It shouldn’t be surprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become an idol among white nationalists in the United States.
During the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally several weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Baked Alaska, an infamous far-right YouTuber, livestreamed an encounter with a demonstrator wearing a T-shirt that read “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.” The shirt alluded to the Assad regime’s frequent, horrific use of barrel bombs — weapons employed to indiscriminately target rebel-held areas of Syria.
That rally-goer shouted, “Support the Syrian Arab Army!” and “Assad did nothing wrong!” They gloated over how Assad can “solve this whole ISIS problem” with just two chemical bombs. James Fields, the 20-year-old white supremacist who allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, posted a portrait of Assad, in military regalia and aviator sunglasses to Facebook. A superimposed caption read: “UNDEFEATED.”
There’s a simple explanation for how the American far-right became curiously infatuated with the Arab totalitarian leader: Their hearts were won over by the Assad family’s years-old propaganda campaign at home in Syria. Assad’s authoritarianism uses the same buzzwords as the far-right to describe the society he’s trying to build in his own country — a pure, monolithic society of devotees to his own power. American neo-Nazis see Assad as a hero.
As the chaos of Charlottesville and its aftermath was unfolding, Assad addressed a group of diplomats in Damascus about the ongoing war in Syria. “We lost many of our youth and infrastructure,” he said, “but we gained a healthier and more homogenous society.”
Whereas white nationalists aim to create a healthy and homogeneous society through racial purity, for Assad it means a society free of any kind of political dissent, excluding any Syrian living outside the territory his regime controls. Anyone who does not fit Assad’s specific definition of what it means to be Syrian is up for execution.
Alexander Reid Ross, a lecturer of geography at Portland State University and author of the new book, “Against the Fascist Creep,” said Assad is a figure that is central to a realization of “Eurasianism.” The notion “holds that Russia will lead the world out of a dark age of materialism and toward an ultranationalist rebirth of homogenous ethno-states federated under a heterogeneous spiritual empire,” Reid Ross said.
In other words, the Assad dynasty, with the strong backing of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state in Russia, is the Middle East’s leading force toward creating a society that is spiritually, socially, and politically “pure.” Cosmopolitanism, with diversity in political thought and social identity, is an obstacle for those aiming to realize this vision.
Assad is a key figure in confirming the white nationalist worldview. “Holding on to Syria,” Reid Ross said, “marks for them a crucial foothold in a larger geopolitical mission — one that has everything to do with that spiritual purity associated with family, tradition, and nation.” To the far right, Assad is at the front lines in the fight against the Islamic State and, more broadly, the forces of “Islamic terrorism” in the Middle East under a nationalist banner that looks very much like their own.
And the admiration doesn’t run in only one direction. The Assad regime has cultivated relationships with far-right white nationalists for decades. One of these was allegedly Alois Brunner, who actually died in Damascus in 2010. There is reason to believe that Brunner advised Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad on torture techniques used in Syria’s infamous prison system, even as the regime has denied ever harboring Bruner.
In spite of the Assad regime’s track record of being the primary perpetrators of escalating Syria’s civil war — which has likely left half a million dead and spurred a massive exodus of refugees — the United Nations, the United States, and certainly Russia are all looking for solutions to the Syrian crisis that keep Assad in power. Assad’s relationship-building and connections with fringe politicians in the West has contributed to creating international legitimacy for his continued rule, as well as fueling a propaganda machine that paints the dictator as one of the final Arab leaders standing up against American imperialism and “Islamic extremism.”
Radwan Ziadeh, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and a prolific, longtime Syrian dissident, said that the Assad dynasty’s central strategy in forging international legitimacy was to cultivate an image as a guardian of Christians in Syria and the wider region.
This mythos he built around himself has worked well in garnering support for the Assad family from outside Syria. Aside from Brunner and other Nazis taking shelter in Syria, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke visited Damascus in 2005, addressing a “demonstration” in support of Assad’s fight against Zionism, propping up Assad’s image as an anti-imperialist. (Palestinian refugees within Syria have suffered greatly under Assad’s sieges.)
Even more recently, as journalist Alex Rowell recently pointed out, far-right politicians from the French National Front, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Vlaams Belang in Belgium, among many others, met with Syrian government officials in Damascus over the past few years. The meetings came as the regime began to gain momentum against opposition forces with the help of Russian military intervention and support.
The Ba’ath Party, a multi-national party which was led by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, held meetings with international far-right parties. The Iraqi Ba’ath Party met with the National Front in France and Die Republikaner in Germany, both far-right parties in the E.U., according to Reid Ross. “The radical right and fascists see them as nationalists like them,” he told The Intercept.
Though Assad has also won some support from international political forces on the left, Reid Ross argued that the support from the right is crucial to Assad’s success. “The most important international support for Assad stems from a white supremacist base and a white supremacist administration in the U.S.,” he said.
Assad’s vision of creating a “healthy” and “homogenous” society is what white nationalists have aspired to create for themselves. We don’t need to look as far back as Hitler’s Third Reich to see what their world vision could be. We only need to look at Syria today.
“He destroyed Syria,” Ziadeh said. “The population of Syria dropped before 2011 from 23 million people to into 17 million and you have millions displaced inside the country. It’s a country in ruin.” What’s left, Assad hopes, is a society that uniformly supports his rule.
Correction: Sept. 8, 2017, 2:36 p.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the death toll of the Syrian civil war as being in the millions. Around half a million people have died in the war.