Portrait of a Dictator

By Charlotte Lawrence 


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n February of 2011, Vogue published a profile of Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, called “A Rose in the Desert.”The author, 

Joan Buck, praised Asma’s personal style and emphasized her commitment to educating the youth, increasing civic engagement, and strengthening civil society. Throughout the rest of the piece, inserted between personal anecdotes detailing the presidential couple’s fashion choices, lifestyle, and home life, was a startlingly ironic portrayal of their leadership philosophy. I winced when I read a description of the Assads’ Syria as a beacon of peace, safety, and secular tolerance. A relevant quote from President Assad concluded the piece: “‘This is the diversity you want to see in the Middle East. This is how you can have peace!’”

Vogue’s timing was dreadful: the Arab Spring had begun in December. By March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was illegally detaining protesters, including children, and ordering his troops to open fire on the many pro-democracy demonstrations popping up across the country. Such a violent response to dissent could easily have been predicted: Assad’s presidency had long been characterized by the repression of civil society and a distinct disrespect for human rights. Unsurprisingly, “A Rose in the Desert” met widespread backlash. Two Wall Street Journal editors summed up the public’s anger when they ominously wrote that “when Syria’s dictator eventually falls…there will be a reckoning. Vogue has earned its place in that unfortunate roll call.” Vogue eventually deleted the piece from their website.

Asma al-Assad’s Vogue profile provides a particularly well-publicized case study in the importance of portrayal. Asma herself is less relevant outside of a beauty and fashion context – she is not seen as being a driving force behind her husband’s decisions and tends to avoid the public eye. But how does the public understand her husband, Bashar, a man who has been responsible for inflicting torture, detainment, injury, and death upon thousands of civilians, yet continues to cling to power in a war-torn country? As with many questions, the answer depends on whom you ask.

The portraits sketched by media sources are often the biggest influence on public opinion. People turn to news sources they trust to form or confirm their own opinions. And that abstract, media-informed “public opinion” plays a concrete role in affecting policy. For example, as journalist Jeffrey Goldberg argues, the non-interventionist, war-weary American public helped dissuade President Obama from striking Syria in 2012 in retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Similarly, numerous journalists and analysts, including Chris Zambelis at the Middle East Institute, argue that Assad is able to keep the presidency despite widespread opposition and conflict because of the loyalty of his base, the military, and the Syrian government and their fear of who might replace him. Even in a dictatorial regime, public opinion affects the decisions governments can make.

Given the powerful effect of public opinion, each country with a stake in the Syrian conflict has a vested interest in shaping public perception to align with its geopolitical goals, particularly when it comes to perception of Syria’s dictator himself. Assad opposes Israel, the United States, and the West in general, but is allied with Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. Accordingly, Russia has an incentive to promote a belief in Assad’s legitimacy as a ruler to legitimate its own intervention on his behalf. Similarly, the more cruel and lawless Assad seems, the more the US and its allies are able to justify their logistical support of the opposition forces in Syria and their desire to remove Assad from power. Unsurprisingly, Assad has an interest in promoting himself as a strong and legitimate ruler in order to maintain the loyalty of his supporters in Syria and abroad.

Media is an important political tool that helps shape public opinion and affect policy. Portrayal of Assad by Western, Russian, and Syrian news source constitute a conscious effort to harness the effect of media in service of geopolitical goals. Ultimately, understanding the dynamics of international media coverage will be important for creating a narrative that can bring the war in Syria to a peaceful end.

A lovely family photo album was posted on the UK’s Telegraph website in 2012.  Assad’s nose is tweaked by one of his three photogenic young children. The family rides bikes and blows out candles in perfectly staged, yet candid-seeming photos. Fashionably dressed Asma leans lovingly on her husband’s shoulder as they examine a photo he has taken. The album screams normal, relatable, and loving. An accompanying article is more even-handed, claiming that the photos were released from Asma’s private collection for propaganda reasons.

At the time the photos were taken, several years before being published by the Telegraph, Assad was a new president and his family was Syria’s golden family, promising secularism, peace, and democratic reform. The photos helped him to appear warm and modern – a reformer counterpoint to the violent religious extremism present in the region. With several years of hindsight, the Telegraph asked where the photos of Syria’s other children are: children blown apart by artillery barrages, slaughtered by loyalist militia, or tortured to death in detainment.

The Telegraph’s claim that the Assad photo album was propaganda was likely not an exaggeration. State control of media sources, and the careful dissemination of propaganda, is the norm in Syria.  Even the Vogue interview and photoshoot, the Hill reports, was helped along by a multi-thousand dollar contract between Assad and the New-York-based PR firm Brown Lloyd James.

A more quotidian example of state-controlled media, the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) is publicly owned and linked to Assad’s Ministry of Information. The SANA website offers its content in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Russian, clearly intending to reach and influence a broad international audience. A quick search of Assad’s name reveals a series of articles detailing his dedication to fighting terrorism, willingness to cooperate with the UN, and the success of his military policies. The website is not critical of Assad; no articles list his failures or weaknesses. SANA presents a strong, caring, and very pro-Russian leader, ostensibly with the aim of strengthening the president’s public support and ties with its ally to the north. Coverage of Assad’s meeting with “injured army personnel and their mothers,” and notably, a large amount of articles summarizing or re-printing Russian coverage of Assad are also prominently featured.

