On July 8, members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) will commemorate the 1949 capture and execution of Antoun Saadeh by the Lebanese government. Speeches and ceremonies will mark the untimely end of the party’s charismatic leader, who remains largely unknown in the West. The SSNP has long been derided in Western foreign policy circles for its history of suicide bombings and assassinations during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, along with its martyrs and symbols. Yet its militia, Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind), has reemerged to lend its support to the Assad regime in Syria’s protracted and bloody conflict.

The Syrian government is likely to regain control over western Syria, albeit with significant help from its Russian allies. The regime’s control over the areas it holds is shaky at best, and analysts debate whether Damascus can fully assert itself against multitudinous pro-regime militias used more to guerrilla warfare than keeping the peace. However, the SSNP stands out as a fighting force with a reputation for insisting discipline within its ranks and protecting civilians in regime areas. As a result, the party founded by Saadeh in 1932 often forms an overlooked element within Syria’s oft-inscrutably complex conflict. How a small, radical, anti-imperialist movement survived multiple turbulent periods, and whose members still lionize its founder merits a review of Saadeh’s life and legacy.

The foundation for Saadeh’s theories and syncretic political ideology can be traced back to Butrus al-Bustani, a Lebanese scholar who helped launch Syrian nationalism as a coherent ideology during the 1860 Mount Lebanon civil war that unfolded between the Maronites and Druze. Saadeh’s father, Khalil, was a proponent of these early nationalist principles and no doubt influenced his son’s world view. Growing up, young Saadeh’s first political act was reportedly refusing to carry the flag of the Ottoman Empire in a ceremony welcoming an important Turkish official to his school. In 1919, he joined his uncle in the United States and worked at a train station in a remote town in New Mexico, before leaving the country for Brazil, where he became a journalist and found a home among the country’s large Arab community. In 1930, Saadeh made his way back to Lebanon, where he continued to write while working as a German teacher at the American University in Beirut.

Saadeh’s radical views on Syrian identity, secularism, anti-sectarianism, and the Sykes-Picot agreement were shared amongst his students, many of whom joined him when he secretly established the SSNP. Central to his discussion was the proposed dismantlement of the colonialist borders that had been imposed across the Middle East by the European powers. In their place would be created a single, unified political entity in the Fertile Crescent, which Saadeh referred to as “Natural Syria.” Events helped galvanize his message, not least the loss of the Syrian region of Alexandretta (Hatay) in 1939 to Turkey in a deal enabled by the French government — one of the authors of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In this politically charged environment, it was easy for Saadeh to find disciples, but less so to scope out their ideological commitment. The threat posed by spies hired by the French colonial police was so great that lookouts were stationed to protect party meetings. It wasn’t long before the French detected the existence of the SSNP and duly arrested Saadeh. During a six-month incarceration, Saadeh penned his first book, The Genesis of Nations. After his release, he served two more jail stints before his self-imposed exile to Brazil in 1938.

With Saadeh overseas, the SSNP was entrusted to his followers. They softened the party’s nationalist fundamentals and became more amicable with Lebanese authorities. They even redesigned the SSNP’s flag, which formerly bore more than a fleeting similarity to the Nazi swastika with its iconic red hurricane symbol — called the Zawba’a in Arabic. The party soon lost most of its radical nature and moved towards the Lebanese political mainstream.

As World War II unfolded, Saadeh is alleged to have advocated for the Axis powers against the Levant’s colonial authorities, visiting Italy and Germany, and speaking on Radio Berlin. With Paris granting independence to Lebanon towards the end of the conflict, Saadeh finally returned home.

Yet much to the chagrin of the Lebanese government, he had no plans of continuing down the moderate path that the SSNP had been set upon. Instead, Saadeh doubled down on his revolutionary credentials, giving speeches in support of Pan-Syrian nationalism in front of huge crowds, and even restoring his preferred version of the party’s flag. The SSNP soon came under extreme pressure, not just from the government, but from the political right and left as well. Violent street clashes with Pierre Gemayel’s Kataeb Party, which espoused Lebanese nationalism, broke out alongside political competition from supporters of Pan-Arabism and the Lebanese Communist Party. As the 1948 Arab-Israeli War broke out, Saadeh adopted an anti-Zionist platform but his militias were denied from joining the conflict.

Tension finally boiled over in June 1949 when the Kataeb Party militia stormed the SSNP’s office in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut. The building was destroyed, but worse for Saadeh was the Lebanese government’s reaction to the violence — it quickly announced its intention of dissolving Saadeh’s party. Members soon found themselves harassed, arrested, and tortured. Backed into a corner, Saadeh and many SSNP members fled to Syria, where they were greeted by a military strongman – Husni al-Za’im — who had taken power in a coup several months earlier.

Za’im promised Saadeh arms and support in exchange for his party’s loyalty. With the Damascus regime behind him, Saadeh quickly went into action, launching on the so-called “first popular social revolution” against Beirut on July 4, 1949. The plan was to seize police stations and border outposts, while hoping that the Lebanese people would rally to his cause. According to sympathizers, Saadeh’s rebellion did not so much intend to force Lebanon into an immediate union with Syria, but rather pushed to alter Beirut’s heavy-handed political environment so that the SSNP could operate in a more pluralistic atmosphere — or, indeed operate at all.

