The brutal leader at the center of Syria’s five-year-long war has found support in one of the least likely places — among the alt-right.
The white nationalists and trolls who identify with the alt-right have lifted up Bashar al-Assad as a hero in recent years. Support for the Syrian president means they can further tangled internet conspiracy theories, taps into a deep vein of anti-Semitism, anti-interventionism, and anti-globalism, and allows them to wind up their biggest enemy: liberals.
It was a love affair years in the making. The nationalistic fervor that the Syrian government whipped up in its propaganda over the years has found a home in the hearts of many on the alt-right, the Intercept reports. From the point of view of James Alex Fields Jr. — who posted a popular meme of Assad on his Facebook profile before being charged with the death of a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month — and others like him, Assad was a figurehead who symbolized rebellion, a rejection of the popularly accepted narrative. He was also the perfect way to troll liberals like the ones Fields was marching against in Charlottesville.
As Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab put it, the simplest explanation of the alt-right’s support for Assad is “the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy’” — meaning mainstream media and politicians.
“Assad has been repeatedly condemned by mainstream politicians, especially Democrats, and the mainstream media,” Nimmo told BuzzFeed News. “The alt-right forged their identity around demonizing the Democrats and the mainstream media. Amplifying or supporting Assad is therefore a way for the alt-right to troll their enemies.”
That view was on full display in Charlottesville, where white supremacists had gathered to protest the proposed removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. One video taken at the scene shows a man yelling at the camera while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.,” a reference to the barrel bombs that have killed tens of thousands of civilians.
"Assad did nothing wrong," the man yells. "Support the Syrian Arab Army." In the background another man chimes in: "Assad is the man!"
The protests in Charlottesville culminated in violence and the death of a young female counterprotester, Heather Heyer. In the days after her killing, a pro-Assad meme, showing the Syrian leader dressed in military fatigues, wearing sunglasses, and with the word “undefeated” at the bottom, was found on Fields' Facebook page.
People who fall in the center of the Venn diagram of Assad backers and Trump fans contacted in the aftermath, including both devoted members of the alt-right movement and those who have disavowed it, said they had been pro-Assad before being pro-Trump.
Many said they believed that Assad would protect Syria’s Christians after pro-democracy protests morphed into a civil war following the government’s brutal crackdown.
Lue-Yee Tsang, an alt-right supporter in his late twenties who lives in the DC area, said he supported a president who protected and “supported the right of peaceful groups to maintain their ways of life,” as he believes Assad did. When the US election came around, Trump was the only candidate he considered supporting. “I’d love to have a Christian emperor instead, but given the field he was the best there was,” he said.
A far right nationalist, who goes by the Twitter handle @IWillRedPillYou, who supports the expression of the alt-right’s views and who declined to give their real name, put it simply: “I support Assad because he's the defender of Middle Eastern Christianity.”
An estimated million Christians are among the 6 million people who have been displaced inside Syria or fled the country entirely among intense fighting, while others are reported to have fled to regime-held areas, and generally support the regime. Many were targeted by ISIS, who began operating in the country in 2014, further compounding the violence of the civil war.
Some alt-right supporters said their love for Assad was also a means of advocating for American non-intervention, a facet they share with some left-wing supporters of Assad's regime. But they also stress the need to fight ISIS — the alt-right has repeatedly trumpeted the threat that radical Islamic terror poses to America, and the west generally. In Assad, many on the far and alt-right see the Syrian leader holding a “crucial foothold” against larger geopolitical forces, Alexander Reid Ross, author of the new book Against the Fascist Creep and a lecturer of geography at Portland State University, told The Intercept. Assad’s actions would contain Islamic terror but (crucially) wouldn’t involve American forces.
But more than that, those who spoke to BuzzFeed News were convinced that the Syrian war wasn’t simply a case of citizens agitating for freedom from a repressive regime. What they saw was Israel and the so-called “deep state” hard at work to disrupt a country that's just trying to protect itself. (The “deep state” refers to the myriad intelligence agencies and establishment officials they believe really run the US at the expense of the people.)
What that meant, they said, was that Assad wasn’t the villain — he was the hero.
“Without Assad Muslims would conquer and likely decimate those remaining Christians,” user @IWillRedPillYou said. If anything, Assad’s faith as part of a minority Muslim sect in Syria — albeit a hugely powerful one — was yet another a reason to support him. And, he said, the Syrian dictator was a “sovereign leader that's been targeted by Zionist expansion for the better part of a decade.”
“Even those who know very little about Assad see [being pro-Assad] as part of a culture of opposition to both Daesh and the Jewish state of Israel,” Tsang, who stated he was “not anti-Muslim at all,” said. “I mean, it’s all over the memes so it’s easy to pick up, culturally.”
User @IWillRedPillYou claimed that Israel wished to take part of Syria in the Golan Heights, while Iran’s involvement in the conflict was due to a desire to push back against Israel. “Bashar al-Assad is caught in the midst of fighting both,” they said. “Bashar al-Assad did nothing wrong.”
