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The Nazis, the contemporary Far Right and the Syrian Dictatorship

29 09 22

Alois Brunner died in a small basement in an unknown location in Syria. The infamous Nazi was responsible for deporting more then 128,000 Jews to the death camps and was described by Adolf Eichmann, a major organiser of the Holocaust, as one of his best men. His escape to Syria, his rise as a government interrogator tasked with teaching Syrian officials how to torture, and his end by the Assad regime have been the source of many investigations. But Brunner was far from the only far-right figure linked to the Syrian government over the last few decades with members of various Western far-right groups being invited into the country.

In fact, much of the far right across the globe remain firmly in love with the current Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. They consider him a secular defender of Christian minorities and protector against Islamist extremists, as well as a bulwark against Syrian refugees arriving on European shores. This is despite his brutal repression causing the initial mass exodus in the first place. His authoritarian leadership and harsh treatment of his own civilian population are also seen in a positive light, with his enemies uniformly considered either “terrorists” or “foreign interference”.

Memes posted in far right online channels

Online, Assad is seen as resisting the “deep state” because the “mainstream media” is against him, and there are many conspiracy theories about how he’s combated the deep state.

Despite the extensive documentation of crimes against humanity carried out by the Syrian government and the proven use chemical weapons, accusations against Assad have been either relegated to “fake news” or justified in far right circles.

To understand the mutual fascination between the far right and the Syrian government, one has to go back to the post-WWII period and the Nazis fleeing retributive justice for their crimes.

Baathism and Fascism

There is a running debate between historians on the extent of links between Nazism and Syria in the 1940s. A common argument is that Syrians strongly supported Hitler’s Germany to oppose French and British colonialism and that fascism was used as a tool to build up Baathism – Syria’s version of Arab nationalism – and get rid of colonial control.[1] Nazism was both endorsed but also led to the creation of anti-fascist networks and academic pushback within Syria.[2]

Baathism is an Arab nationalist ideology which promoted the development of a unified Arab one-party state while rejecting political pluralism for an unspecified amount of time.[3] The ideology has elements of socialism but has also been accused of similarities to fascism. Leila al-Shami, a Syrian-British activist, told Al Jazeera that the far right’s relationship with Assad is rooted in the ideological overlap between European fascism and Baathism. “There is definitely an overlap, and it works on two levels – the first is the ideological roots of Baathism, which definitely incorporates elements of fascism and extreme nationalism,” she said.[4]

Similarities between Baathism and fascism are evident in the make up of the Syrian government. Cyprian Blamires, author of World Fascism, described the overlap between the two ideologies as “the attempt to synthesize radical, illiberal nationalism and non-Marxist socialism, a romantic, mythopoetic, and elitist ‘revolutionary’ vision, the desire to create a ‘new man’ and restore past greatness, a centralised authoritarian party divided into ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ factions”.[5]

According to one of the leaders of the Syrian Baath party, Sami al-Jundi, “We were racialists, admiring Nazism, reading its books and the source of its thought… We were the first to think of translating Mein Kampf.”[6]

The Nazi Teacher

As WWII ended, several prominent Nazi criminals fled to the Middle East, becoming advisors to Arab League countries. This included former employees from Goebbels’ ministry and the foreign office.[7] Nazi hunters and Israeli officials tried to bring to justice or simply assassinate these men – Alois Brunner was one of the few who survived all attempts with some help from the Syrian government, before being eliminated by the very state he sought refuge in.

During WWII, Brunner was in charge of the internment camp near Paris where French Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, including hundreds of children. He also hunted down Jews on the French Riviera.

In 1985, when the large (West) German magazine Die Bunte interviewed him and revealed that the internationally wanted Nazi criminal had been living in Syria for three decades, it led to an angry speech by the Israeli UN representative and a formal request to extradite Brunner by the Greek prime minister.

This was to no avail.[8]  Syria officially denied harbouring him, despite several independent investigations concluding he had escaped to Damascus in 1956, living under the name Georg Fischer or Abu Hossein. In 2001, he was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by a French court.[9] In 2003, The Guardian described him as “the world’s highest-ranking Nazi fugitive believed still alive.[10]

While being protected by the Syrian government, Brunner helped establish their intelligence and torture systems and is said to have trained a generation of Syrian intelligence chiefs.

