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Behind the scenes of a genocide

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signed up on Instagram in the summer. His social media updates seem to have very little to do with the reality in Syria.

 

The instagram account of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received widespread media attention when launched earlier this summer. The syrianpresidency account features President al-Assad, and his wife Asma, meeting smiling citizens, delivering food to internally displaced people and visiting the brave Syrian regime troops.

 

President al-Assad praying with his fellow countrymen.

 President al-Assad praying with his fellow countrymen.

Looking at the pictures, one could not imagine the country being torn apart by a civil war, which is said to have claimed more then 100 000 lives. The conflict has been going on for almost 18 months and has forced more than 2 million Syrians, half of them children, to leave the country.

 

President al-Assad greeting brave Syrian soldiers.

 President al-Assad greeting brave Syrian soldiers.

In many photos the president’s wife Alma al-Assad appears as a kind of Mother Theresa character helping children and doing other charity. Ironically her husband – the man behind most of the destruction and misery – also appears in some of the pictures.

 

Alma al-Assad volunteering at a mobile kitchen.

 Alma al-Assad volunteering at a mobile kitchen.

Soon another user signed up on instagram. The updates of Realsyrianpresidency show quite a different reality in Syria. Destroyed cities, wounded people, dead children. The world has seen these photos in the news, but still they are equally shocking.

 

A building destroyed by Syrian government troops.

A building destroyed by Syrian government troops.

 

Victims of the chemical attacks in Ghouta near Damascus.

Victims of the chemical attacks in Ghouta near Damascus.

 

In terms of followers, the official account still has an upper hand – it has more than 40 000 followers whereas the realsyrianpresidency account only has some 400.

 

This far al-Assad’s account has been mostly used for uploading photos of happy children smiling or Ms. As-Assad meeting citizens. Not much to do with the current situation in the country, one could say.

 

“On one level you'd have to say that it's not surprising to find any government, even the rigid and oppressive one in Damascus, using social media to broadcast and frame its own narrow world view,” said Amnesty International UK Syria campaign manager Kristyan Benedict in an interview with the Daily Mail.

 

“Image obviously matters in a cult of personality and the illusion of relative stability is important in President Assad's ‘love me or I'll kill you’ strategy.”

 

Alma al-Assad taking part in an art workshop.

Alma al-Assad taking part in an art workshop.

 

In an article in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones links the al-Assad instagram account to the concept of banality of evil, originally coined by political theorist Hannah Arendt to describe the trial of Adolf Eichmann. According to Arendt great evil in history was not executed by sociopaths or lunatics but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and, therefore, participated with the view that their actions were normal.

 

“Assad's Instagram world is supremely banal. Rather than a Nero fiddling while Rome burns or a Hitler dreaming of architectural follies in his last days in the bunker, the Syrian president in these pictures just wants to come across as a great guy with a lovely wife”, writes Jones.

 

The world of President al-Assad and his wife represented on Instagram does not seem of unsound mind, rather too harmonic. Flicking through the photos leaves a confused feeling. What could be a lot more interesting would be the Syrian president trying to legitimize his regime with updates less surreal.

Antti Lehtinen is an intern at UNRIC (United Nations Information Centre for Western Europe)

 

 

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