Such beliefs, Nimmo noted, were reflective of the alt-right’s “very strong preference for conspiracy theories” and their “abiding belief in the ‘Deep State’ and ‘neocon’ conspiracies to hold onto power against The Will Of The People.” The focus on Israel mirrored their focus on Jews in the US.
Syria attracted the attention of a host of emergent and energized right-wing US outlets in the years following the outbreak of civil war. But it was the August 2013 chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that most focused the attention of a host of alt-right outlets.
It appeared to begin with a hashtag that appeared earlier that year, #CantMossadTheAssad, which had its first mentions on Twitter from very small accounts with fewer than 100 followers each. The hashtag itself played into the recurring anti-Semitic theme among many in the alt-right — that Israel’s intelligence and security agency was running the show in Syria.
In August 2013, Alex Jones of Infowars ran an interview with a pro-Assad blogger named Mimi Al-Laham, better known as PartisanGirl, but who also goes by a host of online names. Al-Laham told Jones it was implausible that the Syrian government had staged the chemical attack, which killed hundreds of people, including children, and was documented by extensive video evidence.
But almost immediately after the videos of the attack began spreading on Twitter, supporters of Assad — from alt-right trolls to the Russian government — said there was no way the Assad regime could be involved. Jones also ran with it and said the operation was a “false flag,” an event staged to spark a reaction, blaming the attack on the rebels and claiming the war itself was part of a movement orchestrated by Goldman Sachs and Israel.
Those in the alt-right appear to see no issue in cheerleading for a Muslim leader while simultaneously agitating against Islam. So Richard Spencer, who first helped popularize the term “alt-right,” is able to aggressively support Trump’s “Muslim ban,” while also getting behind the Syrian dictator because, as he told BuzzFeed News, Assad had been “educated in the West and offer[ed] a civilized variant of Islam.”
“He was educated in Britain, so was his wife, he just seems to be a reasonable person,” he said. “I have more sympathy to some leaders because I feel I share something with them. I do like him more. His wife is very beautiful and a sophisticated woman as well.”
Spencer said he’d been “aware” of Assad since the early 2000s. Coverage of Assad at the time, soon after he’d inherited the presidency from his father, was limited to a rigged referendum confirming his succession (he was the only candidate) and muted support for an opening up of the tightly controlled state.
The core of it for Spencer was that Assad, in addition to being the “rightful, legitimate ruler of Syria,” was fighting ISIS. Harking back to the question of his support for an Islamic leader, Spencer stated: “The question really isn’t do I support white people or Assad, the question really is whether I support Assad or ISIS?”
But the alt-right narrative was complicated by the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, which Trump responded to by launching a series of airstrikes into Syria — the first time the US had targeted the regime in all its years of smaller-scale involvement. The strikes provoked a split in prominent alt-right media figures, between those who continued to support Trump and those who officially declared themselves “OFF the Trump train,” in the case of British citizen Paul Joseph Watson. (He would later recant and rejoin the train.)
Those in the alt-right who supported Assad prior to supporting Trump came to see the US president’s strikes as explicit evidence of the deep state’s interference in Syria, with Mike Cernovich, at the time a leading alt-right personality, leading the charge by amplifying the #SyriaHoax false flag — laying the blame squarely at the feet of the “deep state.”
As Spencer put it: “The fact that I, and most all of the alt-right, offer him moral support is because he has become a bogeyman in the mainstream media and is clearly the target of the Deep State, military industrial complex, foreign-policy establishment.”
“Sure, there might be some kids out there who want to shock their parents with an Assad meme, or something like that,” he admitted, putting those individuals on one end of a “spectrum” of support for the Syrian leader.
Many of those in the alt-right, who support Assad, are situated somewhere in the middle of reactionary trolling and deep state theories, according to Spencer. “There are a lot of people who are so skeptical of everything that Washington does that whenever Assad is in the crosshairs they don’t like it, even if they don’t quite understand the full complexity of the issue.”
He continued: “But I imagine that, on the whole, most in the alt-right share my perspective.”
The engagement of a mostly younger, internet-literate crowd — like Tsang — rests on an bedrock of older and more traditional right-wing and far-right support for the Syrian president. David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has voiced his support for Assad, as has Ann Coulter.
Across the Atlantic, France’s Marine Le Pen has stated that Assad is the the “solution” to the region’s current turmoil, and in the UK, Nigel Farage has voiced tepid support for the continuation of the Assad regime, as has controversial columnist Katie Hopkins, British Infowars writer Watson, and British Nationalist Party founder Tommy Robinson.
But Cernovich wants everyone to ignore the memes, the support at Charlottesville, the discussions online — and his once-upon-a-time advocacy for Assad.
As Cernovich attempts to join the mainstream, he is pivoting away from some tenets — such as support for Assad — and, despite evidence to the contrary, arguing that such support does not exist. Despite that he does think the Syrian leader should remain in place: “Opposing regime change, in my view, isn’t supporting anyone.”
“Zero Trump supporters back Assad, this is the definition of fake news,” he said. “I've talked to thousands of Trump supporters, never heard of Assad support.” ●