Another Syrian state-run news outlet, the Syria Times, published a piece in February of 2016 called “Why Syrians Support President Bashar Al-Assad.” It starts with a bang:

“President Assad [has] been…the focus of a sinister campaign of attack, especially by some bribed Western officials, Arab ewes, and not to mention some in the US Administration! Actually, such unjustified attack, which targeted all of Syria’s sources of pride, honor and heritage, backfired and proved fruitless; and instead added to increase the popularity of the Syrian Army and President.”

In two sentences, the article brushes aside all criticism of Assad as the product of a smear campaign, attributes the source of that smear campaign as the already unpopular United States, and associates an attack on Assad with an attack on all of Syria’s honor and heritage. The rest of the article claims that Assad supports civil society and has successfully avoided the shedding of unnecessary civilian blood – all of which is patently false. Plus, it identifies his popular support as 90%. Unbiased public opinion polls inside Syria are few and far between, but Assad’s support level is certainly not at 90%.

Just as in Syria, the Russian media is very deliberately pro-Assad. For example, Tass is a major Russian state-run news platform. Its coverage of Assad centers around the occasional policy news story about the Syrian president, or, more often, coverage of Putin and his actions in support of the Assad regime. As if the two countries are in a propaganda sharing agreement, Tass links to many stories run by SANA, just as SANA links to Russian stories. On another Russian state-run news site, Sputnik International, coverage is much the same.  Stories focus on the Syrian opposition which Assad is fighting, their crimes – “Islamist Terrorists Use Chlorine in Attack on Syria’s Aleppo” (with no corresponding mention of Assad’s use of the same weapon) – and their Western support – “US-Turkey-Saudi Arabia Arm Terrorists With Surface-to-Air Missiles in Syria.” While it is true that much of the Syrian opposition has been just as violent and abusive as Assad himself, the Russian coverage completely omits mention of Assad’s atrocities.

The Russian media strategy seems to be to legitimize Assad by comparison – whatever his flaws (and they don’t mention those), he’s an elected leader, and his opponents are lawless terrorists. This strategy makes sense. Indeed, as law professor and former Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner notes, “Putin is heavily utilizing his ability to persuade the Russian people that what Russia is doing in Syria advances Russia’s national interests.” Russia views the maintenance of Assad in power as crucial to its relevance in the Middle East, as Syria currently hosts strategically important Russian military bases and Assad is one of Russia’s last Middle Eastern allies. While Putin may not be able to convince the world that Assad is a great leader, his administration’s media coverage of Assad reflects a desire to characterize Assad as a legitimate leader whose removal would constitute a violation of national sovereignty – and whose opponents are far worse.

While Syria and Russia are united in their desire to promote and protect a strong Assad presidency, the United States has the opposite goal. The U.S. and its allies would like to see Assad unseated and replaced with a secular, democratic, pro-Western regime. This goal has been complicated by the rise of ISIS; Assad is significantly less threatening to the safety of the West and he may be a necessary component of the efforts to stop ISIS. Still, in the eyes of many in the United States, Assad is and should be considered a vicious dictator and war criminal.

A curious article published by The Guardian in 2012 indicts the West as an equal player in a deceptive propaganda war regarding portrayals of Bashar al-Assad. White House publications on the Syrian Civil War seem fairly objective and straightforward, merely detailing Assad’s abuses and the United States’ strategic response and plans. Still, it is not unlikely that Obama would want to spin Assad’s popularity ratings to be as negative as possible, considering that the U.S. has been involved with actively arming and aiding certain Syrian opposition groups. Moreover, American ambassadors have been involved in deliberate engagement with public opinion. Posner comments that, back when the U.S. still maintained a diplomatic presence in Syria, “Ambassador Robert Ford was out there communicating with and engaging with the protestors,” recognizing that they were a key element that could prompt Assad towards change.

A particularly thorough profile of Assad published in the left-leaning American magazine The New Republic highlights young Assad’s awkwardness and insecurity. Weak and goofy, prone to panic attacks, he was never meant to be president – that job should have gone to his older brother Basil. His father was hard on him, he craved validation, and he wouldn’t last as a ruler; the civil war should have been the end of him. Instead, he demonstrated remarkable tenacity in maintaining his office. He could have been a reformer or a “naïve and malleable” puppet, the article explains, but instead he proved himself to be a vicious, repressive, decidedly immovable ruler. An intriguing take, the focus on Assad’s weakness seems intentional, a move made to lessen the threat he poses, and to decrease our respect for him.

In the battle over which understanding of Assad will stick and become consensus, it’s not clear that there will be a single winner. Each party with a stake in Syria will continue to press its view: to the West, Assad is an unforgivably brutal dictator, to Russia, Assad is a legitimate ruler. As for Assad himself, his incentive is clearly to build support for presidency. My personal favorite quote about Assad comes from his own personal website, PresidentAssad.net. The article calls him “sacred and noble and priceless. What is more of demonization, distortions  and fabrications? Nonsense! Futile, stupid!  The majority’s spiritual umbilical cord with their President  is unshakeable.” One might imagine that a majority of Syrians, even Assad’s supporters, do not believe that they are connected to their ruler by a “spiritual umbilical cord.” However, the urgent, desperate tone of this quote highlights the high stakes of the competition over the portrayal of Assad: control of public opinion can give a government a competitive edge, and an edge means a lot in a long, desperate contest for control in Syria. For policy makers and politicians alike in their approach to the Syrian conflict, understanding these media dynamics is crucially important in the quest for peace.


Charlotte Lawrence is a junior Global Affairs and History major in Ezra Stiles college. Contact her at charlotte.lawrence@yale.edu.