The “German chair”, a Syrian torture device that breaks the backs of detainees,[11] is also attributed to him. He is believed to have survived at least two Israeli intelligence assassination attempts while in Syria. In the first instance, the Mossad operative package killed two postal workers and blinded Brunner in the left eye. Then, in 1980, another attempt took two of his fingers.[12]

Hafez al Assad CC Creative Commons

President Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father, had increasingly limited Brunner’s movements in the 1980s and 1990s, especially as Brunner refused to keep a low profile and gave several interviews to international media. He was eventually jailed underground by the very regime he had helped for decades. A French journalist, Hedi Aouidj, tracked down Brunner’s Syrian prison guards in Jordan. They published an article in the French magazine Revue XXI describing how Brunner was imprisoned the last few years in a basement. “Even animals—you couldn’t put them in a place like that,” the guard said.[13] They concluded Hafez was preparing for Bashar’s succession by removing a man who could be problematic to Bashar’s – initially – clean image.

While several investigations placed Brunner in Syria, the year of his death is disputed; some accounts claim it as 1996 or 2001. The BBC has pegged his death in 2010, which was confirmed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which tracks Nazi war criminals.[14] Because of the Syrian Civil War, this was never forensically confirmed, but the case has been closed and the European arrest warrant repealed.[15] While Syria to this day denies having welcomed Brunner into the country, other links to the far right are more established.  

The Western Far Right and the War

In 2005, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke showed up in Syria and gave a speech on state television to politicians and press discussing how the country has a much more “free media” than the US, and complained of the “Zionist occupation” of Washington, D.C.[16]

The Syrian government had a strong anti-Jewish and anti-Israel stance, which is viewed positively by the sections of the far right steeped in antisemitic conspiracy theories.

When two successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia became known as the Arab Spring in 2011, pro-democracy activists believed Syrians could also topple their dictatorship. After 15 boys were detained and tortured for graffiting support for the Arab Spring on a wall – including a thirteen-year-old who was killed after being tortured – a wave of peaceful protests spread. The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, responded by killing hundreds in a brutal crackdown and the civil war that ensued has now entered its 11th bloody year. Through it, Syrian civilians have been gassed to death, tortured in massive secret prisons and more than half the country’s population displaced. Of the 13 million Syrians who have relocated so far, 6.8 million are asylum seekers and refugees in other countries while the rest are displaced within Syrian territory.[17]

Bashar al Assad and his wife Asma al Assad CC Creative Commons

Bashar al Assad, a younger son who once lived as an ophthalmologist in London, only became heir when his older brother passed away in an accident. His wife was born and raised in the UK, working for J.P. Morgan before marrying Assad. She was named “The Rose of the Desert” by Vogue after her husband succeeded his father in 2000.

However, after the uprising, news began to filter out internationally of the war crimes being committed to squash the rebellion. The use of chemical weapons,[18] the bombing of hospitals and schools,[19] and the targeting of civilians[20] were all proven and reported. Soon, Asma became the “First Lady from Hell”[21] while her husband was named a mass murderer.

While the House of Assad became persona non grata within much of the public international scene, for certain far-right figures, it was the opposite.

The war in Syria splintered the resistance groups against the Syrian regime, with many foreign powers interfering, including several Islamist extremist groups taking over rebel factions and also committing own war crimes.

Assad was seen as the bulwark, both against Islamist groups, and against globalism, liberalism and multiculturalism. Assad promoted himself as the natural ally against ISIS and sympathetic to Christians. He also continued to portray himself as the man to prevent terrorism and extremism from spreading to Europe and smoothly threw Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe under the bus by alluding to the potential terrorists hiding amidst them.[22]

The Syrian government began to work with the European Solidarity Front for Syria (ESFS). The group has stated it is “open to all those who love Syria, and support solidarity with President Assad, the Syrian nation and its army.” However, it involves a coalition of neo-fascist and far-right groups across Europe that support Assad’s government[23] and organised delegations to Syria in support of the government.

The founders of this group are from Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Spain. However, activists soon joined from other European countries, such as Malta, Ukraine and Sweden. Supporters include Casa Pound, an Italian neo-fascist group, and the National Rebirth of Poland, known for attacking minority groups within Poland. The ESFS erected pro-Assad billboards in Greece and created pro-Assad merchandise.[24]

In 2013, Nick Griffin, then leader of the fascist British National Party, went on a regime-sponsored “fact-finding mission” to Syria, singing Assad’s praises.

While certain Syrian officials were reticent to admit the BNP leader’s visit was official, Griffin met the Syrian Prime Minister. Other members of the ESFS delegation included representatives from France’s main far-right party the National Front (now called the Rassemblement National), Italy’s Tricolour Flame (a fascist party) and Hungary’s Jobbik party (also a fascist party).[25] Griffin also returned to Syria after being ousted from his own party for a conference on terrorism in late 2014.

