Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, March 14th, 2012
The Assad emails
Exclusive: secret Assad emails lift lid on life of leader’s inner circle
BY Robert Booth, Mona Mahmood and Luke Harding – Guardian
• Messages show Bashar al-Assad took advice from Iran
• Leader made light of promised reforms
• Wife spent thousands on jewellery and furniture
Assad emails: ‘If we are strong together …’
Date: 28 December 2011
A simple supportive message from Asma al-Assad to her husband.
If we are strong together, we will overcome this together…I love you…
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 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.
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 established a network of trusted aides who reported directly to him through his “private” email account – bypassing both 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 Mr and Mrs Assad 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.
• 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.
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 fresh 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. All correspondence to and from the two addresses ceased on the same day.
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-Qaida for an apparent twin car bombing in Damascus, which took place the day before an Arab League observer mission arrived in the country. He said he had been in contact with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon who shared the same view.
“It is not out of our interest to say that al-Qaida organisation is behind the operation because this claim will [indemnify] the US administration and Syrian opposition,” Mortada wrote not long after the blasts. “I have received contacts from Iran and Hezbollah in my role as director of many Iranian-Lebanese channels and they directed me to not mention that al-Qaida is behind the operation. It is a blatant tactical media mistake.”
In another email Mortada advised the president that the regime needed to take control of public squares between 3pm and 9pm to deny opposition groups the opportunity to gather there.
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.
Among others who communicated with the president’s account were Khaled al-Ahmed, who it is believed was tasked with providing advice about Homs and Idlib. In November Ahmed wrote to Assad urging him to “tighten the security grip to start [the] operation to restore state control and authority in Idlib and Hama countryside”.
He also told Assad he had been told that European reporters had “entered the area by crossing the Lebanese borders illegally”. In another mail he warned the president that “a tested source who met with leaders of groups in Baba Amr today said that a big shipment of weapons is coming from Libya will arrive to the seashores of one of the neighbouring states within three days to be smuggled to Syria.”
Link to this videoThe 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 11 December. “The opportunity for real change and development was lost a long time ago. Nevertheless, one opportunity closes, others open up – and I hope its not too late for reflection and coming out of the state of denial.”
A second email on 30 January was even more forthright and including a tacit offer of exile. “Just been following the latest developments in Syria … in all honesty – looking at the tide of history and the escalation of recent events – we’ve seen two results – leaders stepping down and getting political asylum or leaders being brutally attacked. I honestly think this is a good opportunity to leave and re-start a normal life.
“I only pray that you will convince the president to take this an opportunity to exit without having to face charges. The region needs to stabilise, but not more than you need peace of mind. I am sure you have many places to turn to, including Doha.”
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 particularly 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 the email@example.com email was compromised in February, a new Syrian state television channel broadcast two segments denying that 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.
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.
(AP) — “Two prominent Syrian dissidents said Wednesday they have quit the main opposition group that emerged from the year-old uprising against the regime in Damascus, predicting more would soon abandon what one of the men described as an “autocratic” organization.
The resignations from the Syrian National Council dealt another blow to the opposition, which has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting …. One of the dissidents who resigned, Kamal al-Labwani, accused the leadership of the Syrian National Council of controlling the body’s work while sidelining most of its 270 members.
“There is no council, it’s an illusion,” said al-Labwani, who worked for years against the Assad family regime before being jailed in 2005. He joined the council soon after being released in November.
He accused council chief Burhan Ghalioun and a few others of running the organization autocratically, even comparing it to Assad’s ruling Baath party….
He said that another council member, Catherine al-Talli, has also quit and said he expected many more to quit soon to pressure the council leadership. Al-Labwani called for an international conference in Turkey to give the council a new charter and make it more democratic.
Another dissident, 80 year-old lawyer Haitham al-Maleh, said he too had quit the council, but did not say why. He has accused the group in the past of being out of touch and not consulting those long opposed to the regime…. “
The Rafiq Hariri brigade demonstrates in this video how many soldiers they killed and captured prior to the military assault of Idlib. It also shows the tanks they captured.
