“The American psyche can be easily manipulated,” writes Sheherazad Jaafari, press attaché of Syria’s mission to the United Nations (UN), in a brief sent to Syrian presidential media aide and former Al Jazeera employee Luna Chebel. The brief suggested how to handle Barbara Walters’ interview of Bashar al-Assad, which was later aired on 7 December 2011. The brief comes from email correspondence hacked by the online activist movement known as Anonymous, who on 7 February announced its penetration of some seventy-eight mailboxes belonging to Syrian Presidential Palace staff and media aides—many merely protected by a “12345” password.
The Western media’s reactions to the Barbara Walters’ interview planning email have been a mixture of surprise (“astonishing office emails” according to the Telegraph), disappointment, and even outrage over the fact that a “New York spin doctor coached Syrian dictator”, the Daily Mail suggested.
Yet the reason for discontent apparently only comes from the naïve way Americans are portrayed in the leaked conversation—as people whose views on Syria are not grounded in facts as much as in perceptions that can be easily adjusted through media brainwashing.
American and Western media in general are very familiar with spin-doctoring tactics to manipulate public opinion. Moreover, planning and briefing before high-profile interviews to public figures is not an exceptional practice reserved for authoritarian regimes, but instead a routine practice widely adopted by Western democratic institutions, from media to governments. The most “disturbing” aspect of Jaafari’s leaked email is precisely that it sheds light on similarities rather than differences, and places authoritarian regimes and Western democracies in a continuum rather than at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.
More disturbing similarities come from other leaked emails published by Anonymous here, which allegedly originate from Butheina Shaaban’s inbox. Shaaban is media and political advisor to President Assad and a prominent member of his seemingly reform-minded inner circle. She is fluent in English and holds a PhD in English literature from Warwick University. She is the woman who delivered the first public speech after the uprising started in Syria last March 2011, promising reforms and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
A look at Shaaban`s leaked correspondence sheds light on the symbolic and material appeal that the Assad regime has exercised over a wide spectrum of professionals and personalities, including Western journalists, university professors, entrepreneurs, and even leftist activists. The presidential advisor`s hacked inbox draws attention to the elective affinities betwen Bashar al-Assad`s inner circle and Western elites.
People like George Galloway—the former British Labour Party member of parliament, who co-founded the Viva Palestina! Organization to bring humanitarian aid and relief to Gaza`s civilian population after the 2008 Israeli attack—is one of Shaaban’s pen pals. In writing to Shaaban and asking for Assad’s support for a Viva Palestina! mission to Gaza, Galloway salutes Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”—apparently the only Arab country committed to the “historic endeavor” of liberating Palestine. It is probably in this commitment to the Palestinian cause that Galloway and many other leftist activists have found a common ground with Assad’s rhetoric that claims Syria as the champion of Panarabism and only country defending Arab interests against Western imperialism (a recurring discourse in his recent January 10th TV address).
Yet this shared language is not only to be found on pro-Palestinian and anti-imperialist ideological grounds. Assad’s inner circle has also proven itself to be a suitable business partner for Western public relations (PR) firms who offer public diplomacy services that reduce relationships between two states or between a state and its citizens to a PR matter to be regulated through the media. Email leaks reveal an ongoing conversation between Shaaban and the Washington, DC-based Capital Communications whose services cover “crisis communications and reputation management” and “how to pitch a story to the US media.”
In another leaked email, even an academic, David Lesch—a Trinity University History Professor who specializes on Syria— proposes Shaaban use an American PR company “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.” And his website states that he has met with President Assad and his aides, presumably including Shaaban, “on a regular basis since 2004.”
Shabaan’s circle of global friends also includes Bobby Sager, an American billionaire who expresses his gratitude for the “first-hand perspective” he got from visiting the “Ummayyad mosque, souk, coffee shops, and even a hammam (Turkish bath).” In a leaked email, Sager writes that his visit helped him see the country without the “distorting filters of the media,” referring to numerous international articles describing the unrest provoked in Syria by a popular movement seeking dignity and freedom whose existence Syrian government media have never officially acknowledged.
Shaaban`s leaked emails display a gallery of Western professionals from different fields, including a few journalists who were officially invited to the country after the uprising started. All were bound to Assad’s seemingly reform-minded circle through a system of mutual favors and exchanges, personal friendships, and business interests. These relationships have been and continue to be forged by mutual complaisance, indulgence, material comfort, and pleasure. They reveal how deeply the Syrian regime was intertwined with Western elites and to what extent the latter were enmeshed with what the West now largely labels as “the dictatorship.”
Anonymous-leaked emails also shed light on the ability of seeming reformists in Syria to master the universal vocabulary of neoliberalism and globalization through their use of words like “empowerment”, “entrepreneurship,” and “self-initiative”—terms that Westerners’ ears pretend to interpret as a guarantee that a more democratic system would somehow match the opening up of the Syrian market.
As a Western diplomat told me in Damascus a few weeks after the uprising started, “They fooled us. We thought they were like us, ’cause they were speaking the same language as us.” This sentence reveals a dangerous but very common assumption in the West: “us” is good. The fact that Assad’s entourage was speaking the same language “as us” has led to the misleading interpretation that they were going to comply with “our” values—those supposedly on the right side of history.
However, Butheina Shaaban’s inbox and the network of relationships disclosed by the Anonymous leaks prove that the situation is indeed a bit more complex than simply an “us” versus “them” scenario.