DEBUNKED

No, this isn’t a recent video of Bashar al-Assad walking freely through Damascus

A video said to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad walking without escort through a joyous crowd in Damascus has been circulating online since April 25. However, this is an old video and one that actually shows the president during an orchestrated event in a secure location.

Several Twitter and Facebook users have been circulating a video that they claim shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting an adoring public in the street. Turns out, however, that the video is propaganda that was filmed in a secure location.
Several Twitter and Facebook users have been circulating a video that they claim shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meeting an adoring public in the street. Turns out, however, that the video is propaganda that was filmed in a secure location. © Observers
Advertising

If you only have a minute

  • A video said to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad interacting with a seemingly joyous public in Damascus has been circulating online since April 25. 
  • Those who share this video claim that it is proof of Assad’s popularity in Syria. Some of them have even claimed he is more popular amongst his people than Western leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron.
  • Turns out, this video was filmed back in 2017. By looking at its coordinates, we discovered that it was filmed in a secure location in Damascus during an official event. 

The fact check, in detail 

The footage that has been circulating on Twitter of late shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, smiling, shaking the hands of passersby and posing for pictures. At the start of the video, he is outside, before entering a building filled with stands selling a variety of products. “Syrian president Bashar Alassad casually walking around without guards,” reads one caption on the video, which has the TikTok logo. 

Don’t believe anything they tell you about Syria, it’s all lies!” reads the caption on a post featuring the video shared on April 25 by an account that regularly posts pro-Russian propaganda. It has since garnered more than 120,000 views. The posts claimed that this video was proof of the Syrian leader’s popularity. Some of the posts compared this to the dismal ratings of some Western leaders. 

On May 2, this far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron.

This far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron on May 2, claiming that Assad is more popular in Syria than Macron is in France.
This far-right account shared the Assad video alongside one showing a crowd throwing objects at Emmanuel Macron on May 2, claiming that Assad is more popular in Syria than Macron is in France. © Twitter/@MyLordBebo

A number of French-language accounts that regularly share content critical of Macron also picked up this post. Here are two examples from May 2 and May 5.

The French-language accounts that shared this video also compared the Syrian dictator to the French president.
The French-language accounts that shared this video also compared the Syrian dictator to the French president. © Observers

A 2017 video made by Assad’s team 

To find out more about the video in question, we began by looking into the TikTok handle that appears on the video.

Turns out, this account is a propaganda account that often shares videos promoting the Syrian president and videos that support the Syrian government’s perspective.

This TikTok account, which has been inactive since February, previously shared a lot of propaganda videos created by Syrian government. The videos are in both English and Arabic.
This TikTok account, which has been inactive since February, previously shared a lot of propaganda videos created by Syrian government. The videos are in both English and Arabic. © TikTok/m.syria.alassad

However, the video that has been circulating online isn’t recent: it was posted on this TikTok account on July 5, 2022.

The video that has been circulating on Twitter does, indeed, appear on this account. However, the video is actually from 2022.
The video that has been circulating on Twitter does, indeed, appear on this account. However, the video is actually from 2022. © TikTok/m.syria.alassad

But even though the TikTok account posted this video in 2022, it turns out that the actual event took place much earlier. 

We used the tool InVid WeVerify (check out how by clicking here) to find previous instances of the video posted online, without the TikTok logo and caption.  

An official Twitter account of the Syrian Office of the President tweeted the video in June 2017, explaining that the video shows Assad shopping at a “‘Made in Syria’ festival”. The video also appeared in a local news article, shared on June 8, 2017.

There are also other images of this event, like the ones that appear in this article by the Iranian press agency Tasnim. The article explains that the event took place at al-Jalaa Hall in the Damascus neighbourhood of Mezzeh. 

A controlled visit to a secure event 

Using this information, we were able to find the coordinates of the site visible in the video. If you type “صالة الجلاء” (al-Jalaa Hall in Arabic) into Google Maps, then you’ll find a result that is really in the Mezzeh neighbourhood. 

There is an al-Jalaa Hall in the Mezzeh neighborhood. It’s near a stadium with the same name.
There is an al-Jalaa Hall in the Mezzeh neighborhood. It’s near a stadium with the same name. © Observers

Online, there are 360° images of the hall, which seems to often be used for events. These photos indeed show the location where the Assad video was filmed. 

