x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 December 2017

Assad finds fan base among white supremacists in Charlottesville

Nazi chants and anti-Semitic slogans have always been part of white supremacist marches in the United States, but T-shirts celebrating the Syrian dictator and his barrel-bomb tactics are a new phenomenon 

White nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017. Mykal McEldowney / The Indianapolis Star via AP
White nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11, 2017. Mykal McEldowney / The Indianapolis Star via AP

More than 9,000 kilometres from Damascus, Bashar Al Assad might have found himself a rejuvenated US fan base in the Virginia city of Charlottesville, where a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters over the weekend.

Nazi chants and anti-Semitic slogans have always been part of white supremacist marches, but T-shirts celebrating the Syrian dictator and his barrel-bomb tactics are a new phenomenon which was on display in Charlottesville.

Even the 20-year-old man arrested for driving into counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19, appears to be an Assad fan. Among the many posts of Nazi flags, alt-right cartoons and swastikas on James Alex Field's Facebook page was one featuring a photo of the Syrian president in a military outfit and the word “undefeated”.

The affinity for Mr Al Assad in American white supremacist circles can be explained by deep anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments, along with pro-Russia sentiment, experts told The National.

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, said the convergence of the Syrian president and white supremacists in US political culture is not entirely new and has historical background. The outspoken white supremacist David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, “has been a fan of the Assad regime for decades”, said Mr Telhami.

“He was initially attracted to Assad mostly because of [the Syrian president's] opposition to Israel, more actively after the Iraq war [in 2003]. David Duke and some others thought this was a war for Israel.”

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Mr Duke visited Syria in 2009, three years after travelling to Iran to take part in a Holocaust denial conference. “We are both occupied by Zionists" is the message that Mr Duke propagated and one that could be inspiring his supporters right now, Mr Telhami said.

Another reason for the white supremacists' support of Mr Al Assad could be the perception that he is battling Islamic extremism in a war supported by Russia, said Noah Rothman, a policy analyst and assistant online editor at Commentary magazine.

“These are Vladimir Putin's useful idiots and Bashar Al Assad is Moscow's vassal despot,” Mr Rothman said. “Russia has spared few expenses in the effort to propagandise their support for his monstrous regime as a species of nobility … in their universe, Assad is combating radical Islamists and even the civilian populations he targets with weapons of mass destruction are collaborators who deserve to be cleansed.”

Both Mr Rothman and Mr Telhami said that although American white supremacists may know little about Syria or may not even realise they are simply echoing Russian propaganda, this did not make them any less useful to political opportunists in the US and the Middle East.