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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

The cult of Bashar Al Assad extends from the far-right to the far-left

Assad may be lionised among American neo-Nazis, but he is also admired on the fringes of the far-left, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president. EPA/ Sana Handout
Bashar Al Assad, Syria's president. EPA/ Sana Handout

As violence drew the attention of the world's media to the protests in the Virginia city of Charlottesville, a novel and previously barely remarked phenomenon was observed. Amid the usual Nazi chants and imagery of white supremacy was the open display of support and celebration for Bashar Al Assad.

How did the Syrian dictator become the poster child for white supremacists? Unpicking this extraordinary spectacle of American far-right support for Mr Al Assad, The National’s Washington correspondent, Joyce Karam, noted three aspects: far-right anti-Semitism and dislike of Israel, the “common cause” of Assad's rejection of the Iraq war and the belief that he is standing up to the “globalists”, and their image of him as an authoritarian leader.

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These elements, Karam pointed out, overlap, creating an image in the minds of these ideologues which persists despite them not knowing much about the Syrian civil war or indeed Syria itself.

Yet this support for the Al Assad regime is not limited to the far-right. On the far-left of the political spectrum, Mr Al Assad is also lionised and for many of the same reasons.

In particular, it is the legacy of the Iraq war and Mr Al Assad's “credentials” as authoritarian and secular that most on the far-left praise.

The American far-right believe it was shadowy “globalists” who persuaded the US to go to war in Iraq. For the far-left in western countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, there is no such subgroup. Instead, there is just good old-fashioned US imperialism – and it is Mr Al Assad who is standing up to it.

This isn't a new thought. Anyone who spent time in Syria in the years before the revolution will remember this line of argument used again and again. Mr Al Assad used it in the years after the September 11 attacks, as the Americans geared up to invade Iraq. His father Hafez used it in the 1990s when Syria was ostracised around the region.

But the Iraq invasion connects all of them. Because of the invasion, leftists became allergic to any military action, especially if it involved the United States. On the far-left, there is an acceptance, sometimes even praise, for Vladimir Putin's decisions in Syria and for the fighting skills of Hizbollah and Iran. Yet any military action by the west, whether sanctioned by the United Nations as in Libya or whether called for by citizens and civilians themselves, as in Syria, is anathema.

This connects with the second aspect, which is the tendency for the far-left and far-right to fear that removing secular strongmen unleashes chaos – Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi are their favourite examples, with Mr Al Assad being the only one of the dominos not to fall.

And why, in their understanding, does it unleash chaos? Because of a belief that a Syria ruled firmly by Mr Al Assad would be more secular. Such thinking is, at root, motivated by fear of the “brown masses”, the belief that it takes force to keep the peoples of the Middle East in line. The far-left would never say it, but for them too much explicit religion, especially devotion to Islam, necessarily leads to fanaticism.

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The far-left sees Syria's society under the Al Assads as secular, which is not untrue, even if it is – well, since the revolution, was – an enforced, strongman secularism. The far-left's worldview says Mr Al Assad’s secularism means he will protect minorities, a view that fosters the belief that too much Islamic influence would pose a threat to Christians and other minorities. Centuries of coexistence suggest otherwise.

Indeed, this very idea is one promoted by regimes like that of Mr Al Assad and Saddam, who set ethnic and religious groups against each other to make them fear the majority Arab Muslims. Both Mr Al Assad and Saddam posed as defenders of Christian communities against Muslims, when in fact they were attacking both in defence of their own family’s position.

Yet for the far-left, none of that matters. They focus on the secular society they believe existed before 2011 and think only Mr Al Assad can return Syria to that point. If they only tenuously believed it in 2011, then, as the conflict has twisted and turned from its original inception as a revolution against the Al Assad regime, they certainly believe it now. As the centrist rebels became outgunned by Islamists, the far-left persistently argued that that state of affairs was inevitable. The rebels, they argue, were always terrorists, Al Qaeda or ISIL sympathisers. That the battlefield changed priorities and allegiances didn't matter.

“Who would you prefer in charge of Damascus?” they ask rhetorically, apparently unaware that was the same simplistic logic that led the march to the 2003 Iraq war. (Even today, Tony Blair still uses that line of reasoning, saying it was “better” to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The second part of the sentence – “even if it meant the total destruction of Iraqi cities, families and businesses” – is always unsaid.)

Mr Al Assad's crimes are always forgiven by the far-left, as they are by the far-right, as long as they are done in the service of keeping Syrians mute, keeping the borders quiet, and painting the country's facade a secular hue. In both cases, they fear precisely what the first Syrian protesters demanded: the freedom for Syrians to run their country as they see fit. The crowd of people lining up to deny Syrians that opportunity stretches from the far-right to the far-left, while their champion sits in the presidential palace in Damascus.

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