However, Saadeh’s armed revolt was an utter failure. His men were disorganized and frequently fell victim to government ambushes. Others found that they had the wrong type of ammunition for their weapons. It soon became apparent that Saadeh had been betrayed by Za’im. In total secrecy, the Lebanese authorities expedited Saadeh’s trial and found him guilty of treason. He was executed at dawn on Friday, July 8, just four days after his attempted coup.

A video produced in recent years by Lebanese students depicts a brave Saadeh in his final moments, kneeling and blindfolded as a row of officers raise their Russian SKS Simonov 1943 carbines and fire. In his book The Struggle for Syria, Patrick Seale writes that Saadeh’s movement thrived on martyrdom as much as any modern-day militia.“Saadeh inspired devotion as probably no other leader in Arab politics had done. Many who knew him at this time describe him as a sort of intellectual dictator: authoritarian, magnetic, immensely fluent, with a brilliant knowledge of many subjects.”

In a grim irony, the SSNP that Saadeh left behind would play a dramatic role in Syria’s history. It was only a month later that Za’im himself was overthrown by Syrian army officers with ties to Saadeh and his party. Confronting the deposed general in the presidential palace, a plotter accused Za’im of “betraying Saadeh.” When Za’im was executed on August 14, the military leader and early party member Adib Shishakli brought Za’im’s bloody shirt to Saadeh’s wife Juliette crowing, “We have avenged him!” Shishakli would go on to launch his own coup and model his own political party, the Arab Liberation Movement, after the SSNP.

Another Syrian political figure, Akram al-Hawrani, was a member of Saadeh’s party but eventually left its fold in favor of the Pan-Arab Ba’ath movement of Michel Aflaq. Hawrani was instrumental in dramatically widening the Ba’ath party’s popularity, and forming the United Arab Republic, a short-lived territorial and political union between Syria and Nasser’s Egypt along pan-Arab lines, an arrangement that lasted from 1958 to 1961 before a coup in Syria put paid to it.

It wasn’t until the assassination of Adnan al-Malki, a charismatic army officer and Baath Party supporter that the SSNP was finally routed in Syria, brutally maligning any notion of Pan-Syrianism in the country for the next fifty years. In Lebanon, the failed “New Year’s Eve coup” in December 1961 by the SSNP led to the party being driven underground until the mid-1970s. A tentative reconciliation was tested when the PLO, communists, and Syrian Baathist government found themselves in the same military coalition as the late Saadeh’s partisans during the Lebanese Civil War, but the party never regained its former influence.

By the 2000s, waning interest in Pan-Arabism ushered in a semi-official endorsement of the kind of Pan-Syrian nationalism that Saadeh might have approved of. Throughout the Syrian occupation of post-war Lebanon, the historical and cultural similarities between the two nations were played up. The SSNP finally reentered politics in Damascus in 2005 when it was officially legalized by President Bashar al-Assad.

While still a novel figure in the country’s political consciousness, Saadeh as a personality remains relatively popular among Lebanese people of all political stripes. Youth frequently quote him on social media, and Lebanese people of all ages admire his stance against corruption, sectarianism, and foreign interference. In North America and Australia, the SSNP’s adherents in the diaspora gather for social functions and commemorative events. Even before the Syrian Civil War, blessings for Saadeh came from both the upper echelons of the Baath Party and from Syrian diplomats. Syria’s former ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, notably even honored Saadeh at a prominent function in Detroit in September 2009, remarking, “Even if you’re not one of his partisans, you still respect the great things he did for our region.”

Today, Saadeh is seen as a Che Guevara figure across the Levant. He smiles down from portraits in the offices of party functionaries and the outposts of militiamen in regime-held areas, much the same way that the imprisoned Abdullah Öcalan silently gazes from billboards in the American-backed YPG territories. However, the SSNP’s militia expects something in return for its loyalty and sacrifice in the conflict. Russian media outlets regularly cover the party as they pay visits to Moscow as part of the regime’s “tolerated opposition.” If Russia decides to orchestrate a temporary transition — similar to how Dmitry Medvedev stepped in to keep the presidency warm for Vladimir Putin from 2008 to 2012 — the SSNP could be a trusted option to hold the throne until the Syrian regime eventually normalizes relations with the international community.

The party undoubtedly has its share of challenges. It is still heavily factionalized and has never led a government. Reform-minded members anguish over their current leadership’s approach and discuss ways to move the SSNP back to Saadeh’s original mission of unifying “Natural Syria.” One former member admitted that a customs union with freedom of movement and a common currency — similar to the European Union — might be the most viable target for the party, but with Syria in the state that it is in, that will be a long way off. Meanwhile, in the West, the SSNP is a lightning rod for politicians looking to make a rapprochement with the Syrian regime. Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard was most recently targeted by media outlets for accepting a “fact finding” invitation to Damascus, where she even met with Assad.

Still, whether the US reduces its involvement in the Syrian conflict and eventually defers to the Assad regime, or instead scales up its military efforts in favor of its chosen rebels in eastern Syria, the SSNP and the ghost of Antoun Saadeh will loom large across Syria’s battlefields and corridors of power.

About the author

CHRIS SOLOMON is an analyst specializing in Middle East history and politics, and works for a US defense consultancy monitoring local and international media reporting in the Middle East.