Leaked messages from inboxes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife shed light on how the first couple, along with their inner circle, has been running an embattled country on the brink of civil war and the lengths they have gone to stay in power.
The leaked emails were received by The Guardian and Al Arabiya, both of which independently verified the content before publishing them on their platforms.
These emails were intercepted by members of the Syrian opposition who gained access to the email addresses of both Assad and his wife between the period of June 2011 and February this year.
Al Arabiya will be publishing almost all emails over the course of the coming days, some in their original English format while others translated from Arabic.
Much of the international media’s focus thus far has centered on the correspondence between Assad and his wife Asma who has remained a behind the scene figure but wields a great deal of influence on her husband – whether buying him protective clothing to safeguard his life or jumping to his defense when conversing with a Qatari royal friend.
There has been much attention on Asma spending thousands on extravagant purchases while her husband’s penchant for a variety of music has also come under international spotlight.
Correspondence between Assad and his media advisers and allegedly ruling figures of the Baath Party, most of whom do not use their real names ostensibly for security reasons, also figure prominently and reveal the extent of efforts made to quell the revolt of the past year.
What emerges is a rare picture of how Assad makes the decisions he does and the role his inner circle plays in influencing him.
Take for example an email Assad received from his brother-in-law Firas Akhras on February 7, 2012 bringing to his attention leaked electronic messages from the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
The email had only a link leading to the Egyptian based news website, bikyamasr.com.
Strong bond with the Akhras’
The president’s email exchange with his wife’s family, the Britain-based Akhras’, forms a large bulk of the messages, most of which are of a personal nature while others offer advice on how to end the crisis.
Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras, exchanged a great lot of emails with his daughter and Assad.
In October 2011, the Assad regime faced the dilemma of the dwindling down of the Syrian lira which, according to emails, prompted the idea that the central bank sell its foreign reserves to boost the local currency.
But Akhras advised against it in an email dated January 25, saying that the president should emulate former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policy, when she refused to intervene in a similar crisis and allowed the market to take its natural course, despite pressure to do so.
“Thatcher did not intervene in the financial markets despite the decline of the pound,” he wrote.
In another email from October, Akhras commends personalities participating in the re-writing of the constitution.
Then last month, Akhras suggested that the Gulf states host opposition figures at a meeting which could be broadcast on Syrian TV and other pro regime channel Dunya.
Akhras’ support to Assad is clear in the links he sends to his son-in-law of published articles from Arabic and foreign news sites, all praising the Assad regime.
Asma al-Assad meanwhile was preoccupied with her father’s well-being as their correspondence shows discussions about the British media going after him as well as some legal issues.
In June 2011, she wrote to her father about the British journalist Michael Semark of The Daily Mail who wanted Akhras to respond to claims reported in Wikileaks that he was mentioned as one of Assad’s key men involved in his financial investments.
The London-based cardiologist is a founding director of the British Syrian Society and involved with a number of Syrian causes. He is currently a Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at the Cromwell Hospital in South Kensington and also practices at his private clinic in Harley Street.
Assad and his media advisers
One of the big names to frequently appear in email exchanges is Luna al-Chabel, a former Al-Jazeera anchor who left the channel months ago to work as a presidential aide to Assad.
Chabel was behind Assad’s public appearance at a time when the international media was predicting the fall of the regime.
She sent the president a picture of President Barack Obama surrounded by his supporters and advised Assad to do the same.
Assad did exactly as Chabel said in January 2012 and made headlines as appeared to speak to his supporters in al-Umawiyeen Square in Damascus.
In another email dated December 23, 2011, Chabel suggested that Assad show preference to Sheikh Ahmed Hasooun over Sheikh Mohamed al-Bouti and let him attend the funerals of victims of the bomb blasts in Damascus.
She said that Hasoun could gain peoples’ support and attract media attention as he lost his son during the crisis.
Chabel’s role as an intermediary between Assad and, for example, spokesman of the foreign affairs Jihad Makdisi is also revealed in email exchanges which explain the trust she enjoyed of the president.
The curious case of Hadeel
One figure that comes off as mysterious is a person simply by the name of Hadeel whose relationship with the president ranges from personal to general.
In a general sense, Hadeel sends Assad news of the Baath party as well as minutes to their meetings. In other exchanges she recommends substituting the old guard running towns or mayors with newer faces.
In an email Hadeel reported to the president of expert opinions from the Iranian embassy on what should be Syria’s priorities.
The leaked emails also reveal the extent of Iranian influence in Syria as it is revealed that the Iranian embassy’s media advisor wrote the major points of Assad’s speech on January 10, 2012.
Hadeel, like Chabel and the Akhras family, serves as a link between the president and others.
She was, for example, a link between the president and “Hussain” an employee of an Iranian media outlet in Syria.
“Hussain was upset in his message that the regime had accused al-Qaeda in the blasts that targeted Damascus. He said his calls with Iran and Hezbollah have advised him [Assad] not to accuse al-Qaeda ... but the U.S., the opposition and some ‘close Arab countries’.”
Hussain criticized the Assad regime’s accusation of al-Qaeda five minutes after the explosions in Damascus, without any investigation.
Shahrazad al-Jaafari, daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the UK, offers her expertise gleaned when working in the U.S. in public relations to the president and also serves as a go-between her father, Bashar al-Jaafari and Assad.
Last December the Syrian U.N. envoy was preparing to send a letter to the U.N. Sectary General whose draft he first sent to the president via his daughter before sending it to his immediate head, Foreign Minister, Waleed al-Muallem.
The letter was related to the explosions in Damascus and Assad made some notes to the draft before forwarding it to Muallem.
Jaafari also sent a letter via his daughter on December 24, 2011 of a defected Syrian diplomat he identified as Bassam al-Immad after hearing his voice in the tape. In this email, he urges that Immad be dealt with before becoming a star.
The young Jaafari is responsible for organizing Assad’s interview with ABC correspondent Barbara Walters; she also monitors and screens foreign press.
In another email, Shahrazad writes to the president about meeting a group of Christian and Jewish religious heads while in the U.S. and discussing Syria, saying that while they were not negative, she could not trust them.
(This is the first article in a series on the leaked emails of President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle.)