A roadside mural of Bashar al-Assad along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Photo by James Gordon
Not every report that comes out of Syria is bad news for Bashar al-Assad, the country's president. While the world's media worries about recently radicalized jihadists flying from England to Aleppo to gun down the embattled leader's soldiers, there's another type of international engagement playing out in the country—and this time, it's playing out in the regime's favor.
Since the conflict began in 2011, far-right groups from across the world have been courting the Syrian government. On the slightly more moderate end of the scale, BNP leader Nick Griffin rode into Damascus a few months back to have his photo taken with the prime minister, Wael Nader Al-Halqi, and publicly rail against the Free Syrian Army. On the more extreme end, 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 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 their fighters are on the ground. The group's responses were guarded, as they were apparently 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 televized 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 guarded, using the name Sebastian Fulidis—presumably a pseudonym taken from a Greek soldier who'd fought for the Nazi special forces. The source quickly let me know that I wouldn't be able to travel to meet the group while they were supposedly training for war in Syria.
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." Given what we now know about the Golden Dawn's sideline in being genuinely dangerous, I wanted to find out whether Black Lily live up to the hype.
The group subscribes to autonomous nationalism, a postmodern far-right subculture that often blends anarchist aesthetics with militant far-right and anti-capitalist rhetoric, focusing heavily on direct action rather than electoralism. As Third Positionists, they see themselves as being beyond the notions of left and right, and offer support to separatist movements in hopes that we can all one day end up living in a world with rigidly defined ethnic and nationalist boundaries. (While flirting with these same ideas, a younger Nick Griffin visited Libya in the late 1980s to try to gain support for the "political soldier" faction of the National Front to which he belonged at the time.)
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."
Of course, considering the convenient lack of casualties, there is no definitive proof that Black Lily's claims are true. However, they're devoted to prove their allegiances, saying that Syria has a strong cultural link with Greece (the largest Christian group in the country is the Greek Orthodox church), and when pushed on the number of fighters they have on the ground, they told me that they have a platoon fighting in Syria who, according to their interview, "found loads of ID documents and passports of compatriots of Barack Obama" on dead rebels after the battle in al-Qusayr.
The group also says that thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, and Polish nationalists have declared themselves ready to defend Assad, which might seem like another work of fantasy, but could also 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 wrote, "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."
In the past, far-right Greek mercenaries have fought in the Balkans—more specifically, a former Greek army officer and a former Greek police officer who were charged with killing two Albanians during a cross-border raid. So previous examples of the same kind of people waging war overseas aren't unheard of.
My Black Lily contact also "revealed" that they are part of the European Solidarity Front for Syria (ESFS), a group that has organized protests and rallies in support of Assad across the continent. The ESFS have also held talks about Syria in Italy—hosted by the fascist group CasaPound—that have been exposed as fronts for fascist Third Positionist group meet-ups, with Belgian Third Positionist Ruben Sosiers listed as the main speaker at a June event in Rome. Flags from CasaPound, the ESFS-affiliated Sempre Domani and the fascist-inspired group Zenit were all on display at a later meeting.
The ESFS boasts of erecting 17 billboards in Greece, and their Facebook shows all the slick merchandise that is available to their supporters. More worryingly, they've been invited into Italian schools to speak about the situation in Syria.
Looking at their branches in France, Spain, and the Czech Republic, it quickly becomes clear that this European network of fascists ostensibly looking to help Assad may also be securing money from the Syrian government, helping them to spread their niche philosophy. Hundreds of flags, posters, and flights to Syria don’t pay for themselves, and the autonomous nationalists would be able to gain greater resources through their Syria campaign than they are usually capable of mustering. In short, they may be using the civil war there as a method of fundraising.
While the ESFS have been able to make contact with pro-Assad members of the Syrian community, it's unclear whether the people who have shown up to their protests in Rome and other European capitals are fully aware of who is behind them. One thing that has been made clear by a number of photos is that the ESFS have infiltrated larger antiwar protests, passing themselves off as anti-war activists, and have built some support within Syrian migrant communities.
Scratching beyond the rhetoric, it's clear that the ESFS' predominant common cause with Assad is an entrenched sentiment of 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 toward them fast because of the plans of the local Zionist occupation government back home."
The fact that fascists are traveling to Syria is currently one of the country's smallest problems—myriad shadowy groups and political motivations 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
More about the conflict in Syria:
How Much Will the Defense Industry Make from a Missile Strike Against Syria?
Dodging Bullets with Syrian Rebels Who Love Soccer and Adolf Hitler