Another fascist Italian party, Forza Nuova, also praised Assad in 2016, with party leader Roberto Fiore tweeting, “Forza Nuova defends Assad and the Syrian people against attacks by ISIS and the USA.”[26] When Assad’s General Issam Zahreddine was killed in 2017, posters mourning him appeared across Italian cities, printed by Casa Pound.[27] The fact that Zahreddine was allegedly responsible for widespread torture by authorities – photos of him posing with dismembered human remains can be found online ­– did not reduce his popularity.[28]

As the civil war intensified and an increasing number of mainstream western politicians decried the actions of the Syrian government, many far-right figures continued to defend Assad’s actions. The former leader of France’s National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, said: “Bashar al-Assad is a government leader who is facing a rebellion which is both civil and military,” in a radio interview.[29]

In 2017, the same year evidence of widespread secret torture wards in Syrian hospitals[30] were proven by a Washington Post investigation, and during an election year in France, Marine Le Pen said that Assad was “the most reassuring solution for France.”[31]

Assad’s authoritarianism and brutal methods have also won him support. In a speech in 2017, he stated that war had resulted in the loss of the best of youth and infrastructure, but that they had “gained a healthier and more homogenous society”.[32] Assad was not implying racial purity but a lack of political dissent. This type of monolithic society appeals to the far right and encouraged them to defend his actions publicly.  

Tim Gionet (AKA Baked Alaska), an alt-right social media personality, defended Assad as “having done nothing wrong”.[33] James Alex Fields Jr, the white nationalist now jailed for life for ramming his car in demonstrators in Charlottesville, posted an image of Assad with the caption “undefeated” on his Facebook page.[34]

Many far-right supporters of former president Donald Trump, including white nationalist Richard Spencer, led a counter-protest outside the White House when Trump sent airstrikes against Assad after the 2017 chemical attack in the Idlib province.[35] Following the chemical attack on civilians, conspiracy theorists Alex Jones tweeted that the “false flag chemical attack could start a wider war”. Meanwhile anti-immigration and pro-Trump Ann Coulter called it a “faked attack.”[36]

Memes and praise for both Putin and Assad’s actions – seen as two strongmen –in Syria abound on social media platforms.  In the UK, Britain First – an anti-Muslim and immigrant far-right group – posted, “SYRIAN PRESIDENT ASSAD TALKING SENSE WHEN IT COMES TO TERRORISM IN SYRIA,”[37] along with an image captioned, “God Bless Syria and Russia”.[38] Meanwhile, British far-right activist Jack Dawkins posted in 2019, “Britain is to bring every ISIS terrorist who was spawned on our shores to face trial at our cost, watched and fed at our cost, and radicalising other prisoners at our cost!   Let Assad deal with them, bullet in the back of the head, job done.”[39]

Post shared on on far-right channel

The links between the far right and Assad go beyond messages of support. An 18-month investigation published in 2021 shows how SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (SOSCO), a French registered NGO with ties to the political far right and the military, funnelled money directly into a Syrian militia that is accused of committing war crimes.[40] A US representative listed the organisation as an overseas violent white supremacist group along with Generation Identity, which has the same co-founder as SOSCO. Its director of operations, François-Xavier Gicquel, was expelled from France’s far-right party Front National in 2011 after he was photographed giving “Sieg Heil” salutes. Meanwhile, SOSCO’s co-founder Charles de Meyer is a parliamentary assistant to far-right politician Thierry Mariani, of Marine le Pen’s Rassemblement National party.[41]  

Another example of far-right support within Syria is the Greek neo-Nazi Black Lilley group allegedly fighting alongside the Syrian army. This nationalist group believe in a future with defined ethnic boundaries and have spread pro-regime propaganda.[42] There is no definitive proof their claims are true, however. The fact that a neo-Nazi group wishes to be associated to an Arab state may be surprising considering their anti-Muslim and anti-Arab ideologies within their home countries but it fits Syria’s past record.

Rehabilitation

Throughout the civil war, Assad has clung to power much longer than many political analysts or other world leaders thought possible. While Assad’s politics and those of his father before him have lent more towards the left in certain respects, the legacy of the Assad’s ties to the far right continue until today. The civil war has also made Assad an icon for some of the far right across the Western world.

It is unlikely that the former housing of Nazi war criminals or more recent associations with far-right groups and figures will have a significant impact on Assad’s image at this point. Now that his survival is probable, he is working hard to restore diplomatic relations and normalise his reign. His attempts to re-join the Arab league have so far been unsuccessful, and he is far from fixing relations with western governments. However, the fact that EU countries are hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians, which many politicians would like to see the back of, might result in a shift in policy and better political relations with Assad over time.


