Will the SSNP fight for Russia in Ukraine?

Russian forces are suffering heavy casualties following one month since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. Morale is low and there has been widespread reporting on how the Russian military has performed poorly.

In addition, there have been reports about the possibility of Syrian fighters soon joining Russia’s side in the war in Ukraine. Some have mentioned that pro-Assad armed groups, such as Liwa al-Quds, or the remnants of the Desert Hawks and other fighters could appear in Ukraine. On March 31, The NYT relayed that around 300 Syrians were on their way to Russia. The day before, BBC News quoted anonymous Syrians saying on camera they were offered $7,000 to fight on the front lines and $3,500 to provide security in rear-held areas.

So far, there has been no hard proof of Syrian fighters on the ground in Ukraine, such as images or videos footage appearing on social media. U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie said recently in March there was “little evidence of recruiting in Syria to bring people back to Ukraine,” however, he noted, “Not saying it couldn’t happen…But we haven’t seen the large-scale effort to do that.”

This could very well change in the coming weeks. The longer the conflict goes on, the more likely we could see Syrians and other pro-Russian mercenaries turn up in Ukraine. As of April 7th, The NYT was still reporting that Western intelligence officials were saying that the Russian military is recruiting from a variety of places, including Syria, Libya, Chechnya, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in order to shore up its forces. Still these numbers are supposedly only in the hundreds.

One group to watch out for is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) militia, the Eagles of the Whirlwind. This was one pro-Assad force that was an early participant in the Syrian Civil War. Numbering between 4,000 and 8,000 fighters, they are particularly close to Russia. They share a similar world view, are ideologically secular and nationalist.

The SSNP’s Fighting History

Here is a little bit about the SSNP’s fighting history and why they might or might not fight for Russia in Ukraine.

The SSNP, founded in 1932, has many decades of fighting experience. Its militia was first formed to fight against Israel, but never took part in the 1948 war under its official banner. In July 1949, the party’s militia fought in Antoun Saadeh’s failed uprising against the Lebanese government. The revolution collapsed and Saadeh himself was captured and executed. Roughly a decade later in 1958, the SSNP fought on the side of the Lebanese government against Syrian-backed Muslim rebels and helped prevent the Beirut government’s fall until President Eisenhower sent the U.S. military to intervene.

The SSNP split during the 1975 Lebanese Civil War and fought running battles against the Maronite Christian-dominated Kataeb Party and its wartime allies. The party subsequently took on the form of an underground resistance movement, joining the Jammoul resistance front during the Israeli invasion of the 1980s. Along with the Lebanese Communist Party and other groups, it conducted hit-and-run attacks and most infamously carried out a wave of vehicle suicide bombing missions.

The SSNP’s entry into the Syrian Civil War is in itself rather notable since the party had been banned in Syria for 50 years. The Eagles of the Whirlwind carried arms and performed their military duties to save Assad’s government and lost hundreds of its fighters during the conflict. However, by late 2019, the party’s militia activities in Syria appeared to have dropped off substantially and the amount of social media content and martyrdom posters has ceased.

This is likely related to Assad’s concerns that the SSNP could someday pose a political challenge to his rule and thus wanted to reel back the SSNP, both politically and militarily. The party performed poorly in the 2020 Syrian parliamentary elections and Assad also cracked down on the business empire of his well-known cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who’s family is affiliated with the SSNP from its earliest days.

The SSNP’s militia during the Battle of the Hotels in Beirut, 1975.

The SSNP’s Ideology and Russia’s Geopolitical World View

On the surface, if one if familiar with the party’s long-standing opposition to opposing any kind of foreign interference in another country’s internal affairs and staunch position against imperialism, the fact that Russia has invaded Ukraine and blatantly violated its sovereignty should put the SSNP in opposition to Moscow’s geopolitical designs in Ukraine.

