This week’s march, entitled ‘Unite the Right’, by a collection of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other right-wing extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, has thrown the United States into turmoil.
One counter-marcher lies dead, and many more have been injured, rammed by a suspected terrorist in a vehicle. And the country as a whole remains shocked and raw.
The president, Donald Trump, has made several rounds of remarks on the subject, sometimes appearing to equivocate, other times seeming to condemn the marchers and the violence their ideological ally unleashed.
Many have said that this does not amount to enough, and they would be right. But the story then becomes one about Trump’s reticence or bluster, and the nature of the march itself recedes into the background.
This will not do.
Amid all this chaos, and the tumult in America more generally, some aspects of this march could be lost and forgotten. Etymological concerns abound. It concerns the ‘alt-right’, as they style themselves. Do we call them fascists?
They were certainly behaving like fascists.
Another thing these marchers seemed to have in common with Nazis was something that might seem initially incongruous: Love for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
When used in relation with such people, ‘love’ might seem a strong word, but the sentiment was there and it was real. On film, marchers wearing Assad-themed t-shirts affirmed that Syria’s tyrant ‘did nothing wrong’ in between chants of ‘blood and soil’.
Referring to a crude, vicious means by which the Syrian air force kills civilians, the same people were positively gleeful. ‘Barrel bombs, hell yeah!’ one said, promising to use the same weapons on ‘commies’.
James Fields, the man who drove his car into a mass of people and vehicles protesting against the march, had, as Joyce Karam notes, posted a picture of Assad in uniform bearing the legend ‘undefeated’ on his Facebook page.
This love fits a type. American Nazis, like their European and Middle Eastern counterparts, all seem to love Assad.
Britain’s far-right British National Party loves Assad. Its on-again, off-again leader, Nick Griffin, has made visits to Damascus to pay tribute. While there, he has given glowing interviews to the Russian state media channel, RT, describing Assad’s cause as a just one.
Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn also loves Assad. Its leaders have repeatedly pledged solidarity with his violent crackdown. There was even the suggestion, reported on three years ago, that Golden Dawn-linked mercenaries may be fighting for the Assad regime. Even though these rumours were likely inflated, their appearance at all, in neo-Nazi newspapers, shows apparent willingness to fight and die for Syria’s brutal dictator.
Lebanon’s Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which marches under a modified swastika, is so pro-Assad that it has been fighting on his side, and even serving as a conduit for pro-Assad speakers from outside Syria to enter the country.
In America things are clearer cut. David Duke, a white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has been a fan of the Assad regime for years. This affection, which is possibly down to Syria’s long-term opposition to Israel, has lasted to this day. Duke tweets gushingly that Assad is a ‘modern day hero standing up to demonic forces seeking to destroy his people and nation’.
This language of Duke’s – ‘demonic forces’ in particular – is noteworthy. It gets to the heart of things.
Nazis like Assad because he has killed, and is killing, a lot of Muslims. This is essential to their view of the world. Anyone who sets out to murder Muslims and Arabs can be considered a friend. In this sense the far-right love affair with Assad can be considered almost tactical, a means to an end.
But there is more to it than that. The far-right seems to genuinely believe part of Assad’s rhetoric. Its proponents parrot Assad’s line that he is at the head of a force which is protecting Syria and therefore Europe from ‘Sunni barbarism’.
In this fanciful telling, Assad is manning the gates of civilisation, holding out against unspecified barbarians.
How neatly this slots into the far-right worldview. Sunni Muslims are, in Duke’s mind, ‘demonic forces’. That he conflates Syrians protesting for freedom and an end to dictatorship with jihadists is almost incidental. The far-right and Assad share hatreds.
But more than that, there are also links between Ba’athism and historical fascism. Early Baath leaders sought to emulate the tactics and practices of European fascists. They attempted to modify its doctrines to suit Arab chauvinism, but otherwise the fascist component of Baath ideology is clear to see.
The centrality of the all-powerful leader; loud talk of racial purity and the superiority of a chosen race, in this case Arabs; hatred of the Jews – all these mark out Baathism’s origins and the sources of its early inspiration.
Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Ba’athist dictator, took signal lessons from many twentieth century tyrants, but his borrowings from the catalogue of fascist practices are most obvious of all.
The Syrian Ba’ath regime provided material help and shelter to Nazis fleeing Europe. One of them, Alois Brunner, most likely died in Damascus after being harboured by the Baath regime for many years. He was never extradited and was in fact generously rewarded by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, for passing on Nazi methods of torture.
Those methods have, it can be assumed, found extensive employment under the Assads.
Nazis across the world love Assad partly because it is transgressive to do so. Their governments, or most of them, acknowledge Assad’s crimes and so to downplay them or embrace them seems an exciting, daring act.
More than this, however, Assad’s message of him holding back hordes of enemies and killing undesirables falls on receptive ears. Nazis find this message attractive, and admire him because, in both rhetoric and method, he is more than a little like them.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.