Two years ago, when the Arab Spring was still freshly sprung and the promise of democracy in the Middle East was tantalizingly close, the world fell in line behind the young rebels of Syria. To the West, they represented the hope for an inclusive, self-governing Syria by the people and for the people. Other Arab regimes had been toppled after decades in power, falling quickly to their constituents’ protests and demands. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia stepped down; Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was arrested; Moammar Gadhafi in Libya was found in a hole and killed. Why would Syrian President Bashar Assad prove any different?
Somehow, he has proved different. While Assad remains holed up in Damascus, his reportedly pregnant wife Asma by his side, his rank in the hierarchy of world leaders continues to slip, and his country continues to fall apart around him. Two years of calls to step aside have proven futile, and prophecies of his imminent demise that followed Syrian Free Army victories in Aleppo and Damascus this year were debunked. Now, one of the most maligned dictators in modern history has also proved one of the most obstinate. The pillars of his regime remain in place, as retired Israeli Col. Jacques Neriah wrote in a post for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and the small minorities that support him have banded together ever more tightly.
Among those minority communities are Syrian Christians, both in the U.S. and in Syria, who have expressed a fervent hope that their group, now numbering less than 35,000 in Syria, might continue to live in peace under Assad. Theirs is a fight for survival, not necessarily a political maneuver. “Under his government, Christians have been free to worship and live their lives,” said the Rev. Thomas Zain, an American-born Syrian Christian, who currently serves as archpriest and dean of the St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’re afraid of what might come.”
Both Zain and the Most Rev. Cyril Aphrem Karim, the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church for the Eastern U.S., pointed to what has happened to the Christian communities in Iraq, Egypt and Libya since those countries’ respective strongmen fell. The Iraqi Christian community has all but fled, while Coptic Christians in Egypt have been the target of violent attacks. “If this regime is toppled, our people will suffer tremendously,” said Karim, adding that if the West really wanted Assad gone, it could have taken care of that “a long time ago.”
Karim and Zain also emphasized that the issue wasn’t “black and white.” The idea of Assad staying in power was simply preferable to Christians because the likely alternative would be persecution at the hands of Islamist extremists. The presence of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate that’s been a key ally for the Free Syrian Army, has been a source of great consternation for Western leaders, to the point where at least one analyst, right-winger Daniel Pipes, has suggested it might be to the West's benefit for the Syrian conflict to stagnate.
In an April 11 op-ed in the Washington Times, Pipes made the argument that since the U.S., can’t very well allow the Muslim extremists to take power in yet another Middle East country, perhaps the U.S. should prop Assad up just enough to allow the fighting to continue. “Better that neither side wins,” he opined.
In an email to the International Business Times, Pipes admitted he wasn’t expecting to see any major policy changes on the part of President Barack Obama’s administration. “[A policy shift to support Assad] could happen under some circumstances,” he wrote. “For example, if there were some large-scale massacre by the rebels or a major attack by them on Israel.” He also said he was aware his was the unpopular view. In multiple forums, the backlash to Pipes’s piece was copious and predictable: No one in the West supports, or at least wants to openly admit to supporting, a dictator who has allegedly fired chemical weapons at his own people.
Well, at least almost no one does. These Assad advocates, few in number but strong in conviction, consist mostly of extreme right-wing, almost-fascist political parties in France and Italy. The most prominent of these movements is the National Front in France, the extreme right-wing party headed by Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious French nationalist.
The National Front did not respond to a request for comment, but it has bashed the current French policy of supporting the rebels, saying it will lead to “Islamization of this region.” While Front politicians tend to mask their views under the guise of being “anti-interventionist,” they also expressed dismay at the duplicity of the United Nations this year in its willingness to support the Malian authorities against al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the north, but were unwilling to do the same for the government in Syria.
The National Front’s support of Assad lies not in a desire for survival like the Syrian Christians, nor in a desire to see the West’s interests in the regions furthered like Daniel Pipes. For Le Pen and the Front, this is local politics.
“Part of supporting unsavory regimes like Assad, or previously Saddam Hussein, was to delineate themselves from the government mainstream and show they’re different from other parties,” said Johan Levy, an associate professor of political science at University of California at Berkeley. “Not too many people in France think Assad is a great guy,” Levy explained. “But a lot of people in France don’t want to follow the American lead.” While this particular expression of support for a despicable dictator might not resonate, Levy said, there are lots of potential votes the Front could rustle up by playing to the anti-American streak in France: “They’re trying to differentiate their product.”