The invasion runs contrary to Antoun Saadeh’s ideology, as the party’s founder was adamantly against Ottoman Turkey and France’s colonialism in Lebanon and Syria, and believed that a country’s people should maintain their own sovereignty and determine their own destiny.

Regarding the party’s early relations with Russia, the SSNP in the 1940s and 1950s took a on a staunch anti-communist position and viewed the Soviet Union as another foreign power trying to spread its influence in what they viewed as Greater Syria. During this early Cold War era, the party did not wish to see the French, the Israelis, or the British power in the region diminished only to be replaced by Soviet Communism. The SSNP’s partisans regularly battled the Lebanese Communists on the streets as well as in the intellectual arena.

In the aftermath of the 1955 crackdown on the SSNP in Syria, the party was even accused of collaborating with the United States and the British, along with the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, against the Syrian regime in the so-called “Iraq Plot” of 1956. As a non-state actor that swam in the same currents with the members of the Baghdad Pact, the SSNP gained a lasting stigma and the pro-Soviet and Arab nationalists viewed the party as being a Western agent during this early Cold War time period.

The party later took on a leftist tilt — while not abandoning its Greater Syrian nationalism — and in the wake of the 1961 New Year’s Eve coup attempt to the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, and drew closer to the Soviet Union, thus setting the table for the positive ties between the SSNP and Russia that continue to this day.

There are underlying reasons why the party today has strongly supported Putin’s “special military operation.”

One is their ideology and shared worldview with Russia. The party has long been associated as predominantly Christian Orthodox, although it must be pointed out that the party has many members who are from other Christian sects, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, non-believers, and various ethnic and religious minority groups. The SSNP does not track the sectarian breakdown of its members and makes it clear that it is not interested in the religious affiliation of its partisans.

Despite this, the Eagles of the Whirlwind lost many fighters throughout the Syrian Civil War and, through this painful sacrifice, gained a reputation of defending the interests of Syria’s religious minorities — Christians in particular — against the hardline Muslim armed opposition groups fighting against the regime.

As Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi noted back in September 2015, “The SSNP has made particular shows of solidarity with Christians, so its appeal should not be surprising, particularly in western Syria where it seems to offer the only alternative to Arabism, whereas in the northeast of Syria non-Arab Christian-specific identities- most notably Assyrian and Syriac- have established a much stronger foothold.”

In addition, the party might find Putin’s push for a Russkiy Mir (Russian World) endearing, to reclaim and “correct” the geographic outcome of history, which has supposedly denied Russia’s right to unite the Russian-speaking people of Europe. It should be noted, however, the SSNP’s ideology and desire to realize a Greater Syria is not based on language and ethnic group, but on the basis that the European colonizers were wrong to divide Syria and that the region’s indigenous people never agreed to the borders that were imposed on them.

After the Russian military intervention in 2015, the party worked alongside with the Russians and likely received training, support, and logistics. The SSNP was also prominently featured in Russian media outlets on many occasions. In November 2017, the party’s militia fighters received medals from the Russian Ministry of Defense. In December of that same year, the SSNP’s Intifada faction leader, Ali Haidar, appeared with Russian military officials at the Hmeimim Air Base Air Base and discussed Syria’s reconciliation and security efforts.

But would the SSNP ever go so far as to join the Russians fighting in Ukraine?

It is farfetched to believe the Eagles of the Whirlwind fighters would venture well beyond the borders of Greater Syria to engage in combat on a distant European battlefield. However, it is not as farfetched as one might believe. There is a single interesting case study worth exploring.

The SSNP and the Case of Libya

A Libyan stamp commemorating the end of the May 17th treaty between Lebanon and Israel in 1984.

Libya was one of the many external state actors involved in the Lebanese Civil War. Muammar Gaddafi helped funded a number of nationalist-leftist-Arab forces that were fighting alongside the PLO during the conflict. Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the SSNP’s history is the largely forgotten story about the 250 SSNP militia fighters who took part in an armed expedition of approximately 1,000 Arab-leftist combatants that traveled to Libya in September 1987 to take part in Gaddafi’s war in Chad.

