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July 8, 2012

Wikileaked: Lobbying firm tried to help Syrian regime polish image as violence raged

Posted By Josh Rogin  

The lobbying firm that brought you a Vogue story featuring the Syrian first lady was still trying to help the Syrian regime improve its image abroad two months after the notoriously ill-timed article was published and then scrubbed, as the country descended into violence, according to a document revealed by Wikileaks.

The international firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) was officially employed by the Office of the First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic Asma al-Assad in Nov. 2010 for $5,000 per month to help arrange and execute the article, which appeared in the March 2011 edition of Vogue. The fawning piece, entitled, “Rose of the Desert,” was actually scrubbed from the Vogue website out of embarrassment when Assad began a brutal crackdown on non-violent protests that month. But you can still read it here.

BLJ’s contract with the Assad regime, signed by BLJ partner Mike Holtzman and Syrian government official Fares Kallas, expired in March of last year, according to documents posted on the Foreign Agents Registration Act website. The firm had claimed its work on behalf of the Assads ended in Dec. 2010.

But in May 2011, BLJ sent another memo to Kallas and the Syrian government, giving them advice on how to improve their image and institute a more effective public relations strategy amid the exploding violence in Syria. The memo was published by the Wikileaks website in their dump of 2.4 million Syrian documents this week.

“It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive,” begins the May 19, 2011, memo. “Unlike its response to demonstrations in some other countries in the region, there have been no US demands for regime change in Syria nor any calls for military intervention, criticism has been relatively muted and punitive sanctions — by not being aimed directly at President Assad — have been intended more as a caution than as an instrument to hurt the leadership.”

The memo was sent only days after Syrian military forces stormed the town of Baniyas and moved into the cities of Hama and Homs, where civilian massacres soon followed. Three days before the memo was sent, 20 bodies of murdered civilians were discovered in a shallow grave in the city of Daraa.  President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down that August.

The memo goes on to warn the Assad regime that the mood in Washington is turning against the regime, as evidenced by tougher statements coming from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and increasingly critical stories in the U.S. media. BLJ warns the Assads that if they don’t get smart about public relations quick, the U.S. system might just turn against them.

“[Increasing bad PR] not only reinforces the Administration’s change of tone, it is emboldening critics — who maintain that Syria’s reform efforts are not sincere–and building up pressure on the US government to take further, more drastic steps against the country,” the memo states.

BLJ then goes into an extensive set of recommendations for how the Assad regime can put a better spin on the largely government-led violence.

“[S]oft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria’s actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place,” BLJ explains.

The Assad regime should appoint one figure to “own” the reform agenda to convince Syrians and the outside world the reform effort is “sincere,” BLJ advised.

“Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US Government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad,” the memo reads.

BLJ even recommends that First Lady Asma al-Assad should “get in the game,” do a “listening tour” with the president, and start doing press interviews to create an “echo chamber” in the media that reinforces the idea that Assad is reform-minded.

“The absence of a public figure as popular, capable, and attuned to the hopes of the people as Her Excellency at such a critical moment is conspicuous. The key is to show strength and sympathy at once,” BLJ writes.

BLJ also recommends that the Assad regime get more serious about containing negative media stories and the voices of the Syrian opposition around the world, which the memo calls “the daily torrent of criticism and lies.” BJR told the Assads they should institute 24-hour media monitoring in the United States and challenge and then remove any websites that are “false.”

Overall, the memo recommends that the Assad regime get smart on messaging and start trying to convince the world that the Syrian government is benevolent, that all killings by the military were not officially sanctioned, and that the crisis is not as bad as the international community believes.

“Efforts should be made to convey ‘normalcy’ and a contrast to current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos,” the memo reads.

Contacted for comment by The Cable Friday, Holtzman said that their official work with the Syrian government came at a time when many, including the U.S. government, had high hopes for progress in opening up Syria. He also said that the May 2012 memo was a “last-ditch” effort “to encourage a peaceful outcome rather than violence.”

Holtzman said that BLJ was not paid for writing the memo and that the firm hasn’t done any work for the regime since. He framed the memo as an attempt to get the Assad regime to behave better.