Last October I was asked to write an article on the direction of the crisis in Syria – a month later, I had still not made it beyond an introductory paragraph. Syria was confusing. The public discourse about events in the country appeared to be more hyperbole than fact. But even behind the scene, sources strained to provide informed analyses, and it was fairly evident that a lot of guesswork was being employed.By December, it occurred to me that a big part of the problem was the external-based opposition and their disproportionately loud voices. If you were actually in the business of digging for “verified” information on Syria last year, you would have also quickly copped on to the fact that this wing of the Syrian opposition lies – and lies big.This discovery coincided with a new report by US intelligence analyst Stratfor that claimed: “most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue, thereby revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime.”I had another niggling feeling that just wouldn’t quit: given the amount of regime-initiated violence and widespread popular dissent being reported in the mainstream media, why was the Syrian death toll so low after 10 months of alleged brutality?Because, if the regime was not engaging in the kind of reckless slaughter suggested by activists, it would appear that they were, in fact, exercising considerable restraint.Stratfor said that too. The risk analysis group argues that allegations of massacres against civilians were unlikely because the “regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid just such a scenario. Regime forces,” Stratfor argues, “have been careful to avoid the high casualty numbers that could lead to an intervention based on humanitarian grounds.”For me, the events in Homs in February confirmed rather than contradicted this view. The general media narrative was very certain: there was a widescale civilian massacre in Baba Amr caused by relentless, indiscriminate shelling by government forces that pounded the neighborhood for weeks.The videos pouring out of the besieged city were incriminating in the extreme. Black smoke plumes from shelling choked the city, piled up bodies spoke of brutal slaughter; the sound of mass wailing was only interrupted by explosions, gunfire and cries of “Allahu Akbar.”But when it was over, we learned a few things. Contrary to reports during the “siege,” there were only a few thousand civilians in Baba Amr at the time – all others had already evacuated the area. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), had been administering assistance at nine separate points in Homs for the duration. They would not enter the neighborhoods of Baba Amr and Insha’at because of continuing violence on “both sides.”The armed opposition fighters holed up in Homs during that month were, therefore, unlikely to be there in a purely “protective” capacity. As American journalist Nir Rosen points out, what happened in Homs on February 3 was a government response to direct and repeated “provocation:”“Yesterday opposition fighters defeated the regime checkpoint at the Qahira roundabout and they seized a tank or armored personnel carrier. This followed similar successes against the Bab Dreib checkpoint and the Bustan al Diwan checkpoint. In response to this last provocation yesterday the regime started shelling with mortars from the Qalaa on the high ground and the State Security headquarters in Ghota.”This account contrasts starkly with the oft-repeated notion that armed opposition groups act primarily to protect “peaceful demonstrators” and civilians.Homs also marks the point in the Syrian crisis when I noticed a quiet cynicism developing in the professional media about sources and information from Syria. Cracks are bound to appear in a story this widely broadcast, especially when there is little actual verifiable information in this highly competitive industry.Cue the now infamous video by Syrian activist Danny Abdul Dayem – dubbed by the Washington Post as “the voice of Homs” – where he dazzles CNN’s Anderson Cooper with little more than bad 1950s-style sound effects, blurry scenes of fires and a breathless rendition of “facts.” Of all the media-fraud videos Syrian TV broadcast two weeks ago, none were as compelling as Danny’s – his credibility stock plummeting almost as fast as his meteoric rise to media “darling.”It reminds me of August 2011 news reports of warships shelling the coastal city of Latakia. Three separate sources – two opposition figures from the city and an independent western journalist – later insisted there were no signs of shelling. It was also the first time I learned from Syrians that you can burn rubber tires on rooftops to simulate the after-effects of exploded shells.Question: Why would activists have to resort to stage-crafting scenesand sound effects of violence if the regime was already “pounding Homs” to bits?What have we actually seen in Homs? Explosions. Fires. Dead bodies. Injured civilians. Men with weapons. The government has openly admitted to shelling, so we know that is a fact. But how much shelling, and is it indiscriminate? Observers afterward have said Baba Amr resembles a destroyed ghost town. How much of this was done by the regime? And how much was done by the opposition?Turkish publication Today’s Zaman reported on Sunday: “Last week, a Pentagon report stated that IED usage by the opposition has more than doubled since December.” How are these Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – used mainly in unconventional warfare – being employed? As roadside bombs, targeting security forces, inside towns and cities?On Sunday I was included in a private messaging thread with seven Syrians who I have communicated with over the course of some months. Most are known to me either directly or with one degree of separation. This was not a usual thread on Syria – the initiating participant, who I will call Ziad, was informing the others privately about what was taking place in Idlib as government forces moved into the area.Ziad’s family is from Idlib, and although I wasn’t a participant in the conversation, it appears that he had spent much of the weekend making phone calls to family members who were reporting the following. I have changed the names of participants to protect their identities. Two things strike me about this chat – the first is the information that armed groups are rigging the town with IEDs before the army arrives, either to target security forces or to create material damage to buildings. The second is that there is a malaise among the message participants about this information. As in, so what? Who is going to believe this? Who is going to do anything about this?Ziad:
Today the Army went into the city of Idleb (the city itself not the province).
