How they fooled us: why (Western) leftists and capitalists were so attracted by Bashar al-Assad`s regime

Hundreds of emails flooded from some 78 inboxes of Syrian presidential palace`s aides and media advisors last Monday, after an attack led by Anonymous – apparently the accounts` passwords just lacked security (and imagination) as their protection was simply“12345”--.

The most controversial leaked email was sent by a press attache at the Syrian mission to the United Nation, Sheherazad Jaafari –who happens to be the the daughter of the current Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari— The email is addressed to Luna Chebel, former host of the Al Jazeera Arabic show “Lil-nisa`faqat” (For women only), who left the Doha-based channel on May 2010 over a dress-code dispute with its management and went to work as al-Assad`s media aide at the Palace.

Jaafari advised the Palace`s aide on how to handle the interview between Bashar al-Assad and ABC`s American journalist Barbara Walters. This is the interview where we saw on screen the Syrian president declaring: “We don’t kill our people… no government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person”. While, at the time, many thought that Assad was in a clear state of denial concerning the bloody crackdown, he was actually just following Jaafari`s advice to win over an “American Psyche (that) can be easily manipulated”.

 “Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not by an institution, that’s what you have to know,” the Syrian President told Walters in the ABC interview. Here, his emphasis on the difference “between having a policy to crackdown and having some mistakes committed by some officials” echoes his media aides` suggestion to stress on “mistakes” that “have been done in the beginning of the crisis because we did not have a well-organized “police force”. Americans can be convinced if they here that “there are ‘mistakes’ done” but these are going to be fixed, suggests the planning email.

Jaafari also reminds the president`s aide to have him stressing that Facebook and YouTube were not censored during the crisis –in fact they have been banned for years and their legal use was restored only in February 2011, just one month before the beginning of the Syrian uprising — and that both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya had offices in Damascus at the time when the unrest started –in fact they were operating under the Ministry of Information`s strict surveillance and independent filming was never permitted, even long time before 15th March—.

While this interview planning email can draw a clear picture of what (some) Syrians think about (some) Americans, indeed this is not the most interesting part of the Anonymous` leaks. Much more comes out when looking at the emails  written and received by Bashar al- Assad`s media and political advisor Butheina Shaaban, a prominent member of the seemingly reform-minded Syrian president`s inner circle. Going through her correspondence helps exploring the symbolic and material appeal that Assad`s regime`s was exercising over journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, leftists activists and even an eccentric millionaire, Bobby Sager.

Sager –who served as an inspiration for NBC`s show The Philanthropist– has spent a significant amount of time “traveling the world” and “he`s pals with Sting, hobnobs with Lady Gaga”. But his friendship with these top music industry folks has probably not moved him as much as the time spent with Syrian English-speaking elites and President al-Assad himself. These days together have apparently secured him an unprecedented insight on Syria and a “first hand perspective” thanks to his visits to the “Ummayyad mosque, the souk, the coffee shops and even the hammam”.

The uncontested beauty of places which would strike a foreign student or a tourist in his first day visit to Damascus has actually helped Bobby to uncover details of the country that “the distorting filters of the media or the haze of distance” had kept secret before.

 But it`s not only this updated nuance of Orientalism that shapes the comfortable relationship binding Western (especially US-based) elites to Syrian regime officials. There are, of course, material privileges coming out from such a link: a bill of 150.000 USD per month, for example, would be the price to “improve the US-Syrian relationship at a crucial time before the next administration comes into office, to improve the image of Syria and President Bashar in the United States, and help with other forms of cooperation..”. Surprisingly enough, this email does not come from a PR firm, but from a University Professor who probably does act as an intermediary in this sort of transactions. David W, Lesch, from the Department of History at Trinity University in Sant`Antonio US, far from being an ordinary scholar with a prominent interest in Syrian issues, is somebody who “has also met on a regular basis since 2004 with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and consulted with Bush and Obama administration officials on an on-going basis in high-level attempts to improve US-Syrian relations”. His official biography adds that “Dr. Lesch was also president of Middle East International Business Associates, Inc., a consulting company that facilitated business opportunities in the Middle East for American companies–among his clients were a number of Fortune 500 corporations”. 


(part one-to be continued)

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