It is generally held that the ideology of Arab nationalism is virtually dead. At the governmental level, this assertion mostly holds true, with the Fatah-led regime of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank being the last real representative of old ideals of pan-Arab unity. However, on the ground, traditional Arab nationalists may be found in all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. As it turns out, they have formed their own volunteer militia force to fight in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime: the Arab Nationalist Guard.
A manifesto put out by an Arab Nationalist Guard activist of Egyptian origin explains the basics of the group's existence as follows: "The Arab Nationalist Guard is a military resistance movement currently operating in the Syrian Arab Republic, established in April 2013 by a group of Arab Nationalist Youth from many Arab countries, currently including four battalions bearing the names of martyred leaders: Wadih Haddad, Haydar al-Amali, Mohamed Brahmi, and Jules Jammal. In total there are 50 resisting Arab battalions."
Here, an explanation ought to be given of the significance of the names. Mohamed Brahmi was a secular Tunisian politician who founded the Arab nationalist and socialist People's Movement after the overthrow of dictator Ben Ali in the Tunisian Revolution. He was subsequently assassinated by Islamists in July of this year.
Wadih Haddad was a Palestinian Christian and Arab nationalist militant in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, responsible for organizing plane hijackings in the late 1960s and 1970s. Jules Jammal was a legendary Syrian Arab Christian naval officer who supposedly sank a French ship during the Suez War in defense of Egypt for the cause of Arab nationalism, subject to much eulogy thereafter. Hayder al-Amali was a prominent modern Arab nationalist thinker and politician of Lebanese origin who died in 2007.
The group's ideology, as can be inferred from the name, falls in line with traditional pan-Arab sentiments, with notions of Arab unity and anti-imperialism: "The Arab Nationalist Guard espouses Arab nationalist ideals, believing in the existence of a single Arab ummah, and the necessity of liberating and uniting it in a single political entity gathering all Arabs away from any sectarian, ethnic, or religious extremism; and thus is the necessity of confronting Zionism and colonialist trends that threaten the Arab nation with even more division than the current partition, exploitation of its resources and colonization."
Concomitant with these ideals is an adoption of the Assad regime's rhetoric. Thus the Arab Nationalist Guard emphasizes the need also "to confront all Takfiri movements that aim to strike our unity and aim to sow division." Indeed, "As a result of the ideas of the Arab Nationalist Guard, there is participation in the defense of the Syrian Arab Republic, preserving its unity and supporting it in confronting the colonialist project that threatens it with internal collaborator Arab tools with Zionist-American support declaring an attempt to break Syrian bravery." The group also unsurprisingly stresses the necessity of liberating Palestine.
The Arab Nationalist Guard reflects its ideology in imagery circulated on social media. Particular reverence is accorded to the 20th century's foremost representative of the ideology of Arab nationalism: namely, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who in the Syrian context of pan-Arabism is particularly relevant on account of his project of the United Arab Republic (UAR): a union between Syria and Egypt in the period 1958-61 that used the same flag as that of the Assad regime in Syria today.
Other groups and figures that stand out for praise include late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela (as a supposed symbol of anti-imperialism), Hezbollah (in keeping with the image of resistance to the West etc.), Saddam Hussein (for similar reasons) and of course, Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab Nationalist Guard maintains links with the activist networks- by the name "Arab Nationalist Youth"- from which it draws recruits in a number of locations. Some of the more prominent places where Arab Nationalist Youth activity can be found include Sidon in Lebanon, Gaza and Egypt.
Operations of the Arab Nationalist Guard in Syria
According to an Arab Nationalist Youth activist and subsequent fighter for the Arab Nationalist Guard, alternating his time between Sidon and Damascus, the Arab Nationalist Guard's membership includes Arab nationalists from a variety of countries, including Egypt and Iraq.
At the same time, he claimed to me that the group has "fighters from all Syrian sects and welcomes all ethnicities of the Ummah from Arabs, Kurds and Amazigh (the Arab Maghreb) because we nationalists believe that the land is for all in it and we distance ourselves from chauvinism." This apparent openness contrasts a great deal with Arab nationalist regimes' actual historical record with regards to Kurdish and Berber minorities, whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya (both figures revered in these circles anyway).
My contact added that the Arab Nationalist Guard, which cooperates closely with the Syrian army and the National Defense Force militia, operates in a number of areas of Syria, including Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Aleppo governorates. From the open-source evidence that has emerged, it would appear that Damascus province is the primary region of focus for the Arab Nationalist Guard, playing a role in the recent regime offensive on the Qalamoun area. Other areas of operation in Damascus province I have been able to identify- barring those mentioned in the photos below- encompass Mazara' al-Qasimiya and Hatita al-Turkoman.
The Arab Nationalist Guard has its own claimed martyrs but sources connected to the group are unwilling to name many for "security reasons." The same reason lies behind vagueness on areas of operation outside of Damascus province. Below are the most notable cases.
Arab nationalism has lost much favor among governments in the Middle East and North Africa: indeed, even with the Assad regime itself and close associates, it is notable how there is an increasing emphasis in the discourse on claiming true Syrian identity, stressing use of Syrian dialect of Arabic and claiming a proud pre-Arab history (e.g. see this latest song by the Muqawama Suriya of Latakia- "Resist"- which mentions how "the history of the land witnessed the Byzantines, previously the Romans," and avoids references to pan-Arab ideals).
However, for some on the ground in a number of Arab countries, whether Egypt (note especially as regards the anti-Muslim Brotherhood Tamarrod movement with reverence for Nasser) or Yemen, the ideology lives on, translating to support for Assad in spite of the ever growing Sunni-Shi'i sectarianism in regional discourse. Perhaps we should not be so surprised that old-fashioned Nasserites have ended up fighting in Syria.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.