As shown in his recently leaked emails, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad focused on his image in the media as well as his regime’s image, along with the best ways to deal with arising security issues. In both, it became obvious that the president sought the advice of specific people he trusted, some of whom held official positions within the regime while others were most likely close confidants.
Former TV presenter and current media advisor at the presidential office Luna al-Chabel was apparently the most important official as far as media coverage was concerned. In the leaked emails, she either gives the president advice about how he should deal with specific issues in the media or reports to him important news and suggests how he should respond to them.
In an email dated January 22, Chabel belittled Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa in reference to an Arab League proposal that Assad steps down and Sharaa takes over to allow for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held shortly after and under Arab and international supervision.
In this email, sent a few hours after the Arab League initiative, Chabel asked Assad to order Sharaa to issue a written or television statement to convey Syria’s rejection of proposal and labeled him “defeated.”
On December 7, 2011, Assad’s interview with ABC was stirring much controversy as opposition accused him of editing it and slammed state media for misleading the people. On that day, Chabel sent Assad an email telling him that she instructed large numbers of Syrians to flood social networking websites with praise for Assad’s stance in the interview in which he insisted on denying all reports of violence against civilian protestors.
In a following email, Chabel told Assad that regime loyalists lashed out at ABC anchor Barbara Walters by posting scathing comments on her website for accusing the president of killing and torturing civilians.
On January 10, one day before Assad gave a speech from the Omayyad Plaza in the capital Damascus, Chabel emailed him on how to make the speech effective.
She said he had to appear surrounded by people so that he would give the impression that he had many supporters and that he felt totally safe “like what the American president does.” Assad took Chabel’s advice.
A woman named Hadeel featured prominently in Assad’s inbox and the emails she exchanged with the president reveal that she was also in charge of handling issues related to the media.
In one of the emails she sent to Assad, Hadeel wrote that the Iranian ambassador’s media spokesman met with a man called Hossam, apparently in charge of proposing suggestions for the president’s next speech, and they both agreed that the president should “snatch the banner of Islam from the opposition” and should focus on the Palestinian cause and the Islamic holy sites of Palestine.
The president, they added, should also make it clear that the state had been busy crushing the conspiracy against it which affected its performance and its ability to cater to the demands of the Syrian people.
Hadeel also informed Assad of suggestions presented by other people she communicated with regarding the president’s image in the media. One of those was that a media spokesman should comment on the ABC interview and analyze it.
The president agreed and Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi held a press conference on the interview.
A Syrian-based Iranian journalist named Hussein also gave Assad media-related advice. On December 15, he asked the president to be careful not to have officials from the Iraqi Baath Party appear in the media in case it offended Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
He also mentioned efforts to make French figures defend the Syrian regime. For example, he wrote that he managed to convince the head of the French-Syrian Friendship Committee MP Gerard Babette, who he described as a friend of his, to issue a statement refuting accusations by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé against Syria and Hezbollah for involvement in the UNIFIL attack.
Hussein was another of Assad’s advisors that proposed bringing in the Palestinian cause for he suggested in an email he sent to presidential employee Scheherazade al-Jaafari that the Syrian president should start adopting a harsh tone on Israel in order to embarrass the leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
Jaafari forwarded the suggestion to Assad and wrote: “The purpose is the emotional manipulation of Islamists inside and outside the country owing to the religious value of al-Aqsa mosque and to embarrass Palestinian Islamists who are avoiding taking a clear stance on the Syrian crisis.”
As for security issues, the name Khaled al-Ahmed was the most recurring and judging by leaked emails between him and Assad, he was in charge of reporting the latest developments in the security situation on the ground. Ahmed used to travel from one Syrian city to another even though he focused more on Homs.
On November 13, 2011, Ahmed sent Assad an email suggesting that security forces tighten their grip on several Syrian cities in response to banning Syrian delegations from taking part in Arab League council meetings and which, Ahmed argued, meant to instigate the Syrian people into holding more protests.
“We need to take stricter security measures and to regain the power of the state in Idlib, Homs, and Hama by all means,” Ahmed wrote.
In the same email, Ahmed told Assad that he agreed with a man called Abu Ziad on ways to deal with Alawites and that he would return to Damascus within 48 hours to meet a man called Bassam and notify him about the “net shield” to be constructed soon by security forces.
Ahmed, however, did not give more details and the expression “net shield” was explained neither in this email nor in the following ones even though it was mentioned several times.
