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. 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 he 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.
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.