Asma and Bashar: Syria's British Royals
Published Sunday, July 8, 2012
The “Syria Files” cache released by WikiLeaks on 5 June 2012 includes around 2.4 million emails sent and received by thousands of different users (government, private, corporate, as well as plenty of spam) over a six-year period, ranging from 2006 until the early months of 2012.
Syria Files: Through the Looking Glass, Faintly
As large and unruly as it is, the cache provides a glimpse of some significant players within the Syrian regime, political opposition, private sector, as well as their outside correspondents. After examining the email cache, we can assert that it is an incomplete one, and that not all correspondences sent and received by the email addresses are present – certain threads are cut off, start mid-way, or allude to conversations and discussions happening in untapped forums and exchanges elsewhere.
Naturally, the emails do not offer a complete picture of the power dynamics and decision-making processes within the regime in its totality. What they do is illuminate – often in small ways – the nature of power within and the inner workings of certain political and economic elements in Syria.
What we can say with certainty is that the emails are authentic, that the senders and receivers are mainly who they say they are. Yet when suspicions of multiple users of a specific email account exist, this will be noted.
Much of the “Syria Files” value lies in analyzing the correspondence and providing insight – often by deduction – about the role of various agencies, figures and personalities, as well as the private sector, third countries, and members of the opposition movement, with information garnered from the email cache. Al-Akhbar intends not to withhold any information that could be damaging to the leadership of either the regime or opposition, and those who work with them, but we are concerned about private individuals, those within and outside Syria, whose emails were caught up in exchanges and therefore will respect their privacy.
The Story of Sam
In March 2012, The Guardian published 200 leaked emails chiefly from the address firstname.lastname@example.org, which the paper alleged was used by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The “Syria Files” released by WikiLeaks include more than a thousand emails sent and received by this e-mail account and appear to confirm The Guardian’s claim. However, rare but sudden shifts in language, suggest that someone else, perhaps an adviser or aide, may have used the account at a certain point in time. Nevertheless, the majority of the emails sent and received by “Sam” appear to indeed be from and directed to the Syrian President, and the majority of this correspondence is with members of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
Throughout their email correspondence, which spans over two years, “Sam” is referred to as “Your Excellency” (and subsequently 'YE') by Lamis Omar, a PhD student working as a translator for the Syrian president. (doc-id 2098456, doc-id 2097695, doc-id 2097467, doc-id 2097342)
Further exchanges between the two make a number of references to speeches and interviews by “Sam" that Omar goes through and comments on, which coincide with interviews given by Assad. Omar herself requested permission from “Sam” to go through all the interviews conducted by him, which are mainly interviews given by Assad to various news agencies, while working on other translations for her boss Nayef Yassin. (doc-id 2101122, doc-id 2097447, doc-id 2100302, doc-id 2103339)
The evidence is bolstered by a 25 January 2011 exchange in which “Sam” tell Lamis that he is in Aleppo — the same day Assad was there for a top-level meeting with the acting Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. (doc-id 2106157)
On 24 March 2011, nine days after the uprising began in Daraa, Omar, who had departed to continue her studies in the United Kingdom thanks to financial assistance from “Sam,” tells him: “I prayed for you to be blessed and protected by God's angels. I am very hopeful you can set things rights [sic]. Your eye in us will bring back harmony and fill the hearts of all with mercy, I love you so much. There is nothing I won't do to prove my love. I sacrifice my life for the values I see in you. May God, the Almighty bless you with His light forever. Sorry for having to speak to your great mind when it is busy with great matters.” (doc-id 2100957)
One particular email raises suspicion about another person utilizing this account. In an email sent to Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Azzam on 21 October 2010, “Sam”, employing unusual language, expresses disgust over an advert “at the front of the photography shop near my parents house” depicting a boy holding a gun to his head, threatening to commit suicide if he is not loved. (doc-id 2092514)
Despite this aberration and some language inconsistencies in other emails, the exchanges leave little doubt that “Sam” is the presidential email account.
