Asma al-Assad looks poised and fragrant as she ladles food out of a vast silvery bowl to children who wait patiently for their portion. The first lady of Syria is dressed down for the occasion in a pale blue blouse, caught in an ethereal white light as she tends to the needs of her people. The woman is a saint.
In another photograph she sits on the ground with girls in Guide-like uniforms, and in another, she gives a little girl a new doll. She chats and smiles with grateful (and perhaps nervous) recipients of her bounty, in touchy-feely pictures that show her physically touching the poor and disabled.
These are some of the images from the daily rounds of the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that are puzzling a world riven by debate about claims that al-Assad used sarin gas in an attack on his people in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21. While the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the attack is disputed by Russia, China, British Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband and many more who refuse to accept US accusations at face value, reactions to these photographs have been pretty much a universal “ugh.” From Israel’s Haaretz to Britain’s Daily Mail, the bland, Hello-like images of Asma al-Assad posing with little conviction as a friend of the people while her husband’s civil war with rebels is devastating the country seem to strike most observers as “shameless” and grotesque.
The smiling, sun-kissed world of the al-Assads — while she does charity work, he holds decorous meetings with dignitaries — come from the Syrian presidency’s Instagram account. The hugely popular photography Web site and app allows users to display and share pictures in a visually seductive way. You can see the temptation for Bashar al-Assad to use this benign tool for propaganda. However, his Instagram smilorama appears to be backfiring: while argument rages over his alleged use of poison gas, his Instagram is drawing sneers. Perhaps the UN could even agree to condemn its bad taste.
It’s no laughing matter. In a curious way, these pictures of Asma al-Assad reveal the truth about Syria. Their blatant phoney quality — the first lady serving hot lunches while in reality al-Assad’s forces have been accused of targeting bakeries, and refugees are streaming hungry for the borders — allows us to recognize the embattled Syrian regime for what it is. They stir a sinister sense of recognition, for who has not heard of the banality of evil?
The war in Syria has been made easier for Bashar al-Assad by powerfully enforced reporting restrictions. The death of the renowned war reporter Marie Colvin in Homs in February last year sent out a powerful message (it is unclear whether she and the other reporters killed or injured with her were deliberately targeted) about how hard it would be to get the truth from this killing zone. Many images of horror have come out of Syria since, but have to be examined carefully. Was a video that surfaced on YouTube early in the war, in which the cameraman observes a sniper at work until he is shot himself as the gun turns on him, an authentic piece of citizen reporting?
Reality has proved easy to destroy in Syria. Facts are hard to come by and have to be peered at through a bloody fog. The old adage that truth is the first casualty of war has never been more brutally proven — because Bashar al-Assad attacked truth from the start. As the civil war, we called it a rebellion then, started in 2011, he simply banned most foreign journalists from Syria. This is such a familiar fact it may seem obtuse to restate it. Yet it is no coincidence that two years into the conflict, international onlookers are debating fundamental issues of fact and evidence, with many people giving al-Assad the benefit of the doubt on last month’s chemical attack.