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Syria: Outrage at AFP over 'whitewashing' Asma al-Assad photos

Twitter users are accusing the agency of helping to whitewash the first lady's role in the Syria war
Syria's Asma al-Assad harvests Damascena (Damask) roses in the village of al-Marah, in the Damascus countryside, on 25 May 2023 (AFP)
This Agence France-Presse photo of Syria's Asma al-Assad harvesting roses has sparked a social media backlash (AFP)

A photograph by Agence France-Presse (AFP) depicting Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad picking roses in the Damascus countryside has sparked outrage on social media.

Users are accusing the French agency of helping to whitewash the abuses of the Syrian government, which rights monitors say amount to war crimes. 

The photo was originally shared on 25 May by AFP’s Lebanon-Syria bureau chief Acil Tabbara, with the caption: “Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad harvests Damascena (Damask) roses in the village of al-Marah, in the Damascus countryside, on May 25, 2023."

The post soon received hundreds of comments and retweets, ranging from cynicism and outrage to disbelief, saying the post helps distract from Assad's complicity in the government’s rights abuses.

Users directed their criticism at both the agency and the first lady. 

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Several users juxtaposed Assad’s photos and participation in the harvest with the high levels of food insecurity in the war-torn country.

“People are starving to death for the first time in our history, and the only thing she is doing is to pose for cameras”, user @MouhannadMALEK commented. 


Earlier this month, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League, a move that was denounced by Washington and rights activists. 

Though most criticism is directed at Bashar al-Assad, activists and experts say the first lady is also “culpable” in war crimes. 

Asma’s initial silence over her husband’s actions later developed into active support. Her image shifted from "desert rose" to "first lady of hell".

Another user compared Assad to Marie Antoinette. 

Monica Marks, a specialist in Middle East politics, compared AFP’s post to the infamous 2011 Vogue feature, “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert”.

The article, which has since been taken down, was a glowing portrait of British-Syrian dual national Asma, in which the Assads were praised as a “wildly democratic", family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity and made Syria the "safest country in the Middle East”. 

Acil Tabbara deleted her tweet on 26 May, but over a dozen photographs, as well as a video of Asma at the rose harvest, remain on the agency’s website. Other Twitter users continue to share and criticise the AFP photos.

Tabbara told Middle East Eye that she had “no comment to make”. MEE also reached out to the editorial team of AFP, but received no response at the time of publication. 

The criticism of the photo is part of a wider debate on the normalisation of ties with the Assad government.

Over the years, Asma emerged as one of the most influential business and government officials in Syria. A Financial Times article published last month details her sway over Syria’s business sector and economy.

In 2021, the UK-based human rights law firm Guernica 37 submitted two confidential files to London's Metropolitan Police Service to open investigations into her role in the Syria war

Asma has given speeches supporting the Syrian armed forces, which over a decade of war have targeted civilian areas, including hospitals and schools, with barrel bombs and heavy artillery.

Campaigners say such indiscriminate use of force, which also includes the use of chemical weapons, constitutes violations of international and national laws, including UK law.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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