[1] Wien, Peter. “Arabs and Fascism: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives.” Die Welt Des Islams 52, no. 3/4 (2012): 331–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41722002.

[2] Nordbruch, Götz. Nazism in Syria and Lebanon: The ambivalence of the German option, 1933–1945. Routledge, 2009.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bath-Party

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/2/14/why-do-italian-fascists-adore-syrias-bashar-al-assad

[5] Blamires, Cyprian (2006). World Fascism: A Historical Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. P83-84

[6] Stefan Wild (1985). “National Socialism in the Arab near East between 1933 and 1939”. Die Welt des Islams. Brill Publishers. XXV (1): 126–173.

[7] Blümel, Tobias. (2021). The Case of Alois Brunner and the Divided Consciousness in Processing the Holocaust in Greece. 61. 93-106.

[8] Blümel, Tobias. (2021). The Case of Alois Brunner and the Divided Consciousness in Processing the Holocaust in Greece. 61. 93-106.

[9] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/nazi-war-criminal-sentenced-to-life/article25433839/

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/mar/03/warcrimes.germany

[11] https://newlinesmag.com/essays/tangled-tale-of-the-fugitive-nazi-and-the-syrian-secret-service/

[12] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30275358

[13] Revue XXI, January/February/March 2017, pp.136.

[14] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30275358

[15] Blümel, Tobias. (2021). The Case of Alois Brunner and the Divided Consciousness in Processing the Holocaust in Greece. 61. 93-106.

[16] https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/former-klan-leader-looking-bromance-assad

[17] https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/syrian-refugee-crisis-facts#:~:text=About%2013%20million%20Syrians%20in,people%2C%20are%20displaced%20within%20Syria.

[18] https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/05/01/death-chemicals/syrian-governments-widespread-and-systematic-use-chemical-weapons

[19] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/31/world/middleeast/syria-united-nations-investigation.html

[20] https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/15/targeting-life-idlib/syrian-and-russian-strikes-civilian-infrastructure

[21] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/22/in-syria-we-believe-in-honouring-our-word-asma-al-assad-speaks-about-syrian-conflict

[22] https://english.alaraby.co.uk/opinion/how-assad-shaped-our-view-syrias-displaced

[23] https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/in-depth/features/europes-far-right-activists-continue-throw-their-weight-behind-syrias-assad

[24] https://www.vice.com/da/article/8gd9ev/are-greek-neo-nazis-fighting-for-assad-in-syria1

[25] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jun/11/nick-griffin-mission-syria-confusion

[26] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/2/14/why-do-italian-fascists-adore-syrias-bashar-al-assad

[27] http://www.lastampa.it/2017/10/31/vaticaninsider/ita/inchieste-e-interviste/cos-i-gruppi-della-destra-antisistema-usano-la-tragedia-siriana-iRsiWU4ZOKaD8KUeyOMJTM/pagina.html

[28] https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/10/19/558770513/anti-isis-syrian-general-accused-of-killing-u-s-journalist-is-reported-to-have-d

[29]https://www.france24.com/en/20120227-french-far-right-defends-syria-bashar-assad-jean-marie-marine-le-pen-world-war

[30] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-hospitals-were-slaughterhouses-a-journey-intosyrias-secret-torture-wards/2017/04/02/90ccaa6e-0d61-11e7-b2bb-417e331877d9_story.html

[31] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/france-far-right-marine-le-pen-syria-bashar-assad-reassuring-solution-national-front/

[32] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/world/middleeast/syria-assad-war.html

[33] https://twitter.com/walldo/status/896212779069186049

[34] https://www.newsweek.com/why-do-james-alex-field-jr-and-us-neo-nazis-love-syrias-bashar-al-assad-650566

[35] https://www.newsweek.com/alt-right-peaceniks-feel-betrayed-trump-612361

[36] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/13/syria-intervention-conservative-rightwing-opposition-trump

[37] https://t.me/BritainFirst/4369                                 

[38] https://t.me/BritainFirst/10423

[39] https://t.me/TommyRobinsonNews/5180

[40] https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/new-evidence-links-a-far-right-french-ngo-to-war-crimes-in-syria/

[41] https://newlinesmag.com/reportage/new-evidence-links-a-far-right-french-ngo-to-war-crimes-in-syria/

[42] https://www.vice.com/en/article/8gd9ev/are-greek-neo-nazis-fighting-for-assad-in-syria1

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