Beirut: At the French government archives in Nantes, the record of Antoun Saadeh — founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) — remains classified. The Lebanese-born philosopher after all was the only politician of his day and era who was truly focused on doing away with the borders of Sykes-Picot, imposed on the Middle East by the infamous agreement of 1916.
A native of Duhur Shuwayr, a picturesque village in Mount Lebanon, Saadeh was born and raised in a Lebanese Christian family in 1904.
His father, Khalil Saadeh, was a ranking intellectual and writer in his own right, and a prominent physician as well.
Saadeh moved with him to Latin America in 1919 and worked with him in Brazil, then moved to Damascus where he wrote for the mass circulation daily, Al Ayyam.
On the campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB) Saadeh founded a secret society of five intellectuals, bound by an oath of loyalty to himself, called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Officially established in November 1932, the SSNP was a radical and secular party that believed in the Syrian identity and refused to accept or legitimise the borders of Sykes-Picot.
As far as the SSNP was concerned, there was no such thing as Iraq, Jordan, or Lebanon, and certainly, no independent Palestine and no Israel. All of them should unite within their natural geography, forming what he called “Greater Syria” with its capital in Damascus.
In his philosophy book, Nushu Al Ummam (Rise of Nations), Saadeh wrote: “Syria belongs to the Syrians who constitute a nation complete in itself. The Syrian homeland is that geographic environment where the Syrian nation evolved.
“It has natural boundaries which separate it from other countries extending from the Taurus range in the northwest and Zagros Mountains in the northeast to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea in the south and includes the Sinai Peninsula and the Gulf of Aqaba and from the Syrian Sea [Mediterranean Sea] in the west, including the island of Cyprus to the Arch of the Arabian Desert and the Arabian Gulf in the east. This region is also called the Syrian Fertile Crescent with the island of Cyprus being its star.”
Saadeh’s views got him in trouble with Lebanese nationalists; he refused to recognise sovereignty of the state of Lebanon and the authority of its officials, claiming that the country did not exist and should merge within Greater Syria.
During the Second World War Saadeh went to Europe and became a frequent speaker on Radio Berlin, expressing fiery support for the Axis in their war against Great Britain and France — the architects of Sykes-Picot.
Saadeh returned to Beirut in March 1947, further pushing for his campaign of remerging Lebanon with Syria as the first step in doing away with the boundaries of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
He trashed the confessional system that had recently been formed in Beirut, giving Lebanon’s premiership to a Sunni Muslim and the presidency to a Maronite Christian.
His men clashed with those of the Lebanese Phalange, a left-wing Maronite party and self-proclaimed vanguard of Lebanese independence. They attacked the SSNP’s printing press, and members of Saadeh’s party were killed. The party was shut down and nearly 700 members fled to Syria, evading arrest — headed by Saadeh.
In Damascus he was warmly received by Syria’s new president, General Hosni Al Zaim.
Having seized power a few months back in a bloodless coup d’etat, Al Zaim sought Arab legitimacy and got a cold shoulder from Lebanese officials, who were still committed to his predecessor, President Shukri Al Quwatli. He vowed to topple the Lebanese Government and saw a perfect tool in Saadeh.
For his part, Saadeh hoped that Al Zaim’s financial and military support would help him overrun and retake Lebanon.
Saadeh declared Damascus to be the “headquarters of the first popular social revolution”, and began his war on Lebanon in July 1949.
His men crossed the border with orders to attack government offices and police stations in Beirut, Shouf, Metn, and Bekaa.
But they were immediately apprehended by Lebanese authorities. One group walked straight into an ambush. Another group was disarmed and forced to surrender, while a third group discovered that it had been sent into combat with machine guns that had the wrong calibre ammunition.
To Saadeh’s bad luck a secret deal had been struck between Al Zaim and Lebanese Prime Minister Riad Al Solh, where Damascus would extradite Saadeh in exchange for official recognition from Beirut.
Saadeh was indeed betrayed and delivered to Lebanon on July 6, 1949 and was executed by firing squad — at the age of 45 — two days later.
Saadeh’s legacy continues to live until today, and he is probably one of the most charismatic Arab philosophers of the 20th century. British historian Patrick Seale once described him saying: “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.”