by Alex Rowell
When the neo-Nazi who smashed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia – killing a woman and injuring many others – was found to have posted a Facebook photo supportive of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, more than a few lay observers were left scratching their heads.
Adding to the confusion were videos from the scene showing fellow white supremacists in Charlottesville voicing sympathies for Assad (‘Assad’s the man, brother! Assad’s the man!’); one even wearing a t-shirt depicting a helicopter next to the words, ‘Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.’.
That the fascist mob should be enamoured of President Trump seemed comprehensible enough. But why should they be keen on a non-Aryan, non-Christian – indeed, Arab and Muslim, no less – leader with ties to such notorious Islamist entities as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic of Iran?
‘Syria’s Assad has become an unexpected icon of the far right in America’, declared a Washington Post headline, in a nod at the general puzzlement. This was a fine article but an unfortunate title, for it was only ‘unexpected’ for those unaware of Damascus’ open courtship of the global far-right stretching back many years now (the headline was later amended to remove the word ‘unexpected’). As this author put it in a Twitter thread:
And this barely scratches the surface. A fuller account would have to mention the pro-Assad leanings of Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD; Bulgaria’s Ataka [‘Attack’] party; Hungary’s Jobbik; and Greece’s Black Lily, which has reportedly gone as far as to send volunteer fighters to Syria (credit to Sergio Pérez and Leila al-Shami for unearthing these). One could also point to Marine Le Pen recently calling the Assad regime’s survival ‘the most reassuring solution’; American far-right activist Richard Spencer’s #StandWithAssad tweets; former English Defence League head Tommy Robinson’s similar pro-Assad tweeting; UKIP MEP Nigel Farage’s declaration that he is ‘on the same side’ as Assad; and British columnist Katie Hopkins’ defence of Assad and his regime as ‘the only man, the only country standing fast against the tide of mediaeval religious fanaticism’. A truly comprehensive dive into this underworld would no doubt throw up scores more examples.
After I tweeted the above, a number of people wrote back to ask if I might venture an explanation for what they evidently found a perplexing alliance. Why do fascists like the Assad regime? The simplest answer is that the Assad regime is a fascist regime. The brownshirts know a brother-in-arms when they see one.
Utterly hostile to democracy of any but the most flagrantly fraudulent kind, the Syrian regime plasters its führer’s face on every public square and building and murders civilians with poison gas. One of the very few political parties tolerated alongside the ruling Baathists is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (name remind you of anything?), founded in the 1930s by a professor of German, which brandishes a swastika-inspired flag and boasts of killing ‘the Jews of the interior’ and ‘the racist Jewish enemy’, its terminology for the Syrian rebels its militia fights. In its prisons, the regime tortures opponents using methods borrowed directly from the Third Reich, such as the so-called ‘German chair’ (indeed it was said to have been the aforementioned Herr Brunner who personally passed on this expertise). One of the dungeons not far from the presidential palace, Saydnaya, where Amnesty International says dozens are exterminated every week, now even has its own crematorium on-site for added Auschwitz effect.
This last point gets at a second key reason for Assad’s far-right popularity: his regime has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Muslims. This genuinely is a central part of his appeal – keep in mind we’re not speaking here of morally balanced individuals; we’re speaking of people who applaud Auschwitz; who lament only that it didn’t finish off the job. It’s true that Assad himself is a Muslim, but, crucially, he belongs to a minority denomination, the Alawites, who have been deliberately pitted by the regime against the Sunni denomination that forms the overwhelming demographic majority of Muslims both in Syria and worldwide. Thus, for the fascists (as also, ironically, for Sunni extremists such as ISIS), Assad is seen as something less than a ‘real’ Muslim; perhaps even a sort of quasi-Christian.
Speaking of Christians, a third factor is the critically important Vladimir Putin connection. For as well as being the patron of white, Christian, misogynistic, homophobic, illiberal, and violent reaction worldwide, the Russian president has been the indispensable protector and defender of the Assad regime, whether at the UN Security Council or in the skies over Aleppo. The photo below put out by the ultra-right British National Party shortly after Russian air force atrocities got underway in Syria is, I think, a handy synthesis of many of these themes.
One really sees it all here: the classical fascist motifs (the stern leader’s humourless glare behind dark glasses; the vulgar militarism; the contempt for insufficiently belligerent mainstream politicians; the outrageously false claims; even the illiteracy [‘airstikes’]) with a contemporary twist (the delight in the butchery of Muslims, who are conflated en masse with ISIS). It’s the sort of thing one would expect to see tweeted out by the notorious pro-Kremlin bots, who, much like official state-linked media outlets (RT, Sputnik, etc.), are as likely to be found boosting David Duke and Richard Spencer as pro-Assad propagandists and conspiracy theorists.
Small wonder, then, that the very same Charlottesville Nazis who cry ‘Assad’s the man!’ were heard chanting ‘Russia is our friend!’ at a previous demonstration in May. And small wonder, one would now hope, that a dictator who has come to symbolize a 21st-century international alliance against democratic humanism should win the adulation of skinhead gargoyles whose debased spirits vibrate to the selfsame poisonous drumbeat.
Alex Rowell is a writer and translator based in Beirut. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Economist, the BBC, and NOW Lebanon. Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas is forthcoming in November from Hurst. He tweets as @alexjrowell.