BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s embattled president already has a Facebook page, Twitter account and a YouTube channel. Now Bashar 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 idolizing crowds.
The photos show a smiling 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 center of Arab Spring revolts. While the ousted Egyptian and Libyan leaders relied on antiquated methods such as state-run media to transmit stilted propaganda, 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 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 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 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 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 Assad’s interviews and speeches are posted. A YouTube channel keeps track of the president’s public appearances.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called the postings “nothing more than a despicable PR stunt.”
“It’s repulsive that the 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 Assad among crowds, visiting the ancient Omayyad Mosque in Damascus in February. “Go to hell,” says another, posted beneath a picture of a smiling 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 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 Assad at a Mother’s Day function in March, feeding an elderly Syrian woman.
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 Assad, who led the Syrian Computer Society before his father’s death, would help reform the country.
As a couple, Assad and Asma, who grew up in a west London suburb, did not fit the mold of dictator and wife, making surprise public appearances to the delight of their supporters. But the regime’s ferocious crackdown on the uprising quickly shattered their image as a glamorous, reform-minded couple who could help bring progressive values to a country that has been ruled by the Assad family dynasty for more than 40 years.
While he was often dismissed by critics as too weak to fill his father’s shoes, Assad has dealt with the war with surprising tenacity, holding onto power with a mix of brute military force and a portrayal of the conflict as one spearheaded by al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists bent on destroying the country.
Although he has lost large swathes of territory to the rebels, his troops have recently gone on the offensive in the country’s heartland and around the capital, Damascus, seat of his power, pushing the opposition fighters back from strategic areas.
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.
Throughout the conflict, Assad has succeeded in maintaining support drawn largely from his Alawite constituency and other minorities in Syria, who fear the alternative to his rule would be the chaos of an Islamic state.
But for many, the message Assad is conveying is provocative.
“Kill the people, destroy their homes, and then visit them in hospital. Yes, well done,” read a comment left under a picture of Asma Assad visiting a wounded Syrian woman.
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.
Follow Zeina Karam on twitter.com/zkaram