Syrian protesters not only want a new regime in Damascus, they also want a new flag – and one that bluntly rejects the political and ideological order established by Arab nationalist leaders decades ago.

During street protests throughout the country, they are spurning the tricolour red, white and black flag that served as the template for Arab nationalist movements led by military officers in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen in favour of the green, white and black flag adopted by Syria after its independence from France.

“They used the [red, white and black] Syrian flag on the tanks that killed us,” said Mohammad, an activist from the besieged city of Homs. “We don’t feel any attachment to a flag used on tanks that came to occupy our cities. It does not represent us anymore.”

Syria first began using the so-called “independence” flag in the 1930s as it was struggling to be free from France. Its three red stars represented the Ottoman districts of Damascus, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor that made up the newly coalescing state.

President Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez and his fellow Ba'ath party military officers established the current red, white and black flag as Syria’s official emblem after a 1963 coup, modifying it again in 1980.

Syrian opposition leaders say activists decided more than a month ago to adopt the independence flag in an attempt to find new symbols to separate the country and its history from 40 years of Ba'ath party rule. In video footage of protests posted to the internet, the contemporary Syrian flag is hardly visible.

“The flag that Bashar’s regime and the army are using now must be different from the ones used by the revolutionaries,” said Khaled Kamal, an official of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella organisation. “We are using the old flag because it symbolises independence. It’s a symbol of independence and the end of the Bashar regime.”

The adoption of the flag also suggests an increasingly radical turn for an opposition movement that began last March with simple demands for more accountability on the part of the security forces.

Libya’s revolutionaries also fought against Colonel Muammer Gaddafi under the monarchy-era flag that predated his rule. Indeed, the opposition movements that fuelled the Arab uprisings during 2011 have turned away from the entire era of ideologically driven Arab nationalism that followed the second world war.

For new models and inspiration they often look to the past, including the Ottoman era and the decades preceding the establishment of the Arab nationalist regimes heralded by the rise in Egypt of Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1952.

“Man,” said Mohammad, the activist, “we want to go back to 1950 in everything: the flag, the constitution.”

Additional reporting by Noah Browning

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