There was no random shelling, they were slowly moving into neighborhoods, starting from the east and southern.The militants had seeded IEDs (improvised explosive devices, basically remote detonated landmines) across the city, one of them was under my uncles balcony , who now lost half his home, his living room got bigger and has a panoramic view.They had set up machine gun nests on a few mosques and communication towers.Around 200 militants were gathered near my grandmother’s house and took refuge in the building right next to them. The neighborhood is a Christian neighborhood (cant confirm or deny it’s a coincidence).
The battle lasted all day, my family is safe but both my grandmother’s house and my uncle’s house got damaged. The first by the IED and the second by exchange of fire, largely done by the militants and the army was returning fire.The army was moving in slowly and checked Idleb neighborhood by neighborhood. They searched most houses but there were no mass random arrests. Mainly they asked adult men out before searching and they were released after. I assume at this point they have a list of who to arrest so there was no surprise there.The rumors of electricity and water cuts are not true. The entire country is suffering from electricity cuts, so Idleb will not be an exception. There is no cell phone coverage but landlines are working, though there is heavy pressure and you have to attempt several times for the call to go through.Ziad:
The plan will probably be pushing them into what is called “the northern quarter” an area already emptied from civilians and largely a militant stronghold. Once they corner them in the northern area the army will take them out decisively. Most people expect this to end within the next two days.Outside the city there was a clash on the Turkish border with militants attempting to come from turkey to Idleb to reinforce the militants.Ziad:
Just to make it clear the Army did not finish sweeping the entire cityJoumana:
I don’t know what to say Ziad. Should I be happy or sad? I feel sorry for the people caught in the middle, but this has to be done! So is the city clean?Ziad:
No its not clean. Operation started yesterday from 5 am till around 6. The same thing today but today the army went in deeper. They are doing it progressively and trying to avoid the most damages.Most damages are caused by the IEDs (some up to 50kgs of explosives) and random firing by militants (using PKT/PKC and DUSHKA/DShk machine guns), with the army returning fire when attacked, but no excessive use of force i.e no artillery barrages as reported by al Jazeera and other channels)Ziad:
Also, contrary to what is being reported, the town of Benech (بنش ) was not shelled today and was not even attacked.
Oh and since the morning the army was asking people to go down to the shelters and take refuge using speakers across the city.
I just heard on Aljazeera that the army dragged over 20 civilians and executed them in “Dabbit neighborhood”(ضبيط ), that is not true because I have family there too and that did not happen.Hanan:
Ziad, they are using the propaganda of the 80’s. Want to lead people’s brains to the Hama massacre. To make it look believableJoumana:
The MB are insisting on getting their revenge. Linking the events to what happened in Hama. Many people will believe.Ziad:
Just to give you a perspective on the scale of irresponsibility and damage by the militants. Just under my uncles house there were 4 IEDs, one of them exploded damaging a BMP (and the building) as the army was approaching and the army stopped there and pulled back to reassemble for another try. In that single spot there was over 60 kgs of explosives. Once large one was planted in a 2×2 hole. Right now the army reached their neighborhood and is still there.These militants don’t even live there and are just making those neighborhoods their front using civilians as shields. Once they are pushed back into the open fields the army will mow them down like grass.
I’m optimistic this will be over in the coming two days.Jouwana:
But Ziad, why isn’t there anyone reporting this to the media?Mohammad:
if they report it no one (outside Syria) will believe it …Ziad:
I think by now we can all agree the pro Syrian media has limited clout and the anti Syria media just doesn’t do any fact checking and research and is resorting to sectarian tone and hysteria.
