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Bashar al-Assad Had a Great InstaSummer While His People Drowned in the Mediterranean

As Syrians died en route to Europe this summer, their dictator Instagrammed like all was well back home.

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On July 24, 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad posted his first-ever Instagram photo. It showed him wearing a suit and tie, smiling as he greeted a supporter and grasped his wrist. Other men crowded around him smiled along, holding their cameras up and their hands out. The raging Syrian civil war was into its third year, and the government controlled less than half the country. But based on the picture alone, you’d never know the difference.

Since then, Assad’s Instagram account, @syrianpresidency, has posted more than 400 times and gained some 38,500 followers. And since then, Syria has fallen even further into chaos.

Millions of Syrians have fled to refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Hundreds of thousands have braved the dangerous trek  to Europe, many drowning in choppy Mediterranean waters before arriving. On Wednesday, EU leaders held the latest in months of meetings on what to do with the seemingly endless flow of Syrian refugees begging for assistance from the West. Division over how to address the crisis, European leaders have warned, could threaten the EU’s entire existence, and a quota plan to disperse 120,000 migrants from overcrowded reception centers in Hungary, Italy, and Greece to other EU member states has split the continent.

All along, Assad’s been posting on Instagram, the same filter-based photo app used by millions of people to make meals look more tasty, sunsets more pink, and beachgoers more tanned. But for Assad, the posted photos largely filter out the realities of the Syrian people’s plight.

Foreign Policy has sorted through all of his posted photos to explore what happened recently in his largely happy Instagram world versus what was happening in Syria and to Syrian refugees fleeing their home country that day. Here is but a sampling from this year:

Sept. 20, 2015.

The World According to Assad’s Instagram: Assad posted throwback photos to when First Lady Asma participated in a “cycle for peace” bicycle ride in Syria. In one photo, she led the pack on an orange mountain bike. In another, she stood with a group of women holding up peace signs. The captions indicate the photos were taken in 2005.

The Real World: More than one boat carrying migrants and refugees sunk in the Mediterranean. The Greek coast guard managed to rescue close to 30 people, but dozens more are feared dead. Meanwhile, Croatia announced the arrival of 27,000 migrants and asylum-seekers, most by way of Serbia after Hungary blocked them from passing through on the way to Germany. And in Germany, an arson attack left a shelter meant to house 400 migrants and asylum-seekers completely destroyed.

Sept. 16, 2015.

The World According to Assad’s Instagram: Dressed in a crisp blue suit, Assad smiled as he was interviewed in Russian media. In the interview, Assad claimed refugees were fleeing the Islamic State, not his regime.

The Real World: Hungarian police forces pepper sprayed and water cannoned migrants and asylum-seekers who attempted to cross the border from Serbia. Hundreds were arrested and some were charged with terrorism. The border closure prompted tens of thousands of people to instead trek onward to Croatia, which initially welcomed them but later shut down its border after its existing resources were overwhelmed by the crowds.

Sept. 2, 2015.

The World According to Assad’s Instagram: First Lady Asma smiles with a group of eight young boys (some wearing medals, all giving thumbs up) who were honored for their academic achievements.

السيدة #أسماء_الأسد مع #طلاب فريق #الأولمبياد_العلمي_السوري الفائزين بميدالية فضية و 3 برونزيات و5 شهادات تقدير.. بعد مشاركتهم في مسابقات #الأولمبياد_العلمي_الدولي في كل من تايلاند(رياضيات).. الهند (فيزياء).. أذربيجان (كيمياء).. وكازاخستان (معلوماتية).. ولم يمنح الطلاب سمات الدخول اللازمة إلى الدنمرك للمشاركة في الأولمبياد الدولي لعلم الأحياء هناك – 1 أيلول 2015. #SyrianPresidency #FirstLady #Asma #Assad #PhotooftheDay #BestoftheDay #youth #Hope #Future

A post shared by Syrian Presidency (@syrianpresidency) on

The Real World: The body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, washed up on Turkish shores, and a photo captured of him face-down in the sand went viral online as a symbol of the increasingly desperate migration crisis. Kurdi’s mother and brother also perished on the trip. His father survived, and brought their bodies back to Kobani for burial.

Aug. 1, 2015.

The World According to Assad’s Instagram: It might have been a Saturday, but it’s never a bad time for a throwback post. Assad’s Instagram showed off a young Bashar al-Assad in Army fatigues, holding a rifle.

The Real World: The spotlight was on Calais, France, where thousands of disgruntled migrants and asylum-seekers — including Syrians — camped out near the entrance to the English Channel. Groups of them started to get media attention at the end of July for jumping on the back of trucks, hoping to make it safely to the United Kingdom, which prompted French and British officials to implement new security measures.

April 2, 2015.

The World According to Assad’s Instagram: First Lady Asma greeted smiling young children at an orphanage. The caption used #orphans and #instagood.

The Real World: Islamic State fighters fought to take over most of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp just outside of Damascus. Before the civil war began, more than 800,000 people lived there. After Islamic State militants arrived, only around 16,000 people were thought to remain.

Photo Credit: Instagram

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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