Thanks to the photos available on Google Maps, we were able to determine that the video was, indeed, filmed in al-Jalaa Hall. In both these pictures and the video, the ceiling is painted with Syrian colors, the green paint on the walls is the same and there is a giant portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
Thanks to the photos available on Google Maps, we were able to determine that the video was, indeed, filmed in al-Jalaa Hall. In both these pictures and the video, the ceiling is painted with Syrian colors, the green paint on the walls is the same and there is a giant portrait of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. © Observers

In the outside shots, the Syrian president walks under a sign for the computer engineering department at Arab International University. 

This sign features the logo for Arab International University, a private Syrian university. It also mentions the computer engineering department.
This sign features the logo for Arab International University, a private Syrian university. It also mentions the computer engineering department. © Observers

Turns out, this building is located right behind al-Jalaa Hall, which means that the outside shots were filmed right by the hall, likely during the same visit.

On Google Maps, you can see that the AIU computer engineering department (in white) adjoins al-Jalaa hall (in pink). The entire video was filmed in the same spot.
On Google Maps, you can see that the AIU computer engineering department (in white) adjoins al-Jalaa hall (in pink). The entire video was filmed in the same spot. © Observers

So this video doesn’t actually show Assad wandering in the streets of Damascus. It was filmed at an official event organised by the Damascus Chamber of Industry, according to this article published in the local media.

The Syrian president, thus, isn’t in a street but in a university and sports facility that is easy to secure. As you can see from these images on Google Earth, recorded a few weeks after the event, there are only a few entrances to the hall. 

These satellite images taken a few weeks after Assad’s visit to the site show that there are only six entrances to al-Jalaa hall. It would be easy to secure the premises.
These satellite images taken a few weeks after Assad’s visit to the site show that there are only six entrances to al-Jalaa hall. It would be easy to secure the premises. © Observers

Moreover, this area is located in an extremely secure area, home to a number of official buildings, embassies and the military airport. Even the headquarters of the Department of General Intelligence and the Air Force are located in this neighbourhood. The Department of General Intelligence is one of the main security services in the country, known for its brutal methods and systematic use of torture in its detention centres.

Bodyguards in civilian clothes

Thomas Pierret is a senior researcher at CNRS and a Syrian specialist. He says that this would be far from the first time that Assad met with the “public", who turned out to be carefully selected in a secure location. 

Videos of this type are always a part of his communication strategy, trying to create a narrative that he is close to his people. Before the war, for example, he regularly organised surprise visits to restaurants. During those events, the security was always reinforced with bodyguards at the entrance. And the people were screened ahead of time. On that note, you might notice that there are very few people in this video. 

The captions on the posts featuring this video, however, claim that the Syrian president went out in public without bodyguards. 

However, in the version of the video shared by the office of the president, you can see a man who appears twice and seems to be watching Assad intently.

There is a man acting strangely, who keeps just a few metres behind Assad when he enters al-Jalaa Hall. He seems on edge and keeps his eyes fixed on the president.
There is a man acting strangely, who keeps just a few metres behind Assad when he enters al-Jalaa Hall. He seems on edge and keeps his eyes fixed on the president. © Observers

The man is wearing a distinctive striped polo shirt, with a black collar, which makes it possible to spot him in the version of the video shared by this Syrian site, which includes sequences cut in the version shared by the Office of the President.  

In this longer sequence, you can see that the man continues to follow Assad. While it is impossible to know for sure if he is a bodyguard, his behaviour and his habit of keeping just a few metres from the president at all times makes it likely that he is one. 

In a longer version of the video shared by the Syrian media, you can see a man following Assad during the entire visit. It seems as if there were actually bodyguards at this event.
In a longer version of the video shared by the Syrian media, you can see a man following Assad during the entire visit. It seems as if there were actually bodyguards at this event. © Observers

In conclusion, this video doesn’t show the Syrian president interacting with the general public in the street, as claimed by a number of accounts that shared the video. It was actually filmed during an official event in a secure location where Assad was almost certainly under high protection. 

This video has been circulating amidst a tense political backdrop: Syria is in the process of officially reintegrating the Arab League, after being ousted in 2011 when the Syrian government’s crackdown on a popular movement led to a devastating war. During the conflict, Assad’s regime was condemned for numerous war crimes against both combatants and civilians.