The indifference of Europeans and the West to the long Syrian civil war is once again blowing up in their faces. The Assad regime and its backer, Russia, are bombarding Idlib province, the last “safe haven” for the rebels, pushing nearly a million displaced Syrians to flee to the Turkish border.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants to force the Europe Union to engage, has meanwhile opened his country’s E.U. frontier for refugees to enter the continent. It’s a heartbreaking and chaotic situation where nobody wins—except for the far right.
These extremists are driven by a false narrative of a Muslim “invasion” of the West. For years, it has helped them gain political power while inspiring terrorist attacks in places like Oslo and Christchurch.
Now, as boats of refugees arrive again at Greek shores and desperate migrants try to storm their way through fences or slip through rivers and fields, the far right’s mythology is getting a boost.
Much like Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015, all corners of the far right are seizing on Turkey’s announced opening of its European borders. In Germany, France, Britain, Russia, Austria, Ukraine, and Greece itself, far-right groups are characterizing this crisis as an all-out race war, declaring “heads should roll and White Men should regain control of their lands.”
Such messages have ranged from calls to harass migrants, their supporters, and journalists in Greek refugee centers to devising ways to form a volunteer border militia. Common among all the messages, however, is an embrace of violence.
Lutz Bachmann, the founder and current leader of the German anti-Islam hate group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), wrote to the nearly 12,000 users following him on Telegram: “When illegal immigrants with potential terrorist background try to cross the border of a sovereign state, then you MUST react this way, completely legitimate and legally mandated.”
This militant outcry is coming not just from hate groups, but actual militant organizations. Misanthropic Division (MD), the militant foreign volunteer wing of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, has published posters using all of its signature white supremacist iconography to demand: “Defend Greece.”
Some far-right groups in Europe have even announced they’re going to Greece to push back against the refugees. Among them is the Austrian branch of the white nationalist Identitarian Movement led by Martin Sellner, a Vienna native who was once in contact with Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant. Tarrant donated almost $2,500 to Sellner's branch of the movement.
Sellner released a video claiming he and his fellow members were “driving to Greece… as volunteers to help the Greek people… protect their borders,” A follow-up video showed him with other alleged supporters in a vehicle “halfway to Greece.”
Sellner also announced the creation of a portal that serves as a point of “recruitment contact” for those interested in going to Greece to “demonstrate” against migrants and “protect our borders.” The portal also encourages donations.
Similarly, on a chat dedicated to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), a pan-Europe neo-Nazi organization, users explored the possibility of forming a volunteer force “to go and help the Greeks defend their border.”
“I’m honestly considering going there,” wrote one user.
Artwork distributed across far-right Telegram channels and chat groups using the Nazi Black Sun icon and a statue of Skanderbeg, a historical military figure who rebelled against the Ottoman empire. Declares: “Fight rapefugees back to the hellhole they belong!”
One popular neo-Nazi Telegram channel shared a thread of advice for brethren planning on entering Greece to help repel or attack refugees. The channel suggested that such individuals go posing as tourists:
Don't go to Greece on “immigration control business,” go there as a regular tourist!
Because that's what you are, right? Repeat after me: “I am a tourist. I have no desire whatsoever to do anything related to the invasion of Europe. I am here to take photos and mind my own business.”
There, that's better.
What we are seeing unfold from the Idlib crisis is a perfect storm: an easy-to-bend illustration of the far right’s “invasion” myth, timed chillingly close to the anniversary of the March 15 Christchurch attacks, which were carried out on behalf of that very myth.
But even more, it’s one more way that what happens in Syria isn’t just Syria’s problem, and never has been. For nearly a decade, the international community has watched Bashar al-Assad and his enablers indiscriminately bomb innocent men, women, and children, only to fret and feign surprise when these desperate human beings show up at Europe’s doorsteps.
That this has enabled the far-right movements is only one of an array of consequences for Western indifference. Whether it’s for the sake of human life, Middle East stability, or the strength of one’s own democracy, the West has far too many reasons to care about Syria. It’s past time, long past time, to pay attention.