaps some benefits, but like you, I'll wait for the words to turn into action before I make my judgment.

Ms. Tee said...

If they really mean it about secular reform, good luck finding major political players who will go along!

I don't know if you have seen this article, Antoun. It seems there are not only talks of reform inside the party, but also indications of a split. The divisions do not concern ideology, but are more about the party's poor post-Taef performance and its "wooden language."

Antoun said...

Well that's going to be the test for the Opposition if they get majority numbers next year.

All three parties (Hezbollah, FPM, SSNP) have indicated one way or another - Hezbollah probably less so - that they're willing for secular reform. Whether they do it is another matter.

What bothers me about Lebanon's politics is that the dividing line between March 14 and the Opposition is their difference in regional, foreign alignments, and not about internal policy.

It isn't a division between the left or the right, as in US politics, but whether you're part of the pro-American/Saudi axis, or the pro-Iranian/Syrian axis.

None of these alliances in Lebanon are natural, and definitely not permanent. The downside to this is that little progress is made on the domestic front because no party has a domestic policy, and if they do, it's shelved to the back.

In regards to the SSNP, their divisions are not new. There's still two factions who operate with different leaderships.

As for a new split, I don't think that's likely. Within the party, there appears to be a generational divide between reformers and the old guard.

The old guard tend to represent wartime politics, whereas the reformers want to modernise the party and move away from the militant image to suit 21st century standards.

The Syrian influence over the past 20 years has given the old guard the upper hand (and has resulted in many reformers leaving the party, or worse, killed during wartime), but Hardan's election has seen the tide change and the old guard aren't happy with the fact a lot of young people (the post-war generation) are rising to high ranks within the party.

Ironically, the SSNP's work in Syria has also given the reformers a boost, because most of the members in Syria are newcomers and young.

The reformers are impatient and want to radically change everything in 5 minutes.

But even Obama has to be patient.