Two boys stand in front of the old Syrian flag, which has been adopted by the anti-regime rebels, during a sit in in the Abu Samra district of the Lebanese port city of Tripoli on August 4, 2012.
Two boys stand in front of the old Syrian flag, which has been adopted by the anti-regime rebels, during a sit in in the Abu Samra district of the Lebanese port city of Tripoli on August 4, 2012. AFP/Getty Images
Sami Moubayed is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and author of Syria and the USA: Washington's Relations with Damascus from Wilson to Eisenhower.
Deep in the Syrian Archives in Damascus, one can find black-and-white photographs of a military parade that took place in the Syrian capital on Syria's 17th Independence Day: April 17, 1963. The event occurred only 40 days after the Baath Party seized power. Members of Syria's top brass were dressed in their military attire, with colorful decorations of medals across their uniforms, and led by the two co-creators of the Baath regime: Deputy Chief of Staff Salah Jadid and Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad. Behind them fluttered the official Syrian flag: a standard with three stripes of green, white, and black and three red stars drawn across the middle.
Nearly half a century later, this same flag is being waved by those seeking to destroy the regime Assad created and obliterate the Baath Party he commanded. But the symbol of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad is being trashed by regime officials, who claim that it is the "flag of the French Mandate" imposed on Syria from 1920 to 1946. According to state-run media, Syrian rebels are using it to restore Western hegemony over Syria, part of a "galactic" Qatari, Israeli, Saudi, and American plot against Damascus.
From 1932 to 1963 (with one short 1958-1961 interruption), the "revolutionary flag" was Syria's official flag, which explains why it still strikes a nostalgic chord among elderly Syrians. The struggle to return to it speaks volumes about anti-regime Syrians' national identity and their desire to break with everything that reminds them of 49 years of Baath Party rule — even if it means bringing down Syria's oldest surviving state symbol.
Attacking the flag as a symbol of colonialism lacks credibility. For years, after all, it had been hailed by state-run Syrian TV on Independence Day as a symbol of Syria's long fight against the French Mandate, rather than a sign of subservience to it. It had been created in 1932 — during the era of Syria's first democratically elected civilian president, Muhammad Ali al-Abid — by a parliamentary committee headed by the respected Ibrahim Hananu, one of the leaders of the anti-French revolts in the 1920s, whose name has been immortalized in Syrian history books, even by the Baathists themselves. The colors referred to rulers in Syria's past — white for the Umayyads, black for the Abbasids, and green for the Rashidun caliphs of Islam.
The flag was hoisted on government buildings on the day of Syria's independence from France in 1946, and it remained Syria's flag until 1958, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser abolished it upon the creation of the United Arab Republic. Syrians returned to the green-white-black standard when the union was dissolved in 1961, and it remained in use for almost a year after the Baathists came to power in 1963.
This long history explains why the flag remains such a potent symbol. It had been used by 12 Syrian presidents, starting with Abid and up to Amin al-Hafez in 1964. It survived 14 years of French occupation, one war with Israel, and six coups. The Syrian regime cannot write it off so easily.
That may explain why Syrian officialdom, taken completely aback by the audacity of a new flag, was slow in reacting to the new symbol. After initial hesitation on how to react to the flag controversy, pro-regime commentators began appearing on talk shows, in a clearly systematic campaign, trashing the old flag as having been "created and imposed by the French high commissioner in 1932, against the will of the Syrian people." The story was baseless, of course, and they could not document their argument. They also failed to answer why, if this were true, the people of Syria maintained the "commissioner's flag" 17 years after the end of the French Mandate.
Commentators also invented an imaginary story that the three stars in the middle of the old flag were a reference to three sectarian states created during the Mandate: the Alawite state, the Druze state, and the Sunni state (though no such states ever existed in Syrian history). "Those carrying the Mandate flag" they barked on TV, "want to divide Syria along sectarian lines and create three confessional states in our midst." In reality, however, the three stars on the old flag, according to the official 1932 decree, referred to "three revolts against the Mandate" — those of the Alawites, the Druze, and northern Syria, headed by Hananu himself. They are symbols of unity, not federalism.
Along with the smear campaign came an attempt by the Syrian regime at increasing popular allegiance to the existing flag. Countless red, white, and black tricolor flags were manufactured for pro-Assad rallies in Damascus — with some people going as far as placing a photo of Assad between the flag's two green stars. Meanwhile, a state-run campaign was launched to carry the "longest flag in the world" across the Mezzeh Autostrade, the urban artery that runs through the heart of Damascus.
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