One day later, Ahmed sent another email about how “turbulent” that day was and said that matters escalated.
“We are hoping to get back the six abducted girls by morning,” he wrote without explaining more.
He added that relations with the Bedouins in Homs were going to witness a substantial shift.
The following email, which came one day later, came to explain Ahmed’s indignation at the deterioration of the security situation on the ground.
“Unfortunately, all well known clerics and businessmen are involved in abduction, killing, and incitement of violence,” he wrote to Assad.
In the same email, Ahmed revealed that security forces took several people captive and made them reveal “more names.”
Ahmed concluded his email by expressing how disappointed he is at how slowly things are done regarding the implementation of the plan to besiege Homs through closing all the ways leading to it and establishing several checkpoints across the city.
“This means that all our efforts will go in vain,” he wrote.
On November 20, Ahmed sent Assad an email about a Beirut-based American journalist who works for an Arab English-speaking channel and who managed to get into the Baba Amro neighborhood in Homa and started providing the authorities with information.
According to Ahmed, the journalist said he saw foreign journalists smuggled into Baba Amro. This journalist had sent his CV in an earlier email dated November 13 to Assad’s media consultant Hadeel, who forwarded it to the president on the spot, and asked to meet Assad in person.
In the email Hadeel forwarded, she said that this journalist was recommended to her by Khaled al-Ahmed because he wrote articles in support of the Syrian regime and was “giving a good image of Alawites in the media.”
On November 25, Ahmed emailed Assad about his plan for the last week of the month, or what he called “the third point” in his Homs plan.
Ahmed suggested imposing new laws on cars taking the highways around Homs to make sure “the pilots’ incident of last Thursday does not happen again.” Ahmed was referring to the alleged assassination of pilots and technical officers by “armed gangs” while driving through the Homs-Palmyra highway.
Leaked emails show that Khaled al-Ahmed also played a role in the economic policy of the regime during the crisis. On November 29, Ahmed send an email to Assad telling him about a meeting he held with several Lebanese and Jordanian bankers and who suggested the temporary closure of stock exchange companies in order to stabilize the market and save the Syrian lira.
On the following day, the owners of famous stock exchange companies were arrested for several days in what was seen as the implementation of Ahmed’s suggestion.
Hadeel also features in a lot in emails related to security whether on the ground or in security-related media issues. On November 26, she sent Assad an email suggesting the appointment of sectarian-oriented officials in government institutions after meeting with “Hossam and his father.”
In the same email, she said that the army should have an official spokesman instead of assigning TV channels the mission of defending the army’s reputation and justifying the army’s actions.
Also in the same email, Hadeel told the Syrian president that reports of the army’s possession of powerful missiles in the Juhayna and Manar military sites have been leaked and that this reassured the people.
On December 5, Hadeel stressed the importance of military parades in reassuring the people and how this becomes clear in what they say on cafes and what they post on social networking websites.
On December 23, the day when two bombings took place in Damascus, Hadeel wrote to the president that people are angry and calling for declaring martial laws and arming the popular army in order to protect vital establishments.
This, she added, is similar to what happened in the early 1980s. On the same day, the president received another email from Luna al-Chabel about how angry people are and the expulsion of the observers’ mission.
On December 26, Chabel told the president that the number of Syrians supporting the revolution had increased in Aleppo after security forces started threatening store owners there and stealing their money.
This was the same day when activists in Aleppo raised the revolution flag on top of the Aleppo Castle, an action that got much coverage on the internet.
Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz al-Akhras, also sent emails suggesting ways to deal with the crisis. On December 17, Akhras advised Assad to allow the observers’ mission to come to Syria provided that the number of observers from each country is proportional with the population of this country. This, he added, will deal a fatal blow to several unwelcome countries.
The leaked email revealed that Syrian first lady Asmaa al-Assad paid special attention to the families of dead soldiers and always demanded sending them compensation whether in the form of money or other items like computers and cell phones.
She also made sure the families of dead soldiers were allowed to take loans. In one of her emails, she talked about a loan she promised to the mother of a dead soldier so that she could buy a taxi. The person in charge of loans, however, started negotiating the value of the loan and tried talking the soldier’s family into buying a used taxi instead of a new one.
The First Lady also received a message from her sister Sara asking her to interfere to release a young man who was arrested in Damascus. According to Sara, the man did not do anything. Sara sent her sister a scanned copy of this man’s passport. Asmaa referred the matter to the Syrian president and the man was released five days later.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)