The exact details of this foreign adventure remain relatively unknown. If true, the party’s involvement in this conflict would be the largest in terms of troop size and most farthest conflict the SSNP ventured away from their home base in the Levant.

The Libya-Chad conflict remains one of the many bygone clashes of the Cold War between the East and West. It is very possible that the SSNP contingent even traveled to Libya via Soviet transport and received weapons and logistical support. It would be very fascinating to see if there were SSNP or PLO veterans of this overseas mission who were still alive and willing to discuss their experiences today.

From Wikipedia: Belligerents of the Chadian–Libyan conflict

At the time, the move proved to be deeply controversial within the party since it brought about complaints of “mercenaryism” by party members who believed the SSNP was engaging in foreign conflicts that it had nothing to do with and, as a result, was falling further away from the original mission of Antoun Saadeh’s ideology. It is difficult to determine how much of an impact this had within the SSNP, but 1987 is in fact the same year the party’s main faction split for the second time during the Lebanese Civil War.

As briefly noted previously, the first split occurred when the SSNP’s main faction experienced a fissure between a pro-Palestinian faction and a pro-Syrian faction that lasted from 1976–1978. The first split occurred due to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad’s decision in 1976 to intervene in Lebanon against the PLO and the leftist Lebanese National Movement. The 1987 split subsequently lasted until after the end the war, well into the late 1990s, finally ending with the party reunifying in 1998.

A farewell celebration in Ain Zhalta for a thousand fighters traveling to Libya. An-Nahar newspaper, 1987.

Conclusion

With regards to the party and the war in Ukraine today, tensions within the Orthodox community in Syria are already emerging. Some of the Syrian Christians in Damascus reportedly signed onto a letter of opposition against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

However, the SSNP has staunchly fallen into line behind Russia’s position regarding Ukraine. The party’s outlets have signaled their opposition to NATO and condemned the Lebanese Foreign Minister for speaking out against Russia’s war. The party said that it is the Western powers that were responsible for provoking Russia and leaving Putin with no choice but to resort to his “special military operation.” Furthermore, subsequent publications by the party’s propaganda figures have suggested that the United States and NATO are using Ukraine to research and develop chemical and biological weapons, another common Russian narrative about the war.

By joining Russia in Ukraine, it would give the party an opportunity to clearly showcase its loyalty to Russia in return for Putin’s efforts to defeat Assad’s armed opposition in Syria. If the Russians are to maintain a long-term military presence in Syria, one that might even last beyond Assad’s lifetime, the SSNP could benefit politically by maintaining their alignment with Moscow’s endeavor in Ukraine. The Syrians that might eventually turn up in Ukraine would most likely not fight under any banner of the militias they were associated with in Syria. However, there would at least be some indication of party affiliation or pride that could be displayed in some capacity on the battlefield or in martyrdom posters on social media.

However, it is unclear the SSNP’s militia is ready to commit its forces to join Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine. Both Lebanon and Syria remain in a dismal state. The war in Syria is relatively frozen but the SSNP’s militia might be called up again if the regime decides to make an all-out effort to recover Idlib Province or the territories held by the SDF in eastern Syria. The Eagles of the Whirlwind’s Twitter handle has not tweeted any news about the conflict and has been quiet since February 19th.

In Lebanon, the country is in a precarious economic and political state of existence and the party likely wishes to remain prepared to support its local ally, Hezbollah, in the event of any security vacuum or military confrontation with the forces of the anti-Syrian political bloc.

Furthermore, with Russia sustaining a huge number of casualties and suffering from an embarrassing military performance in Ukraine, it is unlikely that the SSNP would wish to join in at this stage and become entangled in what could be a grinding war of attrition in the Donbass region.

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Christopher Solomon

Chris Solomon is a writer and analyst specializing in Middle East history and international politics. He is the author of In Search of Greater Syria.