Another reason to prop up Assad is to support what the National Front sees as a secular leader against the scary prospect of another radicalized, messed-up, Islamist, Middle East country. In the Front's view, Assad at least kept some semblance of order. Jean-Yves Camus, a research fellow at the Institute for International Relations and Strategies, or IRIS, in Paris, said anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric is an old Front staple. “They are against immigration, they are against Islam, and what they say now is that, despire all of his atrocities, Assad has at least been able to keep a peaceful coexistence between minorities in Syria,” Camus said. “This is not stupid thinking. There is no guarantee this will not devolve into a civil war between Sunnis and Shias.”
Both Levy and Camus were hesitant to classify the National Front as an outright fascist party. “Fascist is a loaded concept, but I wouldn’t just call them a ‘very conservative party,’” Levy said. “Their democratic credentials are in question. They’re a dangerous party, and their flirtation with the mainstream right is unsettling.”
Similar to the National Front, the Italians have a multitude of far-right-wingers from which to choose when election season rolls around. One of these is Forza Nuova, or New Force, founded in 1997 and currently holding exactly zero seats in the Italian Parliament. Among its ideals are such elements as outlawing abortion, withdrawal from the European Union and the euro, and Islamophobia.
The party’s official position on Syria is similar to that of the National Front in France: We don’t know what the rebels want, and they could be extremists. “While we don’t agree in many respects with the Assad regime, Forza Nuova cannot fail to recognize it as the sole legitimate government of Syria,” a representative of Forza Nuova wrote to the IBTimes. She also wrote that the party considers Western intervention in the conflict to be “a serious interference” in Syria’s sovereign affairs, and that the crisis in Syria will inevitably lead to instability elsewhere.
A smaller right-wing force, Casa Pound, or House of Pound, in homage to the notoriously anti-Semitic poet Ezra Pound, also said it considers Assad “the legitimate leader of a sovereign state” who is being set upon by terrorist forces. When asked if it had also supported other Arab leaders in the past, a representative of Casa Pound, Adriano Scianca, said that while leaders such as former Egyptian President Mubarak and former Tunisian President Ben Ali did not display the same “courage, determination, or awareness” as Assad, they were certainly better than the entities that replaced them. Scianca also rejected the idea that the majority of public opinion was against Assad, saying it only “exists in the system of the mass media, which is effectively only one version of the facts.”
Casa Pound will also be partnering in June with the European Solidarity Front for Syria for a protest march called “Hands Off Syria.” A European Solidarity Front representative, Matteo Caponetti, said that, for Syrians, supporting Assad “means defending their country, their land, their family, their people,” and pointed to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two big funders and providers of arms to the rebels, as the true instigators and perpetrators of the Syrian conflict.
Caponetti also mentioned that the National Front in France was one of the most vocal supporters of the same cause, but that “Italy and the rest of Europe has been silent.”
The threat of radical Islam is one that is felt keenly in Italy, and Assad is seen as a “bulwark” against this, explained Vincent Della Sala, an adjunct professor of European studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS, in Bologna, Italy. These groups, Della Sala said, “see Assad as a secular authoritarian leader ... who is standing up to the United States and the narrow interests it is promoting.” Intervening in the war, he said, “does little to serve the interests of God and country that these movements hold so dear.”
Della Sala added: “What Casa Pound and similar movements claim is that they stand for ‘God and country’ and that they see the rebel movements in Syria as driven by radical Islam, representing a threat to Christians in that country. Assad is seen as a strong man, which fits into their general view of a leader and as someone who can hold back radical Islam.”
Both Della Sala and Gianfranco Pasquino, the James Anderson senior adjunct professor at SAIS in Bologna, emphasized that these are small movements. “They are very small, and not very influential,” Pasquino said. “From time to time, they may get some votes here or there.”
Whether the planned collaboration between Casa Pound and the European Solidarity Front in Rome will draw much water to the pro-Assad movement’s mill remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported that Assad in Damascus continues to insist that the war is “a Western plot to recolonize” Syria, even as diplomats in Washington and at the U.N. in New York continue to wring their hands over what to do. Support a brutal dictator who fires on his own people? Or support the rebels, who were once beacons of hope and are now infected with unsavory anti-American types? At the end of the day, said Archbishop Karim, “What I would like ... is to have peace, and everyone in Syria having a say in the future of Syria.”
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