How Syrian Influencer Chef Omar, Accused of Assad Ties, Divided the Diaspora

ISTANBUL—In March, as the Islamic holy month of Ramadan approached, a block-long line formed in Aksaray, a neighborhood affectionately termed “Little Syria” due to its substantial immigrant population. Eager patrons waited to dine at Chef Omar’s, a new restaurant celebrated as Istanbul’s premier shawarma destination. This establishment, named after its owner, Damascus-born social media chef Omar Abu Lebda, marks his latest venture. Chef Omar’s fame has skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, despite the acclaim and rave reviews, some Syrians refuse to patronize Chef Omar’s. The chef is mired in controversy, with detractors accusing him of being disconnected from Syria’s prolonged humanitarian crisis and alleging ties to President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad remains a global pariah, burdened by sanctions, although last year saw his regime normalizing relations with several Arab states, acknowledging his rule as an unfortunate reality. The Syrian government, in an effort to rebrand and attract economic investment, is accused of enlisting celebrities, YouTubers, and travel vloggers to “whitewash” war crimes and portray the nation as rejuvenated.

Opponents of Chef Omar assert evidence of his pro-government leanings, though he denies any association with the Assad regime. Regardless of the truth, his rapid rise underscores that even cuisine—a revered aspect of Syrian culture—has not escaped the deep political fissures that have divided the country and its diaspora since the civil war began 13 years ago.

Chef Omar fled Syria in 2012 to escape the war, initially finding refuge in Sudan, a rare visa-free sanctuary for Syrians. By 2014, he had relocated to Istanbul, training at a local culinary academy. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, he swiftly amassed millions of followers on social media, uniting Syrians displaced by war and isolated by lockdown to share and prepare recipes together. Today, his Facebook followers number 7.4 million, with 3.5 million on YouTube.

In many of his videos, Chef Omar evokes characters from “Bab Al-Hara,” a beloved Syrian soap opera set in 1930s Damascus. Donning traditional Damascene attire—sadriya shirt, vest, sharwal pants, and a wooden spoon in a floral sash—he warmly engages the camera, using Damascene slang to connect with his audience.

For countless displaced Syrians worldwide, Chef Omar serves as a lifeline, teaching them to recreate classic Syrian dishes with available ingredients through resourceful, straightforward recipes. His innovations include using sliced bread for fried kibbeh and preparing flan on a stovetop. He has even cooked labor-intensive dolma in a hotel room and accepted a challenge to prepare an entire Ramadan iftar meal within an hour during a YouTube livestream.

Chef Omar, like other social media chefs, acts as a culinary diplomat. In one episode, he captivates an Estonian guest with the various forms of kibbeh—fried, grilled, simmered—a cherished national dish. For Syrian viewers, he provides a culinary journey back to a lost homeland, while also breaking taboos and embracing new recipes, offering tips on sourcing hamburger meat or making pizza in a pan in a foreign land.

The opening of Chef Omar’s restaurant in March culminated his many pursuits, blending culinary creativity with marketing savvy. The opening night saw every table reserved, with currencies from visitors from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf states on display. The restaurant featured Chef Omar-branded bread rolls and a replica of his cooking channel kitchen for fans to take photos.

Foreign Policy sampled a shawarma with chewy bread, zesty aioli, and lemon notes. (It was delicious, but not the city’s best.) The menu included Extreme Mandarin soda, avoiding American cola products due to Turkey’s boycott over U.S. support for Israel, alongside unique fast-food items like boneless chicken tenders with dynamite sushi sauce, mozzarella sticks, and a taco onion smashburger.

What Chef Omar’s restaurant doesn’t publicize is the extensive criticism he’s faced over the past two years, with even his sacred shawarma under scrutiny.

In 2022, Chef Omar was accused by the pro-opposition Orient News of disparaging a donation drive for displaced Syrians in Idlib while appearing on a pro-government radio station. With over 90% of Idlib’s 4.5 million residents living below the poverty line, such comments sparked outrage among Syrians online.

While Chef Omar faces typical celebrity pitfalls, his controversies are uniquely Syrian. Some criticize him for being “gray,” not publicly declaring his stance on the conflict. Syrian refugees in Turkey, who began arriving in large numbers during the 2015-2016 government offensives, mostly oppose Assad and don’t wish to return to Syria under current conditions.

Though Chef Omar claims to “separate cooking from politics,” many in the diaspora, especially government opponents, criticize him for not using his platform to condemn Assad. Some even label him a government supporter due to his silence, a stance seemingly reinforced by his mother’s social media feud, where she claimed he had connections with Syrian intelligence.

Since his restaurant’s opening, calls for a boycott have surged, fueled by allegations that Chef Omar flies the Syrian government flag, a red, white, and black tricolor. Although Foreign Policy didn’t observe the flag, its presence would be deeply offensive to many Syrians in Turkey, already facing rising xenophobia, raids, detentions, and deportations.

Despite these challenges, some opposition members believe canceling Chef Omar hinders Syrian unity and reconstruction. “We need successful examples like [Chef Omar] to inspire us,” stated opposition journalist Nedal Malouf in a YouTube video. “His success is our success.”

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