Email cache paints picture of Assad's character

Thu, Mar 15, 2012, 00:00

Luxury and global PR took precedence over his people, write ROBER BOOTH, MONA MAHMOODand LUKE HARDING

BASHAR AL-ASSAD of Syria took advice from Iran on how to handle the uprising against his rule, according to a cache of what appear to be several thousand emails received and sent by the Syrian leader and his wife.

Assad was also briefed in detail about the presence of western journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homs and urged to “tighten the security grip” on the opposition-held city in November.

The revelations are contained in more than 3,000 documents that activists say are emails downloaded from private accounts belonging to Assad and his wife, Asma. They are said to have been intercepted by members of the opposition Supreme Council of the Revolution group between June and early February.

The documents, which emerge on the first anniversary of the rebellion that has seen more than 8,000 Syrians killed, paint a portrait of a first family remarkably insulated from the mounting crisis and continuing to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.

They appear to show the president’s wife spending thousands of dollars over the internet for designer goods while Assad swaps entertaining internet links on his iPad and downloads music from iTunes.

As the world watched in horror the brutal suppression of protests across the country and Syrians facing food shortages and other hardships, Mrs Assad spent more than €12,000 on candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris and instructed an aide to order a fondue set from Amazon.

Extensive efforts to authenticate the emails by checking their contents against established facts and contacting 10 individuals whose correspondence appears in the cache suggest the messages are genuine, but it has not been possible to verify every single one.

The emails also appear to show that:

- Assad established a network of trusted aides who reported directly to him through his “private” email account – bypassing his powerful clan and the country’s security apparatus;

- Assad made light of reforms he had promised in an attempt to defuse the crisis, referring to “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media”;

- A daughter of the emir of Qatar, Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, this year advised the Assads to leave Syria and suggested Doha may offer them exile;

- Assad sidestepped extensive US sanctions against him by using a third party with a US address to make purchases of music and apps from Apple’s iTunes; and

- A Dubai-based company, al-Shahba, with a registered office in London, is used as a key conduit for Syrian government business and private purchases by the Syrian first lady.

Activists say they were passed username and password details believed to have been used by the couple by a mole in the president’s inner circle. The email addresses used the domain name alshahba.com, a conglomerate of companies used by the regime. They say the details allowed uninterrupted access to the two inboxes until the leak was discovered in February.

The emails appear to show how Assad assembled a team of aides to advise him on media strategy and how to position himself in the face of increasing international criticism of his regime’s attempts to crush the uprising, which is now thought to have claimed more than 10,000 lives.

The emails appear to show that Assad received advice from Iran or its proxies on several occasions during the crisis. Ahead of a speech in December, his media consultant prepared a long list of themes, reporting that the advice was based on “consultations with a good number of people in addition to the media and political adviser for the Iranian ambassador”.

The memo advised the president to use “powerful and violent” language and to show appreciation for support from “friendly states”. It also advised that the regime should “leak more information related to our military capability” to convince the public that it could withstand a military challenge.

The president also received advice from Hussein Mortada, an influential Lebanese businessman with strong connections to Iran. In December, Mortada urged Assad to stop blaming al-Qaeda for an apparent twin car bombing in Damascus, an event that took place the day before an Arab League observer mission arrived in the country. He said that he had been in contact with Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon who shared the same overall view.

The emails offer a rare window on the state of mind of the isolated Syrian leader, apparently lurching between self-pity, defiance and flippancy as he swapped links to amusing video footage with his aides and wife. On one occasion, he forwards to an aide a link to YouTube footage of a crude re-enactment of the siege of Homs using toys and biscuits.

Throughout 2011 his wife appears to have kept up regular correspondence with the Qatar emir’s daughter, Mayassa al-Thani. But relations appear to have chilled early this year when Thani directly suggested that the Syrian leader step down.

“My father regards President Bashar as a friend, despite the current tensions – he always gave him genuine advice,” she wrote on December 11th.

“The opportunity for real change and development was lost a long time ago. Nevertheless, one opportunity closes, others open up – and I hope it’s not too late for reflection and coming out of the state of denial.” – ( Guardianservice)