Syria’s Rival Utopias
Several hundred volunteers from North Africa and the Middle East have fought beside the Syrian army since May 2013 as part of the Arab Nationalist Guard (ANG). The exact numbers are undisclosed, but the fighters’ spokesman in Aleppo said in February 2017 that 150 Arab Nationalist ‘martyrs’ had been killed in four years. A month later, the ANG announced that one of its commanders, the Iraqi Iyad Jabbouri, had died fighting ISIS (Islamic State) in Palmyra province. The ANG has participated in fighting in Homs and Quneitra (in Syria’s Golan Heights) but its biggest engagement has been in eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus, where it supported the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian army in clashes with opposition groups.
For all their differences, ANG members and the tens of thousands of foreigners fighting in Syria and Iraq for ISIS and other jihadist groups are all young, strongly influenced by ideology and want to abolish national borders that resulted from the territorial divisions of the 1920s. Each side is pursuing a rival utopia: rather than a new Islamic society, the ANG is promoting (according to its official slogan) ‘resistance, Arab unity and socialism’.
Their methods of politicisation are, however, different and the Syrian crisis is not the first instance of Arab nationalist engagement: They were previously politicised in organisations claiming to be heir to Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70). There are clear links between the ANG and the Arab Nationalist Youth (ANY), which was set up in the early 1990s. ANY has branches throughout the Arab world but no official headquarters; it organises annual youth camps, the most recent in Morocco last August.
The ANY draws on an intellectual tradition with direct links to the 1950s and 60s, inspired by the experiences of socialism, and developmentalism by strong state control providing a basis for economic and industrial development. Egyptian Ismat Seif al-Dawla (1923-96), whose writings articulated Nasserist, socialist and Islamist ideas, remains a major reference. ANY members also learn about the theories of Constantin Zureiq (1909-2000), who taught at the American University of Beirut and in the 1950s inspired the Arab Nationalist Movement, which gave rise to the main far-left Lebanese and Palestinian organisations after 1967: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Arab Socialist Action Party and Communist Action Organisation in Lebanon.
The ANG and ANY networks are connected to legal political parties in their countries. In Lebanon, Al-Mourabitoun (Independent Nasserite Movement) supports them. This used to have links to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. It has no representation in parliament but is involved in demonstrations aimed at stopping social conflicts and putting an end to Lebanon’s confessional system (in which key government posts are shared out among representatives of the different faiths).
Al-Mourabitoun’s secretary general, General Mustafa Hamdan, was head of Emile Lahoud’s presidential guard from 1998 to 2005. He was suspected of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and imprisoned by the Lebanese authorities until his release by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in 2009. Hamdan is now a regular visitor to Damascus and appears as one of the ANG’s main spokesmen at public rallies.
In Jordan, ANG networks intersect with the Arab Nationalist List, a movement founded by former Palestinian Fatah member, Ibrahim Alloush. In Tunisia, ANY branches mostly belong to small Nasserist groups that are part of a large radical left coalition, the Popular Front, which has 15 members in parliament (Assembly of the Representatives of the People).
Though the ANG was only set up in 2013, its socialist ideology was widely thought to be outdated. Its nostalgia for Nasserist socialism obscures the long-standing opposition between Syria’s Baath Party and Gamal Abdel Nasser, especially during the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958-61). But the ANG’s nationalism is eclectic. In April 2017 its military leader, Dhulfiqar al-Amili, made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of former president Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) to pay homage to the founder of Baathist Syria. The ANG praises groups whose outlook is alien to its original ideology; Arab nationalism has had to adapt to the zeitgeist.
Lebanon’s Hizbullah remains a model, and is viewed more as an example of regional resistance to Israel and the US than as a Shia or Lebanese movement. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which calls for a Greater Syria from Jerusalem to Baghdad, currently has several thousand Syrians and Lebanese fighting for the regime. Like Hizbullah, it’s a natural ally of the ANG. Their fighters sometimes take part in the same battles.
The only point of reference still alien to the ANG is former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (1937-2006), who is never mentioned in its propaganda. This is not surprising as the ANG supports Syria’s Baath Party, which was locked into a long cold war with its Iraqi counterpart, several of whose leaders joined ISIS to fight against Iran and the Shia.
The ANG conducts political campaigns against Zionism and Saudi Wahhabism as well as engaging in fighting. It celebrates Land Day every year alongside Palestinian parties with links to the Syrian regime; its press releases mention the fate of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, a former member of the Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Factions, who has been imprisoned in France since 1984; and ANG members visited Syrian primary and secondary schools in Aleppo after government troops regained control of the east of the city in December 2016.
Although Arab nationalism is often seen as a secular movement, the ANG highlights its Islamic dimension: Its videos on social media show its fighters reciting the Fatiha, the first surah of the Quran. It leads popular initiatives in Damascus related to the Muslim calendar: celebrations of the Prophet’s birth and iftar meals to mark the end of Ramadan fasts. Given that they are up against ISIS, the new proponents of Arab nationalism cannot rely on political consciousness, however well versed in Nasserist and Baathist theory they are: That must be accompanied by religious consciousness. The ANG may also be trying to compete with Islamist groups on their own terrain.
The Syrian regime’s retaking of territory in 2017 raised the question of ANG fighters returning home, like jihadist fighters. In February 2017 Tunisia’s former justice minister Noureddine Bhiri, a member of parliament and of the Islamist movement Ennahda, called for a judicial inquiry into Tunisian nationals who have fought for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He was supported by Imed Daïmi, a member of the ARP’s security and defence council, and an ally of former president Moncef Marzouki.
This is payback time: since 2011, Ennahda and its former partner in government, the Congress for the Republic (CPR), have been suspected by the left wing of the Popular Front of wanting to amnesty Tunisian jihadists seeking to return from Syria, or even of having encouraged them to go there. Now, the Islamist parties maintain that there should be scrutiny not only of returning jihadists, but also of the ANG; they claim it has links with some sectors of the Popular Front.
The Syrian question divides former opponents of Tunisia’s ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Since 2011 the CPR and Ennahda have supported the Syrian uprising, while others, such as the Popular Front’s left wing, have sided with the regime and its allies. So have sections of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), some of whose leaders visited Assad in Damascus last July to assure him of their support. Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan are likely to face a similar debate.
Nicolas Dot-Pouillard is a political scientist based in Beirut.
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