As the conflict in Syria rages on towards its third year, President Bashar al-Assad is taking care not to neglect his online reputation. Last week al-Assad joined Instagram, in what is likely an effort to diffuse images of violence and war with uplifting photos of handshakes and hospital bedside visits.
The outpouring of compassion shown in the president's photo stream comes as government forces continue to fight rebels and civilian casualties mount. Since the protests against al-Assad’s authoritarian rule started two and a half years ago, some 100,000 Syrians have been killed, the United Nations estimates, and another 2.5 million have fled the country. The UN has accused al-Assad’s regime of “gross violations” human rights violations, like torture, kidnapping, and execution.
Last Monday, government forces killed dozens of rebels in ambush near Damascus. Two days after the attack, al-Assad’s Instagram account popped up.
So far the account has just over 1,000 followers, and 66 photos posted. The images show al-Assad and his wife, Asma al-Assad, visiting supporters, shaking hands with officials, and comforting wounded citizens.
The president announced the Instagram account from his known Twitter account, @Presidency_Sy, in a tweet on Wednesday (Google Translate): "Presidency of the Republic officially launches account on Instagram, lets you follow presidential activities. Follow us first hand…"
رئاسة الجمهورية تطلق حساباً رسمياً على إينستاغرام يتيح لكم متابعة الأنشطة الرئاسية بالصور.. تابعونا أولاً بأول.. http://t.co/Yz1fqLaDmH— Syrian Presidency (@Presidency_Sy) July 24, 2013
The Instagram account is just the latest example of al-Assad’s ongoing publicity strategy. Last year, the New York Times reported the dictator had hired a PR firm to secure photo shoots and positive press about the Syrian First Lady in glossy celebrity magazines in the West.
The president spent thousands of dollars for advice on how to improve the couple's international image. “With the help of high-priced public relations advisers who had worked in the Clinton, Bush and Thatcher administrations, the president and his family have sought over the past five years to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous.” reported the Times.
According to private emails discovered last year by rebel forces and published by the Guardian, the couple closely monitored their social media presence to make sure it’s “clean,” deleting fake accounts set up in their names.
In March of 2011, as protests against al-Assad's regime began to heat up, resulting in a government crackdown that killed 10,000 Syrians, Vogue ran a positive profile of the Syrian first lady, portraying her as a beautiful and fashionable woman born and raised in the UK to Syrian-born parents.
"The glowing article praised the al-Assads as a 'wildly democratic' family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the 'safest country in the Middle East,' and want to give Syria a 'brand essence,'" the Atlantic reported. Though Vogue originally defended the article, titled “A Rose in the Desert,” it has since been scrubbed from the web.
Throughout the conflict, rebel and government forces have both leveraged social media for their cause. While activists turn to Twitter and Facebook to organize and share information on demonstrations, pro-Assad hackers use the web to spread pro-government propaganda.
Just last night, the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Reuters Twitter account, the latest in a series of high-profile cyberattacks on news organizations, including the Guardian, CBS, the Financial Times, and the Onion.
Instagram is the latest tool in the government's one-two punch strategy. While the left hand sets out to quash opposition, the right is painting a prettier picture of the regime.