Syrian tanks blast civilians in Homs“Behind the Terror

A little-publicized group led by Christians eager for Syria to dominate the Middle East is reponsible for many highly publicized terrorist acts

by Ehud Ya’ari

The Atlantic Monthly | June 1987


To inspire his troops to seek martyrdom, the Ayatollah Khomeini promises them a room next to his in paradise. The suicide bombers of the Hizballah (Party of God), whose terrorist arm is better known as the Islamic Jihad, look forward to everlasting life in the bosom of the merciful Allah. But there is a more bizarre growth spreading in the landscape of international terrorism: a party whose members go knowingly and willingly to their deaths without the comfort of a hereafter, out of pure conviction, in the service of an idea. It is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, “Greetings to You, Syria,” to the strains of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.

These are the hallmarks of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), the oldest terrorist organization in existence today and one of the most secret and deadly. Despite its long history of violence, Western security organs were recently taken by surprise when they learned that a well-camouflaged arm of the SSNP had succeeded in setting up a large terror network in Western Europe—complete with safe houses, weapons caches, and forged passports—and that it was the SSNP that had set off a series of deadly explosions in the heart of Paris, to gain the release of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah. The United States, too, has felt the effects of the SSNP. The explosion aboard a TWA flight nearing Athens in April of 1986, which cost the lives of four passengers—one of them an infant—has been traced to May Mansur, of Tripoli, a veteran member of the SSNP, who debarked at a previous stopover after placing a bomb under her seat.

Dedicated to the principle of establishing Greater Syria—which extends from the Euphrates to the Nile, an area that today includes Syria, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Turkey—the SSNP has little in common with the Shiite religious zealots of the Hizballah, who, operating from Iran to Lebanon, are trying to bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth, or with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who seek the redemption of their lost homeland at the end of a trail of blood. Although the SSNP may align itself with these groups for the sake of expediency, it regards them all as fighting for the sectarian interests of pseudo-national communities that are misguided in their failure to identify with the broader “Syrian nation.” If the Islamic Jihad or the PLO indirectly or even inadvertently advances the “Syrian cause,” the SSNP is glad to collaborate. But it will not support the Hizballah in its aim of founding an Islamic republic in Lebanon or help the PLO work toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, for these goals clash head-on with the SSNP’s goal of a secular Syrian state. And while it supports the present Syrian government of President Hafez al-Assad as the fulcrum of power in Syria, the SSNP is wary of the regime’s sectarian (Alawi) and socialist leanings and its support of pan-Arabism, which calls for an Arab state (as opposed to the Syrian state called for by the SSNP) spanning the area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader, pan-Arabism has become more a sentiment than a political movement.

The SSNP has an independent tradition of more than fifty years of violence, and some of the decisive events in the modern history of the Middle East have been triggered by its expertise in political assassination. For example, the murder of Colonel Adnan Maliki, the Syrian deputy chief of staff, in 1955, which led almost directly to Soviet influence over Syria, and the murder of Lebanon’s President-elect Bashir Gemayel, in September of 1982, which sparked the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and prompted the collapse of Israeli Defence Minister Ariel Sharon’s plans to change the face of the Middle East, can both be traced directly to the SSNP.

Since March of 1985 the SSNP has sent about half a dozen suicide drivers in booby-trapped vehicles, or “torches,” toward Israel from Lebanon, killing about thirty civilians in the explosions. This style of terrorism was inspired by the success of the Shiite fanatics who blew themselves up in the camps of the American Marines and the French troops in Beirut. The man currently responsible for training these suicide bombers, a stocky, bearded fellow in his mid-thirties named Assad Khardan, has created something of a cult around the suicide attacks. Khardan, who earned himself the position of SSNP commissioner of security in part by forcing his predecessor to jump to his death from a third story balcony, has been known to spend months preparing candidates for suicide missions. He is especially fond of using attractive young women from indigent families, and has already sent four such martyrs to their deaths. The feminine gender is not a sine qua non, however; four men have blown themselves up inside vehicles packed with half a ton of explosives each. All successfully negotiated their way up to one of the roadblocks just outside the Israeli security zone (which extends about seven and a half miles into Lebanon) and activated the detonator when they were stopped for the standard search and check of documents. Unlike the Shiites of the Islamic Jihad, the SSNP does not have to send out a backup team with a remote-control detonator in case its emissaries get cold feet at the last minute.