The government I think it focusing its energy and resources on finishing the security element of the crisis while juggling the economy and foreign diplomacy. They realize they cannot win the media war and might as well focus on what they are good at and what is more important. Syria never was “popular” and it certainly won’t be done during this crisis.Ziad is not a reporter, he relies entirely on his family’s accounts and estimates in Idlib, and his claims cannot be verified at this point. But these are important testimonies – the anecdotal evidence that provides the basis for further investigation. We used to hear many more of these accounts from all sides in the first few months of the Syrian crisis, before the pressure of the dominant narratives intimidated even the best bloggers into toeing a hyper-cautious line.Conjecture and hysteria aside, there is plenty of indication that the Syrian government is pursuing a policy of eliminating armed groups in a slow, measured sweep of the country, particularly focusing on towns and neighborhoods where they have allowed these elements to swell in recent months.There are many who would find this offensive enough to continue raging against the Syrian regime – it is unnecessary to concoct daily stories of civilian slaughters to keep Syria in the headlines.There is also increasing evidence that armed opposition groups are targeting civilians, security forces and property with violence in ever greater numbers. Is there absolute evidence of this? Not yet. Is there absolute evidence for the allegations against the regime? Not yet. I doubt that there has been a recent conflict with this much finger-pointing, and this little established fact.Today, reporting from inside Idlib, Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught described the bombing as “earth-shaking and relentless.” Bombing caused by who?“Hollywood” in Syria? Oh yes. Scene-setting the likes of which we have not yet seen outside of celluloid fiction. Delivering lines to a rapt audience that seems incapable of questioning the plot. Some of what transpires in Syria in the future will depend on this: Do people want to go behind the velvet curtain and see the strings – or are they content to be simply led by the entertainment.Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.
A journey into Syria’s nightmare
Reuters By Zohra Bensemra | Reuters
Zohra Bensemra is a news photographer for Reuters. Based in Algiers, she traveled on assignment to Syria in February. This is her account of that journey:
…. Smoke was still rising from some buildings as we entered through back roads. Local people kept approaching us: “Come and see my father, he was killed!” one would say; “Come down this road, there are two bodies!”; “Come and see my house that was destroyed.”
The shelling seemed to have been indiscriminate. Houses in different parts of town had been hit. It was as if a blind man had been firing the guns and could not see or did not care where the shells fell.
Local people took us to a house where they said a woman of 70 had died. A shell had hit it. The mirror in her bedroom was spattered in blood, and flesh. It was as if she had exploded…..
Syrian Kurds get cold reception from Iraqi Kurds
By LARA JAKES and YAHYA BARZANJI | Associated Press
QAMISHLI, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish Syrians fleeing their nation’s bloody uprising are all but prisoners in northern Iraqi refugee camps, though they seek shelter in a region that was created specifically as a safe haven for ethnic Kurds.
Local Kurdish officials in the Iraqi province of Dahuk, which borders Syria, voted Wednesday to open a second refugee camp for the growing number of Syrian Kurds who are arriving every day. But they are not allowed to leave the first, spartan camp at Qamishli, and have been told they must apply for residency before they may live freely in the region widely referred to as, simply, Kurdistan.
It’s a twofold irony: Kurds are Syria’s largest ethnic minority but long have been considered illegal immigrants there. Moreover, Iraqis used Syria as a safe haven during the worst of the sectarian violence that nearly plunged their nation in civil war just a few years ago.
“We can’t move or work freely, and our family can’t send us money,” Qamishli refugee Radhwan Nadhum al-Ali said in an interview this week. He compared the small camp to “living in a big prison cell.”
“I’m mulling whether to go back and face death rather than staying here,” al-Ali said.
Iraqi Kurdish soldiers guard the camp at Qamishli, about 60 kilometers (30 miles) from the border. Dahuk provincial immigration director Mohammed Abdullah Hammo said its Syrian Kurdish residents “are not allowed to leave the camps.”
“They need security approval and residency permission to be in Kurdistan, just like anyone else,” he said Wednesday. He estimated that process would take a month. (…)