BERLIN—Mouhannad Malek is a Syrian migrant and scientist who spends his days researching cellular and cancer biology in Berlin. He is also one of many Syrians in Germany who are uploading evidence on social media to prove that they pay for their own coffee.
Earlier this month, a group of far-right German politicians from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) traveled to Syria on a curated “fact-finding” tour, looking to make the case that things are safe enough for refugees to be forcibly repatriated now. At a cafe in the government-controlled city of Homs, the group sat down to big glasses of orange juice and posted the scene to Facebook, complaining that they had to pay for their beverages—supposedly unlike the “so-called refugees from Homs drinking coffee in Berlin at the expense of the German taxpayer.”
“It is frustrating, because he [Christian Blex, the regional AfD lawmaker who organized the trip] is showing half of the truth,” says Malek of the orange-juice posts. “He has the right to give an opinion—if you are scared of refugees, then say it—but do not to give an alternative reality.”
The German politicians stayed in government-controlled cities and failed to mention the sounds of fighter jets and shells as a nearby rebel enclave—described as “hell on earth”—was being bombarded by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader has been accused by international watchdog organizations and the UN of using chemical weapons against civilians, in a seven-year-long war that has killed up to half a million Syrians and sent millions more fleeing the country. The UN warned this month that the Syrian regime and its foreign allies were already planning their next “apocalypse.”
In recent years, Assad has become something of a darling of the European far-right—especially since Russia sent its air force to Syria in 2015 to help reverse the war’s momentum in Assad’s favor. Right-wing extremists from Germany and elsewhere have fallen over themselves to fly into Damascus, shake hands with a handful of pro-regime officials, and live-stream the swimming pool on their hotel rooftop. The former poster boy for the Front National’s youth wing was rather proud of making a selfie with Assad go viral. And upon the AfD delegation’s return to Germany last week, one partaker boasted to us that “we go out there and make up our own minds” about the strongman dictator “that everyone is outraged by.”
Meanwhile, from afar, white supremacists in the U.S. shouted that Assad was “the man” in Charlottesville last summer, while neo-Nazis in Greece have bragged that they were training to go and fight alongside Assad’s troops.
If these men, who praise Assad’s “open” leadership while denying the democratic institutions in their own countries, think that an official invitation from the regime-affiliated Ba’ath Party is a sign of some kind of special bond, then they are most likely mistaken. “I think the Assad government always wants to break the isolation and send a message that it is meeting with European parliamentarians,” Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, tells The Daily Beast. “No matter what their affiliations are.”
What the Assad regime has catered to, though, is the far-right’s fear and hate-mongering against refugees who try to leave Syria for Europe or the United States. Assad’s government regards as a “terrorist“ anyone who opposes its rule—and that includes the refugees.
“It’s very embarrassing for Assad to rule over a country where 60 percent of the population has been displaced,” says Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver. “To say that he has won the war, that he is the legitimate ruler of Syria, he has to encourage people to come back.“
Enter Europe’s right-wing political parties, who have made anti-refugee rhetoric the center of their platforms—particularly in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders in 2015 to thousands of refugees who were stranded in Hungary.
The latest xenophobic far-right talking point, now that Assad’s forces are resurgent, is the idea of forced repatriation. That idea was on full display at a press conference last Monday, where Blex’s delegation of AfD politicians wanted to share their impressions of their trip to war-torn Syria. Blex, a short bespectacled man who is disliked by his fellow AfD functionaries for being a shameless suck-up, tried to argue that deporting refugees back to Syria would be “more humane” than allowing them to stay in Europe.
Aside from his posts about buying a coffee and what women in Damascus look like (“blue jeans instead of black veils!”), Blex caused an uproar when he published a photo of himself and the Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun, who once threatened Europe and the U.S. with suicide bombers. Hassoun also reportedly told the German politicians that Syrians in Germany must return home. “Merkel, invite him!” Blex wrote.
The 43-year-old Blex, who was also in Russian-annexed Crimea last month to “discuss the lifting of sanctions,” found his tour of Damascus’ inner city (as opposed to its destroyed suburbs) to have many positive moments. “I thought the requests for selfies were sympathetic,” he told The Daily Beast. “People just came up to us and asked for selfies.”
Harald Weyel was also part of Blex’s delegation to Syria. The 58-year-old likes to cite Donald Trump’s travel ban on refugees from Syria as proof that the war is no longer a threat. “America says that Syria is safe,” Weyel told The Daily Beast. He read that on Trump’s Twitter, and says that Blex told him that, too.
As a young man, Weyel wanted to join the army. Military service runs in his family (he is the son of a black American GI and the grandson of a Luftwaffe soldier). Instead, he has ended up joining a party whose rank and file finds it totally hilarious when Weyel, a trained economist who was born and raised in a mountainous region in western Germany, gets onstage and cracks jokes about his skin color being an “optical illusion.”
Weyel dismisses the other German politicians who slam him and his colleagues for courting the Assad regime while, as the Green Party spokesman has put it, “their ‘hosts’ throw bombs on children less than 15 kilometers away.” Weyel doesn’t necessarily dispute those facts (he refers to Assad’s brutal torture methods as Handwerkzeug—“tools of the trade”)— but he is open to alternative facts, as well. “Who are you gonna believe?” He asks. He says anti-Assad German politicians are just “swimming with the mainstream.”
Blex, Weyel, and the AfD aren’t the only ones trying to paint Syria’s war zone as a paradise. In 2016, a delegation from the Alliance of Peace and Freedom—a European political party composed of Nazis, fascists, and Holocaust deniers—also made its way to Syria. It was not their first visit. In Damascus, they were taken out to nightclubs by their translators and met with, amongst others, the minister for information, whom they later claimed gave them a list of names for all the “terrorists” who had left to go to Europe.
Udo Voigt, who sits in Brussels as the former leader of the German neo-Nazi party (the NPD)—and who supports Russia’s stance on Ukraine—was part of the Alliance of Peace and Freedom’s trip to Syria. Voigt once praised Hitler as a “great statesman.” He returned from Damascus in 2016 to announce that he “did not notice any oppression,” adding, “there is no reason to flee.”
Now, Voigt’s colleague Florian Stein is sulking that the AfD, which has previously snubbed the NPD to style itself as the “serious” new far-right, is doing pretty much exactly what the NPD did first. Though Stein insists that, really, “We [in the NPD] are always kept up to date” on what the likes of Blex and his fellow politicians are planning next.
The NPD almost got banned in Germany last year for putting democracy at risk (the party wants to set up an authoritarian nationalist ethno-state), but then it was judged to have gotten too unpopular to do real harm. Thinking up slogans that are more aggressively xenophobic than those of the AfD, without breaking hate-speech laws, is tough.
“In Syria,” Stein jokes, “you can express your opinion more freely than in Germany.”