The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syria’s Assad has become an icon of the far right in America

BEIRUT — Among the postings on what might have been the Facebook page of James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car that killed a counterprotester at the right-wing demonstrations in Charlottesville on Saturday, were images of far-right favorite Pepe the Frog, swastikas and a baby portrait of Adolf Hitler, according to BuzzFeed.

Perhaps more surprisingly, there also reportedly was a picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, in full military uniform, inscribed underneath with the word “undefeated.”

Screen shots of the now-inaccessible profile were widely circulated on social media Saturday and Sunday, although the account’s authenticity could not be confirmed. But the apparent fascination with Assad would fit a more general link between the far right and the Syrian regime that has grown increasingly pronounced in recent months and played a role throughout the weekend’s white nationalist rally in Virginia.

Assad’s politics — and those of his father before him — have historically been associated more with the left than the right. His late father, President Hafez al-Assad, was the closest Middle East ally of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. The son has enjoyed the stalwart support of international leftists throughout his attempt to crush the six-year-old rebellion against his rule.

In recent months, however, Assad has also become an icon for the far right, whose leaders and spokesman have heaped praise on the ferocity with which he has prosecuted the civil war, his role in fighting the Islamic State and his perceived stance against Muslims and Jews.

That Assad’s harsh methods have resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties seems only to have enhanced his stature. In a video posted on Twitter, three men who participated in the Charlottesville protests hailed Assad’s use of barrel bombs to subdue communities that turned against him. One is wearing a T-shirt that says: “Bashar’s Barrel Delivery Co.”

Barrel bombs are crude, cheaply made explosive devices that are tipped out of aircraft without any form of targeting, and their use has killed thousands of civilians in Syria.

In the streamed live video, the men defend Assad.

“Assad did nothing wrong,” said alt-right social-media activist Tim Gionet, who is also known as “Baked Alaska” on Twitter and YouTube.

“Barrel bombs, hell yeah,” he can be heard saying in the same video.

Assad’s emergence as a popular hero for the right appears to have followed a series of tweets in March by the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, in which he lavished praise on the Syrian president, describing him as an “amazing leader” — and more.

Other right-wing leaders have long expressed their support for the Syrian president and clearly hoped that President Trump, who made flattering comments about Assad on the campaign trail, would strike up an alliance with him. Such hopes were also based on the backing Assad has received from some far-right politicians in Europe. France’s Marine Le Pen, for example, has said that keeping Assad in power is “the most reassuring solution.”

After Trump ordered the U.S. military to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to a chemical attack in northern Syria, numerous right-wing commentators expressed their dismay on Twitter. Shortly after the attack, right-wing protesters opposed to the military intervention, led by white nationalist Richard B. Spencer, faced off against a group of anti-fascist protesters outside the White House.

Although Trump has continued to refuse to directly back Assad, even calling him “truly an evil person” in an April TV interview, the far right’s apparent fascination with seeing the Syrian president hold on to power has persisted.

The far right’s love affair with Assad might not be entirely unpredictable. His Baath Party is fiercely nationalist and ethnocentric, focused on the promotion of Arab identity. One of the few political parties permitted by his regime and one of his staunchest supporters in the war is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which drew the inspiration for its logo from the swastika.

Noack reported from London.