A roadside mural of Bashar al-Assad along the Damascus to Aleppo highway. (Photo by James Gordon)
Not every report to emerge from Syria is bad news for Bashar al-Assad. Yes, the world's jihadists may be flying from Accrington to Aleppo to fillet his soldiers with bullets. But it turns out Bashar has violent friends in far-off places, too.
Since the conflict began in 2011, far-right groups from across the world have been courting the Syrian government. There are those, like Nick Griffin, who seem more like weird tourists than anything else, the BNP leader riding into Damascus a few months back to have his photo taken with the prime minister and slag off the Free Syrian Army. More worryingly, fascist Greek mercenaries may now be training in Syria to help defend Assad, and have formed a European support network to spread pro-regime propaganda.
Just over a month ago, the Irish-Greek blogger Glykosymoritis sent me an article translated from one that ran in the right-wing Greek newspaper, Democratia. The clipping contained an interview with an obscure far-right group called Black Lily, who were making bold claims about having a "whole platoon of volunteers [who] are fighting side by side with Assad's government forces".
I spent the subsequent weeks emailing the group, looking for pictures or video evidence to prove that Black Lily really are fighting in Syria. The group's responses were guarded – apparently they were worried for the safety of their members – but their claims weren't totally implausible. "These days, more Greeks are in Syria with the Syrian Armed Forces," they told me. "Very soon we are going to have news."
Although it might seem odd, the story isn't particularly shocking; Assad's door has been open to far-right groups for years. In 2005, five years after Bashar had assumed power, American white nationalist and KKK grand wizard David Duke visited Damascus to give a televised speech where he attacked Israel and told the Syrian leader, "Your fight for freedom is the same as our fight for freedom." The regime was charmed, and clearly happy to play host to an American Holocaust denier who would back their dislike of Israel.
Unfortunately, any similar kind of direct link between Assad and Black Lily was hard to establish; my contact was cagey, using the pseudonym Sebastian Fulidis – taken from a Greek soldier who'd fought for the Nazi special forces. When I asked if I could travel to meet the group in person as they trained for the war in Syria, the idea was swiftly shut down.
The newspaper clipping had talked Black Lily up, claiming that the "Greek nationalist socialists […] fighting alongside Assad's regime are far more dangerous than the Golden Dawn". So, given what we now know about the Golden Dawn's side line in being genuinely dangerous, I wanted to find out whether Black Lily live up to the hype.
The group subscribe to autonomous nationalism, a postmodern far-right concept that often blends anarchist aesthetics with militant far-right and anti-capitalist rhetoric, focusing heavily on direct action instead of electoralism. As Third Positionists, they see themselves as being beyond the notions of left and right, and offer support to separatist movements in the hope that we can all one day end up living in a world with rigidly defined ethnic and nationalist boundaries.
The newspaper clipping I was sent claimed that Black Lily have been in touch with their "Syrian brothers in arms" for years, before describing how they have now joined the fight alongside the regime: “Fighters from all over Europe joined the ranks of the Syrian Army and civil defence in mass," it read, "among them many Greeks. Greek fighters have participated in all major battles that commenced in [the] south and west of the country [over] the last two years, and so far no casualties have been reported. It's not a coincidence that, in the fierce battle that took place in al-Qusayr, beside the praise for the heroic Hezbollah, the Greek fighters received credit for their bravery as well."
The chest-beating rhetoric doesn't end there – Black Lily are keen to prove their kinship with Syria, pointing to the fact that the largest Christian group in the country is the Greek Orthodox Church. When pushed on the number of fighters they have there, they told me that they have a platoon fighting in Syria and that thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Polish nationalists have declared themselves ready to defend Assad. These might seem like the words of a fantasist, but could have some basis in truth; a rebel blogger recently wrote that he'd encountered mercenary military advisers from Russia and Eastern Europe. "They are not sent by the armies of these countries," he said, "but they have a military background. This is what is making things in Ghouta so hard – they can attack from so many areas because of their large numbers, and when we kill some of them, more want to come to Syria and fight."
My Black Lily contact also claimed that they are part of the European Solidarity Front for Syria. The ESFS is a group that has organised protests and rallies in support of Assad across the continent, many of which have been exposed as fronts for fascist Third Positionist meet-ups. In June, the ESFS held a talk in Rome hosted by the Italian fascist group CasaPound, at which Belgian Third Positionist Ruben Sosiers was listed as the main speaker. Flags from CasaPound, the ESFS-affiliated Sempre Domani and the fascist-inspired group Zenit were all on display at a later meeting.
But the ESFS don't seem so keen to be associated with Black Lily. When I contacted them to ask whether I could use this photo from their trip to meet Syria's prime minister, I was told that they didn't wan't to be associated with any claims that there were fascists supporting the Syrian government. Perhaps they would have preferred the term Nationalist, or neo-Nazi, or Third Positionist. "We are Syrians and we know what is going on in Syria and we know who we support," they told me.
If my source at Black Lily is telling the truth, and the two groups are linked, then it would certainly improve the former's reach. The ESFS boasts of having erected 17 pro-Assad billboards in Greece, and their Facebook shows all the slick merchandise that is available to their supporters. They have branches in France, Spain and the Czech Republic, and have been invited into Italian schools to speak about the situation in Syria.
Scratching beyond the rhetoric, it's clear that the one thing European fascists most have in common with Assad is anti-Zionism – their shared hatred of Israelis. Tellingly, Black Lily’s interview in the newspaper clipping ends with a call to action for "ZOG" (Zionist Occupation Government), an anti-Semitic conspiracy that claims Jews run the world. "We call all these people with open minds to support by all means the patriotic forces of Syria," it reads, "and understand that they have to ready themselves for the incoming storm that is approaching towards them fast because of the plans of the local Zionist occupation government back home."
The fact that neo-Nazi mercenaries might be travelling to Syria is currently one of the region's smallest problems – there are a myriad of shadowy groups and political motivations at play in the conflict. But as Assad becomes more desperate, the presence of idealistic Europeans with large networks of activists could become a much larger concern.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @brianwhelanhack
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