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."
As a warning in 2011, al-Azm said, the regime sent tanks into the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, on the Euphrates River, which has close commercial and cultural ties with Aleppo, and besieged it. "If you want to make a demonstration of force without destroying Aleppo itself, burning the commercial center of Deir ez-Zor would be a good way to remind the people of Aleppo: 'This is what I will do to you if you also start protesting.'" When the protests finally took off there in 2012, "the regime burnt the souks down—wanton destruction just for the sake of destruction."
It was only the start. When the eleventh-century minaret of Aleppo's grand Umayyad Mosque collapsed from a mortar strike in April 2013, the Syrian government and the rebels traded accusations over who was to blame. Satellite images show that a corner of the mosque's rectangular courtyard is missing. Where the minaret stood, there is only a pile of stones. But as Diana Darke states in her memoir, My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, much of the destruction of Aleppo's mosque involved strategic terror tactics focused on symbolic and historic places. "Before leaving, the regime soldiers scrawled the same chilling graffiti on the mosque's water dispenser that was starting to appear all over the country," Darke writes, "Al-Assad aw nahriqhu, 'Assad, or we will burn it.'"
Another "Together"-themed campaign ad features children sneaking out of their beds at night to repaint a wall outside their school by flashlight. As Assad propaganda goes, it's especially cruel. Protests erupted in Syria in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of children in the southern city of Daraa for writing anti-government graffiti on their school walls, including a slogan they saw on television from Tunisia and Egypt: "The people want the fall of the regime!" More than three years on, much of Daraa is in ruins, including another iconic minaret, that of the Omari Mosque, one of the oldest in history, built in the seventh century during the Islamic conquest of Syria. Like Aleppo's minaret, Daraa's was destroyed in April 2013 during fighting between the rebels and government forces—targeted, activists said, by government tanks.
The Omari Mosque served as a field hospital and shelter for protesters in the early days of the uprising, before armed rebels took up positions there. But the mosque was also a revolutionary symbol. It's where the local sheik delivered the uprising's first speech (according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network). By shelling the minaret, the LCC declared in a statement, the regime "didn't only destroy stones, but also destroyed a religious and historic heritage that is a source of pride for the people of Syria."
In June, Vice aired a video report from Daraa that presented the mosque as a battered but enduring emblem of Syria's revolution. A few unnamed local activists describe soldiers invading the mosque in 2011 (planting weapons there, the activists surmise, in order to reveal their existence on state television), and also when tanks attacked last year. They speak as the camera pans over the mosque's courtyard, fashioned from local dark volcanic stone and littered with wreckage; in one corner stands the remains of the minaret, a craggy stump surrounded by a pile of broken stones that once formed its top half. Minarets have tactical advantages, offering visibility and a perch for both government and rebel snipers. But as Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the World Monuments Fund, told me: "A few of the minarets and mosques that have been destroyed or damaged seem to fall into the category of letting people know that the town has fallen to one side or another." In the Vice video, modern, concrete Daraa, a dusty border town near Jordan, looks devastated and apocalyptic, with pro-Assad snipers tucked away in scarred buildings. "The day the Omari Mosque was destroyed by the regime," one of the activists says, "we heard them over the wireless giving orders and saying, 'Destroy their symbol!'"
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