The first advertisement released by Bashar al-Assad during this year’s Syrian presidential election campaign was tagged with the slogan Sawa, or “Together.” It proved to be a misguided choice for a plebiscite marred by widespread ballot stuffing, choreographed pro-Assad celebrations outside the polling stations, and no votes cast by Syrians in rebel-held territories throughout the country. For the incumbent, who won an improbable 89 percent of the vote, the election was a way to demonstrate to friends and foes that he has the wherewithal to survive a civil war now in its third year, no matter the cost—which thus far includes some 190,000 deaths (a third of them civilians, according to the United Kingdom–based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) and the devastation of much of the country’s economy and infrastructure.
The “Together” ad was a slick piece of propaganda. In it, an idealized cross section of Syrian society—children mourning fathers killed in battle, bearded old farmers in straw hats and kaffiyehs, veiled women, construction workers and, strangely, people in white lab coats—floods into Krak des Chevaliers, a massive Crusader castle twenty-five miles west of Homs. (T.E. Lawrence called it “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.”) Over triumphal music, Syrians ascend to the ramparts and erect a towering pole for an outsize Syrian flag, which flaps in the wind, backlit by the sun. One by one, they salute it. An aerial shot shows hundreds more people gathered outside the castle walls; the day is bright and everything is green.
Perched on a precipice that commands the main route between the Mediterranean coastal mountains and inland Syria, Krak has long been a prized location. Syrian rebels held the castle and the surrounding village of al-Hosn until March of this year, when the Syrian army retook it. Shaky videos posted on YouTube show dark clouds and smoke erupting from the castle as mortars and bombs fall. The World Monuments Fund and UNESCO—Krak is a World Heritage Site—have raised alarms over photographs that show the castle walls pockmarked from shelling and a thirteenth-century Gothic loggia riddled with bullet holes and blackened by fire. But evidence of this damage cannot be gleaned from Assad’s agitprop. Krak looks to be unscathed and cleared of debris, and the ad ends with a cheery message, “Together, stronger,” followed by the president’s signature.
Assad’s staging of a soft-focus victory lap in Krak des Chevaliers represented more than a culture war unfolding in the civil war’s cross-fire. Targeting historic architecture for destruction or co-opting it for propaganda exercises are both regime tactics, to be added to an arsenal that also includes barrel bombs—metal drums filled with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters onto rebel-held territory. Many of the bombs fall on Aleppo, whose covered medieval markets were burned by regime forces in 2012. “That was totally punitive,” Amr al-Azm, an archaeologist and member of the Syrian opposition who teaches history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, told me. “When Aleppo rose up, the regime had constantly reminded and threatened the city’s merchant classes that if they did not control their local population—if they did not support suppressing any protest and the city was allowed to become a hotbed of demonstrations—there would be a great price to pay.”