“We noted that if the regime was serious about dramatic reform that ‘reform-oriented outreach must be dramatically improved’, and recommended that Syria begin to directly ‘engage families and young people’ in these reforms,” Holtzman said. “Unfortunately, our advice was ignored and our professional involvement in the country ended, just prior to new U.S. sanctions being put into effect.”

David Kenner contributed reporting to this article.

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رسالة الشيخ رائد صلاح إلى الشعب السوري (in Arabic)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAq0-g4QZiQ&feature=colike?]

Miko Peled, interview

[youtube http://youtu.be/tdJK8uSimmg?]

Expelled priest turns diplomat for Syrian opposition

(Reuters) – An Italian priest may seem an unlikely champion of Syrian national unity, yet Paolo Dall’Oglio’s efforts to bridge deep sectarian divisions have gained him a following among a people shattered by conflict.

Bashar al-Assad’s government expelled Dall’Oglio last month, three decades after he revived a monastery on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Syrian desert that became a centre for dialogue between the country’s myriad ethnic and religious communities.

Nouri al-Jarrah, a London-based Syrian poet, called the expulsion a “shameful act”. “He should be given Syrian nationality the day he returns,” he said.

A big man with a loud voice and a calm manner, Dall’Oglio, 57, has reinvented himself as an unofficial diplomat on behalf of Assad’s opponents abroad.

As a deeply-divided opposition movement tried to narrow their differences at a meeting in Cairo on Tuesday, the bearded Dall’Oglio was a key fixture, hurrying among the delegates and relaying messages from embattled activists back home.

“Assad’s regime is so full of lies and spies that it no longer knows what is true or right,” he told Reuters. “I am urging all diplomats I see to help the people and demanding that their countries force Assad to stop the violence and leave.”

Admirers hope the priest can help achieve what Western powers have not – heal deep divisions between Assad’s Muslim, Christian, Islamist and secularist opponents, who often seem united only by their hostility to Assad.

“I perceive faith as a bridge that we all must cross to be better people,” he said. “The drive for power and personal glory is what makes people stray from religion and the extremists among them turn into tyrants like Bashar al-Assad.”

REVIVAL

Dall’Oglio revived Deir Mar Musa monastery in 1982. The site 80 km (50 miles) north of Damascus, established by Greek monks in the 6th century, had lain abandoned since the 19th century.

“It was a desolate place filled with insects and snakes, but I saw in it what I needed to convey my message,” he said.

Its small community works with Muslim groups to improve prospects for young people, promote dialogue between religious leaders and instill respect for the local environment.

Opposition leaders say over 15,000 people have been killed since Syria’s uprising began in March 2011. The government says it is fighting an Islamist insurgency.

Dall’Oglio was expelled after visiting the al-Qusair area of Homs city when it was under heavy attack.

“They got angry because I went to support my courageous people in Homs against those liars and violent thugs,” he said. “I am sure that eventually the protesters will win as they are on the right side, fighting for their freedoms.”

Dall’Oglio was told to leave Syria more than a year ago but pressure from supporters, who set up a Facebook group entitled “No to the Exile of Father Paolo”, helped delay his departure.

Dall’Oglio’s email address now begins with “matrudzaalan”, meaning “expelled and angry” in Arabic, “the language of the region I love with all my heart”, he said.

During the Cairo conference, the priest was seen urging western diplomats to step up pressure on Assad. Delegates took him aside repeatedly to ask news from home as he fielded calls from Syrian activists.

“Hang on there,” he told one who called from the town of Talbisa as it came under heavy attack. Asked for the identity of the caller, he said: “One of my children in Syria but I don’t know his name because I never ask. They are all my children.”

To Dall’Oglio, Syria is a country whose hatred of military dictatorship will overcome the fear of chaos and sectarian strife that Assad’s government has encouraged.

It is, he says, a country that can one day bring solutions to region-wide tensions, “rather than a corrosive cancer”.

“People there are very open-minded and mingle very well with one other,” he said. “I have sat with many Islamists and they all say they want a democratic civil state and are very keen to protect the rights of Christians.”

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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