Bashar al-Assad 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.
The Syrian leader was also briefed in detail about the presence of western journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homsand 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.
The messages, which have been obtained by the Guardian, 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.
As the world watched in horror at the brutal suppression of protests across the country and many Syrians faced food shortages and other hardships, Mrs Assad spent more than £10,000 on candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris and instructed an aide to order a fondue set from Amazon.
The Guardian has made extensive efforts to authenticate the emails by checking their contents against established facts and contacting 10 individuals whose correspondence appears in the cache. These checks suggest the messages are genuine, but it has not been possible to verify every one.
The emails also appear to show that:
• Assad appeared to receive advice from Iran or its proxies on several occasions during the crisis. Before 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”.
• Hussein Mortada, an influential Lebanese businessman with strong connections to Iran, urged Assad to stop blaming al-Qaida for twin car bombings in Damascus, in December. He said he had been in contact with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon who shared the same view.
• Assad made light of reforms he had promised in an attempt to defuse the crisis. He referred the reforms as “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media”.
• A daughter of the emir of Qatar, Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, advised the Assads to leave Syria and suggested Doha may offer them exile. “I only pray that you will convince the president to take this as an opportunity to exit without having to face charges,” she said.
• Assad was briefed in detail about the presence of western journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homs. He was also urged to “tighten the security grip” on the opposition-held city in November.
• 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. In a bizarre message apparently from the Syrian leader, he sent his wife the lyrics of a country and western song by the US singer Blake Shelton, and the audio file downloaded from iTunes.
• Assad’s coterie continued to enjoy a gilded lifestyle insulated from the slaughter around them. They appear to show how tens of thousands of dollars were spent in internet shopping sprees on handmade furniture from Chelsea boutiques. 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.
• Assad forwarded a YouTube video to one of his aides that showed a crude reenactment of the siege of Homs using toys and biscuits. “Check out this video on YouTube,” Assad wrote to his media adviser, Hadeel al-Ali in the week that Arab League monitors arrived.
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 group 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 left 10,000 dead.
Activists say they were able to monitor the inboxes of Assad and his wife in real time for several months. In several cases they claim to have used information to warn colleagues in Damascus of imminent regime moves against them.
The access continued until 7 February, when a threatening email arrived in the inbox thought to be used by Assad after the account’s existence was revealed when the Anonymous group separately hacked into a number of Syrian government email addresses. Correspondence to and from the two addresses ceased on the same day.
Iran and Hezbollah have been accused throughout the year-long uprising of providing on-the-ground support to the regime crackdown, including sending soldiers to fight alongside regime forces and technical experts to help identify activists using the internet. Iran and Hezbollah both deny offering anything more than moral support.
The direct line of reporting to Assad, independent of the police state’s military and intelligence agencies, was a trait of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades until his death in 2000 ushered the then 36-year-old scion into the presidency. Assad Sr was renowned for establishing multiple reporting lines from security chiefs and trusted aides in the belief that it would deny the opportunity for any one agency to become powerful enough to pose a threat to him. His son has reputedly shown the same instincts through his decade of rule. The year-long uprising against his decade of rule appeared to be faltering this week as forces loyal to Assad retook the key northern city of Idlib.
Much of Assad’s media advice comes from two young US-educated Syrian women, Sheherazad Jaafari and Hadeel al-Al. Both regularly stress to Assad, who uses the address sam@alshahba, the importance of social media and the importance of intervening in online discussions. At one point, Jaafari boasts that CNN has fallen for a nom-de-guerre that she set up to post pro-regime remarks. The emails also reveal that the media team has convinced Twitter to close accounts that purport to represent the Syrian regime.
Several weeks after firstname.lastname@example.org email was compromised in February, a new Syrian state TV channel broadcast two segments denying the email address had been used by Assad. Opposition activists claim that this was a pre-emptive move to discredit any future leaking of the emails.
On Wednesday Assad announced new parliamentary elections to be held across Syria on 7 May. The move appears to be in response to Kofi Annan’s demand following his visit to Damascus over the weekend for a ceasefire coupled with elections. Activists have described a referendum last month that paved the way for the poll as a sham.
There was further bloodshed on the ground. Opposition activists said government forces killed dozens of people near a mosque in the city of Idlib, with rebels killing at least 10 troops in the same area. In Homs, residents said the old part of the city came under government bombardment. They also reported a massacre of 53 people in the Karm el-Zeytoun area of south-east Homs.
The US president, Barack Obama, signed an executive order last May imposing sanctions against Assad and other Syrian government officials.
In addition to freezing their US assets, the order prohibited “US persons” from engaging in transactions with them. The EU adopted similar measures against Assad last year. They include an EU-wide travel ban for the Syrian president and an embargo on military exports to Syria.
The emails paint a picture of a Syrian leadership that is more bumbling and oblivious than villainous: On the day after the Syrian military began shelling the city of Homs, for example, Bashar sent Asma a video of country crooner Blake Shelton’s song God Gave Me You.
Information in the emails ranges from the shocking (Assad knew about western journalists in Homs) to the absurd (his wife spent thousands on jewelery and furniture). But what it all adds up to is a picture of a family enjoying a plush lifestyle as it remains insulated from the ongoing violence on the streets.
• The Turkish daily Zaman is drawn to the revelation that Asma Assad refused to share her email address with Emine Erdogan, wife of the Turkish prime minister. It says the emails reveal “a deep rift between former good friends”.
• Gawker has created a Spotify playlist of the “crappy music” Assad bought on iTunes. It asks: Who knew that the soundtrack of murderous despotism was… Blake Shelton and Cliff Richards tribute acts?
• The Guardian has been blocked in Syria, according to contacts of the UK-based Syrian blogger Maysaloon. Of the emails the blogger writes: “They are hardly a smoking gun, and instead they show you a president and his wife who seem more interested in doing online shopping and swapping silly Youtube clips than anything else.”
• How do we know the Assad emails are genuine? It is impossible to rule out the possibility of fakes in the email cache, but several pieces of evidence suggest they are authentic.
From The Guardian