AMMAN, Jordan -- With more than 80 posts and 30,000 followers, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Instagram account, opened just over a week ago, is the latest example of the government’s aggressive foray into social media during its more-than two-year war against armed rebels.
Pro-rebellion citizen journalists have been a mainstay of the conflict since its beginning, flooding social media networks with videos and photographs that have been viewed, shared and tweeted around the world.
Although pro-Assad supporters have also been active, the Syrian government had until recently relied on the official Syrian Arab News Agency for most of its communications with the outside world.
Beginning in 2013, however, Syrian authorities wholeheartedly embraced social media, opening accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, most recently, Instagram.
The popular photo-sharing platform “allows Assad to make his case through the power of images,” according to Ramzy Mardini, an independent Middle East analyst based in Jordan. “It’s much more intimate and effective than having your message run through state media.”
The images put out under the user name “syrianpresidency” depict the president and his glamorous wife, Asma, earnestly holding the hands of wounded soldiers or civilians, playing with children and in the midst of adoring crowds.
Syrian state TV has also incorporated social media segments into its programming, with video clips culled from YouTube depicting “the Syrian army’s accurate attacks on the terrorists.” The government routinely describes the armed rebels as terrorists.
“This is nothing more than a despicable PR stunt,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Wednesday. The photos, she charged, were “not indicative of the horrific situation on the ground that [Assad] is causing for his own people.”
Not all would agree, at least according to the effusively positive comments left on the Instagram account.
“May God keep you for us as a crown above the head of every Syrian,” said one commentator. Another proclaimed, “Love Live Bashar! The hell with Obama and [Al Qaeda]!”
According to the Associated Press, negative remarks are censored, although it seems that sarcasm may elude the filter.
“Nice teeth. They have dentists there?” quipped a user about a snap of the president glad-handing his way through a crowd in a war-battered neighborhood of Homs.
“Wonderful propaganda,” declared another user after viewing a picture of the first lady embracing the mother of a war victim from the northern city of Aleppo.
On Thursday, the presidency posted images on both the Facebook and Instagram accounts from Assad’s visit to Daraya, a battle-scarred suburb south of Damascus, the capital.
The Daraya area is still the site of considerable combat, and the images of the president meeting with soldiers there on Syria’s Army Day caused a stir in the capital and elsewhere. Many were incredulous that Assad had ventured to the hazardous zone.
Official media carried images of the president’s foray into the rubble-strewn district, where he met with soldiers in full combat gear, lauding their efforts. Bombed-out buildings and destroyed storefronts provided part of the backdrop.
“Without you, we all were slaves for the states which want us to bow,” Assad was quoted as telling Syrian troops, referring to his frequent assertion that the rebellion against his government is a U.S.-backed conspiracy. “Without you, there were no universities, schools, bread or water.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.