Much of “Sam’s” correspondence with his staff is written in English. He obsesses over English idioms, metaphors, and turns of phrases, which he shares with his translators like Lamis Omar and Majd Ibrahim, another translator who tutored Assad prior to Omar (doc-id 2096394, doc-id 2101011, doc-id 2098817, doc-id 2102303, doc-id 2099931)
The Ministry of Presidential Affairs and First Lady's offices also appear to have a strong link to the UK, employing Syrians who studied in England or even British citizens, such as Patrick Forbes who was the Communications Director for the First Lady's office until 2007. (doc-id 2091468, doc-id 2094424)
Prior to the onset of the uprising and its intensification throughout 2011, “Sam” appears to micro-manage his affairs. He is keen to get a printer for Omar when hers breaks down, and at times — admittedly oddly — facilitates visa details for an Obama staffer coming to Syria (doc-id 2100598, doc-id 2101256, doc-id 2090174, doc-id 2092190).
He is an avid reader of shukumaku.com, a pro-regime Syrian news site, which appears to be one of the major sources of information for the Syrian president.
When he comes across an article of interest or is moved by a story, ranging topically from technology to politics to social issues, he forwards it to Azzam and requests that he “check” with the responsible ministries or to find more information and follow up on issues (doc-id 2092251, doc-id 2092548, doc-id 2092643, doc-id 2092652, doc-id 2092657, doc-id 2092692, doc-id 2092707, doc-id 2093948, doc-id 2094022).
This ritual repeats itself beyond the information he derives from shukumaku.com. "Sam" forwards statements or letters he receives, such as a comment presumably copy-pasted from somewhere regarding the Tabqa Dam disaster, which had created immense water shortages in the eastern section of Syria, under the subject line “SCARY NUMBERS.” The forwarded comment blamed the disaster on “the yes-men around Hafiz Assad” who “lacked the balls to stop an ignorant military officer from wasting billions of dollars on a white elephant, made by his propagandist to be one genius of a project.” (doc-id 2105484)
In another incident, “Sam” gets wind of a potential security risk arising from the involvement of certain foreign companies that are compiling sensitive information from an employee within the ministry of health. (doc-id 2094007, doc-id 2092685)
A story published by The Guardian in 2010 about Syrian and Israeli bloggers interacting with each other on the OneMideast.org website, perked his interest, and he requested that it be translated and sent to an individual named “bekhtiar.” (doc-id 2095860)
What results from these requests by Bashar or if there is any follow-up on the topics remains unclear. “Sam”/Bashar also receives news directly from the Press Office of the Ministry of Presidential Affairs (email@example.com), which sends him a daily dose of “world wide English news.” This roundup usually consists of articles from the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Yedioth Ahronoth, Haaretz, the LA Times, The Independent and other mainstream Western news agencies. (doc-id 2080956, doc-id 2080992).
