If you don’t know who she is, the woman in the photographs looks like a sympathetic, caring figure as she ladles out soup to refugees, hugs old women, and smiles kindly at small children.
But this is Asma al-Assad, whose husband, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, has presided for the past two and one-half years over a bloody civil war that has killed more than 100,000 Syrians and displaced millions from their homes.
Some of the most recent images of the Syrian first lady were uploaded to the relatively new "Syrian President" Instagram page
in the past several days -- even as international condemnation was building over Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons and U.S. President Barack Obama was vowing to lead a military response.
Along with photos of her husband striding through cheering crowds
, they seem to be part of a larger strategy by the Assad family to act as if nothing unusual is happening in their country.
Few are buying it.
Western news media have called the latest photos of Asma al-Assad "sick" and "surreal." Online, they have elicited furious, profanity-laced comments, most unprintable. Some are in Arabic, others in English. A few express support, but most are full of condemnation.
Under a picture of the British-born first lady handing a bowl of soup to a teenage refugee, a person in the U.K. wrote, "I bet you [expletive] gassed that boy afterwards or better still poisoned his meal. I'm ashamed to be British if you still have British citizenship, and Asma if you ever [expletive] return to Britain you will be leaving it in a [expletive] box, burn in hell..."
Another person asked, "Does this help with the guilt?"
A photo of Asma al-Assad preparing to roll a basketball toward a small child evoked for many people the disturbing images of rows of dead children who were killed in the August 21 gas attack.
"I get it. You post a picture of the children you gas before you kill them so they will always be remembered. So sweet."
"So these children remind you of the ones you gassed?"
And there’s this prediction: "Somebody will be rolling your head down the street soon, just like that."
'Element of Light'
Irony seems lost on her. The photos show that the slim 38-year-old showed up to feed hungry refugees wearing a prominent blue electronic bracelet on her wrist that allows weight-conscious wearers keep track of how many calories they burn each day.
This isn't the first time Asma al-Assad has used a media platform to boost her image. A gushing profile
headlined "A Rose In The Desert" appeared in the American edition of "Vogue" magazine in the spring of 2011, the same month the regime began cracking down on antigovernment demonstrators.
"Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic -- the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," the opening paragraph reads. "Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She's a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. 'Paris Match' calls her 'the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.' She is the first lady of Syria."
As opposition deaths mounted, embarrassed editors quietly pulled the piece from the "Vogue" website.
"The Hill" newspaper later discovered that the Syrian government had paid the U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James a monthly retainer of $5,000 to set up and manage the production of the piece.
The Assads' Instagram account has landed them on one U.S. website's list of what it calls "The Dictators of Instagram."
Members include Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
It's also inspired an Instagram imitator, "Real Syrian Presidency."
Instead of happy pictures of the first couple it posts pictures of children killed in the war.