Beirut: Syria’s embattled president already has a Facebook page, Twitter account and a YouTube channel. Now Bashar Al Assad is turning to the popular photo-sharing service Instagram in the latest attempt at improving his image as his country burns, posting pictures of himself and his glamorous wife surrounded by idolising crowds.
The photos show a smiling Al Assad among supporters, or grimly visiting wounded Syrians in the hospital. He is seen working in his office in Damascus, an Apple computer and iPad on his desk. His wife, Asma, who has stayed largely out of sight throughout the conflict, features heavily in the photos, casually dressed and surrounded by Syrian children and their mothers.
The sophisticated PR campaign is striking for an isolated leader who has earned near pariah status for his military’s bloody crackdown on dissent.
It is also in stark contrast to the machinations of other dictators at the centre of Arab Spring revolts. While the ousted Egyptian and Libyan leaders relied on antiquated methods such as state-run media to transmit stilted propaganda, Al Assad — a 47-year-old British-trained eye doctor — has increasingly relied on social media to project an image of confidence to the world.
The result is an efficient, modern propaganda machine in keeping with the times — but one that appears completely removed from the reality on the ground.
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against the Al Assad family’s decades-old iron rule began in March 2011. The revolt has transformed into an insurgency and civil war that has seen the country break up into sectarian and ethnic fiefdoms, uprooting millions of people from their homes.
“These are all dismal and useless attempts at polishing up his image,” said Mamdouh, a Syrian activist based in the northern province of Idlib, who declined to give his full name, for fear of retaliation.
“I wish he would turn his attention to more important things, such as saving the country,” he said, speaking via Skype.
This week’s launch of the presidency’s Instagram page is Al Assad’s latest attempt at burnishing his image.
“Welcome to the official Instagram account for the Presidency of the Syrian Republic,” says the greeting on the page, which in just a few days has collected more than 5,200 followers.
The 73 photos posted so far show Al Assad in situations that portray normality, compassion and confidence: Talking earnestly to a group of workers in hard hats, clutching the hand of a wounded man swathed in bandages in the hospital, being kissed on the cheek by a little girl with blond curls.
Asma Al Assad, her hair twisted casually in a bun, is seen serving meals to the elderly, holding a baby as she chats with a group of mothers and talking to schoolchildren in a science class lab.
The same photos are on the presidency’s Facebook page, where quotations from Al Assad’s interviews and speeches are posted. A YouTube channel keeps track of the president’s public appearances.
US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called the postings “nothing more than a despicable PR stunt.”
“It’s repulsive that the Al Assad regime would use this to gloss over the brutality and suffering it is causing,” she told reporters in Washington. “To see what’s really happening right now in Syria, to see the horrific atrocities in Homs and elsewhere, we would encourage people to take a look at unfiltered photos of what’s actually happening on the ground.”
The pages are professionally managed by censors who appear to work around the clock to keep off offensive remarks. A few do slip past — or are allowed to remain to give the impression of tolerance.
“See you at The Hague,” reads one comment under a picture of Al Assad among crowds, visiting the ancient Omayyad Mosque in Damascus in February. “Go to hell,” says another, posted beneath a picture of a smiling Al Assad during a visit to Raqqa in November 2011, just months after the uprising began. The opposition seized Raqqa in March, the only provincial capital to fall into rebel hands.
But the overwhelming majority of comments are from die-hard fans who profess their love and admiration.
“A true Lion,” reads one, playing on the word Al Assad, which means lion in Arabic.
Others gush at images of Syria’s first lady, asking for God to protect her and her husband.
“I doubt you would ever see a picture of Mrs Obama so humble. God Bless Mrs Assad,” reads a comment beneath a picture of Asma Al Assad at a Mother’s Day function in March, feeding an elderly Syrian woman.
Al Assad inherited power in 2000, raising hopes that the lanky, soft-spoken young leader might transform his late father’s stagnant and brutal dictatorship into a modern state. Many hoped the younger Al Assad, who led the Syrian Computer Society before his father’s death, would help reform the country.
The propaganda offensive has extended to Syrian state-run media, with Syrian TV devoting long segments to trying to show how life goes on as normal. In one, a Syrian anchor wearing a black T-shirt with the words “I Love Syria,” is seen interviewing people in Damascus restaurants and souks as they speak of their love for the president and the army.