Bashar al-Assad’s Surreal Instagram Feed

A close and uncomfortable look at the Assad family, while they are not killing Syrian civilians.

National Journal
Marin Cogan
Sept. 5, 2013, 2 a.m.

On the morn­ing of Aug. 21, strange, aw­ful im­ages began spread­ing from the east­ern sub­urbs of Dam­as­cus to the in­ter­na­tion­al me­dia: foot­age of scream­ing chil­dren, of dead an­im­als and hu­man vic­tims stretched out on the ground, their eyes glazed and pu­pils dilated, some con­vulsing, some mo­tion­less. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion would later say it was evid­ence of the worst chem­ic­al-weapons at­tack in 25 years, car­ried out by Syr­i­an pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad, a vi­ol­a­tion of in­ter­na­tion­al norms of war­fare and a pro­voca­tion that de­man­ded a mil­it­ary re­sponse. But the im­ages pos­ted on As­sad’s In­s­tagram feed from the same peri­od con­vey noth­ing of a re­gime in crisis. They show the an­gu­lar Syr­i­an des­pot, who turns 48 on Sept. 11, strid­ing through a room of aca­dem­ics who helped train Syr­i­an high school sci­ence stu­dents for an in­ter­na­tion­al sci­ence com­pet­i­tion.

As­sad is the latest in what one news site has called ” the dic­tat­ors of In­s­tagram.” Chechen Pres­id­ent Ramz­an Kadyrov has fam­ously used the so­cial-net­work­ing site as a plat­form to pro­ject his very Rus­si­an style of mas­culin­ity (photo mont­ages of the im­possibly bar­rel-ches­ted des­pot weight-lift­ing and pos­ing with wolves and wild­cats.) The min­ions of Ayatol­lah Khame­nei have pos­ted sev­er­al close-ups of Ir­an’s sep­tua­gen­ari­an Su­preme Lead­er on his photo-shar­ing page.

But there is something es­pe­cially sur­real about the gil­ded snap­shots of As­sad and his wife, giv­en the ra­pa­cious­ness with which he has turned on his own people and the in­ter­na­tion­al angst cur­rently be­ing ex­pen­ded over how to re­spond to his ac­tions. On Wed­nes­day, as Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry test­i­fied be­fore Con­gress to seek au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force against As­sad, the gov­ern­ment in Dam­as­cus was up­load­ing a series of im­ages of Syr­ia’s glam­or­ous, Brit­ish-born first lady, Asma, pos­ing with high school stu­dents.

The In­s­tagram feed is part of what The New York Times de­scribed Tues­day as a strategy “to act as if noth­ing un­to­ward is hap­pen­ing, as if the gory civil war that has laid waste to Syr­ia is tak­ing place in a dif­fer­ent realm.” As­sad ap­pears to have no real pres­ence on Twit­ter, and a re­cent post on the In­s­tagram feed com­plains of hav­ing a video of one of his speeches blocked by You­Tube. But the three-year-old photo-shar­ing site may of­fer spe­cial ap­peal to the men­dacious polit­ic­al fig­ure­head: max­im­um con­trol over what users can present on a homepage, a small but­ton for view­ers to like pho­tos and a re­l­at­ively un­used photo-tag­ging fea­ture. Its com­ment sec­tions have typ­ic­ally af­forded refuge from God­win’s Law, which dom­in­ates many con­ver­sa­tions on the web. (In­s­tagram did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment about its policy to­wards mur­der­ous, dic­tat­ori­al users.)

But the pho­tos on As­sad’s In­s­tagram have been too con­tro­ver­sial for users to ig­nore. Be­neath pic­tures of Asma serving food to “in­tern­ally dis­placed fam­il­ies” (while wear­ing a wrist gad­get de­signed for the health-ob­sessed to track their eat­ing and sleep­ing habits) or Bashar glad-hand­ing the coun­try’s troops, de­bates between the re­gime’s op­pon­ents and sup­port­ers who be­lieve the coun­try is un­der at­tack from ter­ror­ists are ra­ging. “I hope you and your hus­band die in the worst way pos­sible,” one user wrote, in one of the only print­able com­ments from the crit­ics of As­sad. There are oth­er signs that the re­gime’s ef­forts to ma­nip­u­late so­cial me­dia for the pur­poses of pro­pa­ganda aren’t go­ing per­fectly. Just a few days after the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment began post­ing pho­tos a month ago, an­oth­er ac­count called Real Syr­i­an Pres­id­ency began post­ing pho­tos more like the ones out­siders have come to as­so­ci­ate with the coun­try, of dead chil­dren.

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