As the Middle East froths with blood — from Iraq to Syria to the Gaza Strip — a commemorative set of three stamps depicting Syrian President Bashar Assad may not seem hugely relevant.
But these pieces of paper tell us much about the power struggles behind the slaughter in Syria. Issued this week to commemorate Assad’s victory in the country’s recent presidential elections, they are the latest in a long line of postal projections of orderly power over chaos.
However, the election he commemorates was a poll in which no one in rebel-held areas could vote, and oversees a postal system that couldn’t deliver a letter to those places, either.
It’s not just Assad who uses this kind of propaganda. Large chunks of his country have fallen under the control of the ferocious extremists now known as the Islamic State. They tweeted a picture of a building in the city of Raqqa with a sign that reads: “The civilian post office of the city of Raqqa.”
The picture was cited as evidence of the Islamic State having a postal service, but a resident there who uses the nickname Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, because he’s afraid of the extremists, says the picture is a lie.
“We haven’t had postal service for a year,” he says.
But the mere act of issuing the stamps is a tactic to enhance legitimacy, an attempt by Assad to strengthen his claim to be a legitimate leader ruling over a functioning state.
It’s a strategy that dates back to the early days of the mail in Syria. The first stamps were printed in 1863, writes Donald M. Reid, in the Journal of Contemporary History. Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire then, so it had Turkish stamps. These were decorated with calligraphy and Arabesque patterns, likely in accordance with Islamic tradition of non-representative art.
But when the empire was shaken by World War I, which would eventually finish it off, there was a change in tack. Stamps suddenly depicted military victories and even the sultan himself.
In the great colonial carve-up of the region that followed the empire’s end, Syria fell under the control of France. The French adorned their stamps with images of Syrian scenery and monuments — as well as some telling hints about the future.
On one, the pretty port of Alexandretta was overstamped with the word “ALAWITE” in French and Arabic. In an effort to subdue the angry country, France split the turf into four areas – including one for the Muslim Alawite sect. The French also recruited the sect disproportionately into the army, hoping they would counterbalance the rebellious Sunnis. Many historians trace a line between the influence the sect gained during this period and the rise to power of the Alawite Assad family.
Syria won independence in 1946 and experienced a series of military coups, the last of which brought Hafez Assad — father of the current president — to power in 1971. Assad was an air force commander but in every one of his stamps, he appears in civilian clothing to “enhance his legitimacy,” writes Reid.
And then came the son, Bashar Assad, who has led the country since his father’s death in 2000 and presided over a brutal war that’s now in its fourth year and left the country in ruins.
His opponents have drawn him as a butcher and a devil, while the stamps are an attempt to counterbalance those images. Assad is portrayed in front of a church, bolstering a role he often plays as a protector of minorities. On another stamp, he draws on an image beloved of Arab strongmen and seeks to rebut the idea that he faces a broad rebellion: it shows a crowd of happy, representative citizens dwarfed by the authoritative face of their leader.