His consumption of Arabic news seems to be much more expansive, with articles and snippets of news from a variety of Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Gulf, and other major newspapers. (doc-id 2077873, doc-id 2078203)
When the uprising began, “Sam” sent YouTube links that subtly mock those who oppose him. In an email to Omar on 16 March 2011, titled, “laugh with Mamoun,” the video shows an emotional appeal by a middle-aged man in tears urging the residents of Damascus to join the demonstrations. (doc-id 2103501)
Other YouTube videos that interested him included one called, “How many children have you killed tonight, Sarkozy?” and Louis Theroux's BBC documentary, “The Ultra Zionists.” The latter struck him as “very good and informative” in regards to exposing Israeli colonial expansion in Palestine and he requested that this be forwarded to the receivers’ mailing lists. (doc-id 2090107, doc-id 2108092)
“Sam”/Bashar does administrative work in terms of overseeing the government. A number of email exchanges with Azzam show him receiving documents outlining Syria's Five Year Plan, the structure of the government, the newly developed Local Administration Law, assessments of cooking oil prices, looking at a final proposal by Demian Wilbur Architects to potentially set-up student exchange programs with the United States and help guide the urban development of Syria, and the EU council's sanctions list on Syria. (doc-id 2089566, doc-id 2089579, doc-id 2089608, doc-id 2089647, doc-id 2095542, doc-id 2092180)
The First Lady
In the Wikileaks cache, Asma al-Assad uses the email account firstname.lastname@example.org, signing off on one occasion as “aaa.” Like her husband, she is routinely greeted as “Your Excellency” (YE). There are less than 40 emails in the cache that directly involve the First Lady. (doc-id 2103852)
According to the limited emails obtained, Asma predominately deals with two senior aides in her office, Lina al-Kinayeh and Fares Kallas, and her correspondence with them is entirely focused on work. Her team is composed of mostly technocrats, liberals, and westernized Arabs that help run her many projects and charities, including MASSAR and The Trust for Syrian Development. These organizations are designed as business models – with a board of trustees selected and routinely assessed by her team. (doc-id 2099622, doc-id 2107617, doc-id 2098712, doc-id 2098718, doc-id 2098722, doc-id 2107636)
While the money moved around in organizations headed by the First Lady is not in the same ostentatious vein as Suzanne Mubarak or Leila Ben Ali, both known to have spent millions of dollars on themselves, Asma does have her opulent side. Randle Siddely, a high-end UK-based landscape architecture and design agency, was hired by the First Lady in order to offer concept designs, either for her private compound or the presidential palace. The price she paid for their work is not known; based on the information provided on the agency’s website, it would not have been cheap. (doc-id 2089662)
As the uprising against the Assads rule grew in intensity throughout 2011, Asma and her team seemingly accelerated their development plans. During an exchange with Azzam, Asma highlights a number of issues that she feels require the utmost priority – such as expanding awareness programs for MASSAR and SHABAB, promoting civil society organizations and NGOs, and establishing a think tank in order to bringing in different points of view. (doc-id 2090073)
Moreover, the First Lady was notified of various field visits to the villages in the Suweida province in May 2011 to assess the development process underway. (doc-id 2104850)
The only hint of the human cost of the uprising arises in the First Lady's request for a “martyrs list” from Wassim al-Dehni, a presidential affairs ministry official, outlining the complaints and needs of the families of fallen Syrian Army soldiers. The list is a short one, dealing with three cases, and suggests that an attempt is being made to compensate casualties. (doc-id 2098728)
The Entity of the First Couple
Viewed through the prism of the “Syria Files,” Syria’s first couple appear to be occupied with their representative capacities, with ample time devoted to the state of the palatial gardens, renovations, the stationary needs of low-level employees, but also issues related to bolstering the couple’s image, be it via charitable efforts or through political favors.
During the first year of the uprising covered by the emails in the cache, the official and unofficial correspondence of the First Couple and ministry of presidential affairs present only few references to the ongoing tumult. While it is certainly likely that discussions relating to security or other sensitive matters are not handled by email, the First Couple’s correspondence overall suggests that they spend a lot of time micromanaging the minutia of their daily affairs, as well as reading about the state of the country in the foreign press.
Within the ministry of presidential affairs, the “Follow up Office” is tasked with assessing the situation on the ground in certain areas and surveying the demands of the local population, through meetings with elders, community leaders and tribal chiefs (doc-id 2100034, doc-id 2093393).
Recommendations are sweeping and range from ending corruption and firing officials to building a modern gas station and resolving contested examination results at a local educational institution (doc-id 2086201, doc-id 2091846, doc-id 2093384.) There are limited moments of concern for destitute individuals or families by honoring specific complaints or requests for material compensation or the re-institution of a relative that was fired, to signing autographs requested by adoring fans, to celebrity-styled charity work.
But there is no real sense of tangible power on behalf of the First Couple present within the “Syria Files.” What is revealed is only a façade, or perhaps fittingly, a brand calculated to cloak another system: the military-security machine, which remains as of yet tightly in control and far from prying eyes.