Archival documents published in recent years reveal that Sa’adeh and his immediate successors received aid from Western intelligence services. French intelligence in the Levant utilized the SSNP almost from its inception, to undermine the pan-Arab movement in Syria and keep Christian youngsters out of its ranks. The SSNP secretly received money and, occasionally, small arms from the Deuxième Bureau, which also persuaded the French authorities to turn a blind eye to the party’s violent actions. In the 1950s the CIA adopted this approach, viewing the SSNP as dubious but nonetheless deserving of support, because it adamantly opposed the vision of Arab unity being promoted by Nasser and it fought leftist movements. Moreover, the SSNP supported the programs then being promoted by the West to forge the unity of the Fertile Crescent as a barrier against Soviet penetration. Thus the SSNP in Lebanon was accorded generous aid in maintaining an armed Militia, and this fought alongside the other pro-Western groups in the 1958 Lebanese civil war, which climaxed with the landing of the Marines on the shores of Beirut. In effect, this militia—sporting uniforms similar to those of Nazi storm troopers—prospered with the help of covert American encouragement. It is the forebear of the terrorist cells operating today.

When the Israel Defence Forces captured much of Beirut, in 1982, Ariel Sharon neglected to order a search for SSNP activists, and in recent years the party’s militia has gotten back on its feet. Armed with Soviet weapons (courtesy of the Syrians), its members underwent their baptism by fire in the battles waged by Syria against Arafat’s forces in Tripoli, in 1983, and against the Phalangist troops in the Shouf Mountains, in 1984. The SSNP also played a role in instigating terrorist actions against the Marines in Beirut, though the actual bombing was perpetrated by Shiites from the Hizballah. The SSNP militia is not a very large one. According to Israeli intelligence, it boasts a total of a few thousand fighters, some of whom are reservists called up only in emergencies. But it has one great advantage over rivals and allies alike: as Christians, its members enjoy greater freedom of movement both in Lebanon and beyond than Moslems do. Moreover, in contrast to other terrorist forces, it is structured on a rigid hierarchy and exercises iron discipline.

Because of its unparalleled control over its members, the SSNP has become Syria’s most reliable instrument of terror, and it is employed for particularly sensitive and dangerous operations that are beyond the capabilities of the Palestinian terror groups headquartered in Damascus.

Through the SSNP, Syrian intelligence is also penetrating the large concentrations of Lebanese emigrés in locations from West Africa to Detroit, exploiting the party’s fund-raising and propaganda activities to scout out new recruits. In this way the Syrians are hoping to break free of their dependence on the Palestinian terrorist organizations, which have declined into a state of incessant squabbling and in any case have yet to recover from the disaster following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Arafat’s expulsion from Jordan and Tunis, and the split within the PLO.

In an era when the pan-Arab vision has fallen into eclipse and the doctrine of Arab socialism seems bankrupt, the SSNP offers a formula that sounds both fresh and promising: We are all Syrians, and the remedy for our ills lies not in pan-Arabism or social revolution but in strengthening Syria and extending its borders. In the past few years the SSNP’s call has been attended by Lebanese resigned to the loss of their national independence, Palestinians who have despaired of realizing Arafat’s slogans, and people from an assortment of sects and minorities in the Middle East. Even some Shiites are turning away from Khomeini’s preachings, about an Islamic revolution to seek refuge in the SSNP, as the Israeli army discovered while contending with the guerrillas in South Lebanon.

This present cooperation with other sects and causes notwithstanding, the heads of the SSNP do not wholly trust Hafez al-Assad (and Assad does not wholly trust them). But they welcome the alliance as an opportunity to work up momentum and gain freedom of action. It matters little that their efforts may not bear fruit for many years to come. Theirs is a movement distinguished by inordinate patience, and they measure its success in historical terms, not by today’s headlines.

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