Syria’s Email Bubble: Fawning the Powerful

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Syrians check e-mails, chat and connect to their Facebook accounts at an Internet cafe, in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday 8 Feb. 2011. (Photo: AP - Muzaffar Salman)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Thursday, February 9, 2012

Despite the growing unpopularity of the Syrian regime in Western circles, Syrian presidential media advisor Bouthaina Shaaban’s email inbox remains a warm, welcoming place thanks to many foreign figures of some note.

At least this is what a read through of the cache of Syrian government emails that was hacked and released by cyber activist LulzFinancial this past week would suggest.

A friend of Shaaban’s in France caught a glimpse of her on BBC World and just wrote to tell her that he “agreed with every word [she] said.”

Another friend from Ireland wrote, “I was looking back on some photos of our time in Syria with fond memories and I thought Id [sic] drop you an email to say hello.”

Shaaban has a lot of friends. This clique includes many Westerners who have appropriately been branded by the media as shills or suck-ups based on the content of their hacked emails to Shaaban. Yet Texas-based Trinity University Professor and Syria “expert” David Lesch’s emails to Shaaban hint that even academics aren’t above a little grovelling.

“As always, it was a great pleasure to visit with you in Damascus. I am so very pleased that you are in your new position. It bodes well for President Bashar and the country as a whole,” wrote Lesch in 2008.

Lesch’s affinity for the Syrian regime is nothing he hasn’t expressed before – just read The New Lion of Damascus, his 2005 encomium to Bashar Assad – but his words are often given greater legitimacy due to his academic credentials. Yet Lesch’s 2008 emails to Shaaban demonstrate that he was more than willing to transgress the boundaries of academia to lend a helping hand to a regime in need of an image boost.

In October 2008, Lesch wishes Shaaban luck in nailing down funding for the PR firm that they had discussed. Lesch thinks that the firm could “improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation.”

“As I mentioned, this group's fee is US $150,000 per month. Although it envisions at least a two year relationship, it can do a 6-month contract to be paid in two segments: US $450,000 upon the signing of a contract, and then another US $450,000 half way through the six months,” he wrote.

Western academic institutions have never been bastions of wholesomeness, but rarely are they called out for cozy relations with autocrats until the regime in question becomes unfashionable. When it was revealed in 2011 that the London School of Economics accepted funding from a Saif Gaddafi-run NGO, Howard Davies, the school’s director, resigned. Yet the school was ostensibly comfortable with this relationship up until the media rediscovered that Gaddafi was a dictator no longer in good graces with their governments. Lesch’s 2008 correspondence took place when the US was easing up to Syria and had the correspondence been revealed then, Lesch wouldn’t have gotten too much flak for helping Syria find a PR firm.

Lesch doesn’t mention the name of the PR firm he discussed in his email, nor is Shaaban’s response included in the hacked cache. But, in 2010, Shaaban did have correspondence with Akram Elias, the Lebanese-American CEO of Capital Communications Group, Inc., a DC-based “international consulting” firm that also represents the US Department of Defense.

Elias passed on two articles from the Israeli daily Haaretz to Shaaban and wrote that he was “preparing a comprehensive document with a proposed action plan that covers in depth the subject matter we discussed.” Syria is not currently listed as a client of Capital Communications, but around the time Elias and Shaaban corresponded in November 2010, the Syrian government had hired another PR firm to shepherd in a friendly profile of Syrian First Lady Asma Assad in Vogue magazine. The government paid British PR firm Brown Lloyd James US$5,000 per month to liaise between the magazine’s editorial staff and government officials. The plan backfired when the absurd “Rose of the Desert” profile was mocked for its obsequious tone.

Shaaban’s emails give a glimpse at how people in power can often exist in a bubble of praise, making it easier for them to frame harsh criticism as isolated. If Shaaban’s emails are this friendly, one can only imagine President Assad’s. The closer the email datelines get to the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the more embarrassing it is for Westerners who lauded Shaaban.

The most cringe-worthy of Shaaban’s admirers is “philanthropist” jet setter and chairman of Polaroid Bobby Sager – kind of like a flashier Greg Mortenson – who alternates between posing for photos with young children in Rwanda and Lady Gaga.

On March 25, 2011, just days after massive demonstrations in Deraa, Sager expressed that he became a huge Syria fan after a visit to the Ummayad mosque and a hammam. He left Syria with a “profound sense of connection and a desire to share my understanding with influential friends in the United States and around the world.”

More importantly, his visit gave him with a keen understanding of the situation in Syria and a sense that Assad is a part of the solution, not the problem.

“What is important now is for committed friends to be vocal in their support of President Assad’s leadership. After all, real friends stand up and speak the truth when it matters most. I will take my first hand understanding into the world and argue loudly and convincingly that President Assad, far from being the problem, is actually the most critical part of the solution.”

Shaaban was grateful for Sager’s kind words, responding, “I do feel proud to be your friend and I know how much the president enjoys your company and appreciates your friendship. Your message came at a time that Syria is getting out of the tunnel.”

Sager didn’t respond to an email inquiry from Al-Akhbar asking if his views on the Syrian leadership had changed a year later.

Comments

"the growing unpopularity of the Syrian regime in Western circles' - an odd way to say "the growing plot of Western imperialists to topple by any dirty means the (not-100% Western lackey) Assad regime". Not mentioning the nightmare results of such toppling for Syrian people if Libya could serve as indication.

The very grossness of the Western imperialism crimes against Syria could prod somebody with a modicum of sole to defend Assad. After all, is Obama better? Sure, he is much worse, the open war criminal, torturer and so on. Assad is a small fry compared to Obama.

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