Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to have resumed his public relations campaign, making a strong debut with CBS’s Charlie Rose last week trying to swing U.S. public opinion against President Barack Obama’s plans to launch a military strike on Syria.
The interview was later seen to have paid off for Assad when President Obama decided to shelve his airstrike plans.
During the interview Assad made sure to cast himself as a modernizer fighting against terrorism, warning Americans that their government would be creating another Iraq or Afghanistan if it decides to attack Syria.
“Any strike will be a direct support to al-Qaeda offshoots,” he said.
Painting rebels with a terrorism brush is Assad’s consistent PR strategy, along with invoking the Iraqi scenario. His PR aides advocated this approach from the early days of the uprising.
Before his previous 2011 television interview with ABC News’s Barbara Walters, leaked emails showed how the New York-based Shehrazaad (Sherry) Jaafari, the daughter of Syria’s U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari, recommended to one of Assad’s media advisors (Luna Chebel) who is based in Damascus that the president target the “American psyche” which “can be easily manipulated.”
But the interview with Walters turned out to be counterproductive for Assad when international attention turned to an incident where he refused to describe the armed forces as “his,” saying they belonged to the state. Conclusions were drawn that he was trying to shirk responsibility.
Unhappy with the outcome, Assad halted appearances on U.S. television networks up until last week when he appeared on CBS as the drumbeat of war in Washington became louder.
Alarms went off in Damascus, prompting Assad to resume his propaganda machine, starting with an aggressive social media campaign.
Social media offensive
Assad’s wife was seen playing “modern folks” as a propaganda tactic to draw contrast with the rebels, whom the regime describes as barbaric terrorists who seek to take Syria back to dark ages.
A statement posted Aug. 28 on a Facebook account purportedly belonging to Assad’s 11-year-old son Hafez gained international media attention. The statement challenged the U.S. plans for military intervention in Syria.
Then came the big step when Assad hit the U.S. television screen appearing on CBS with Charlie Rose.
“I am sure it was aided by a public relations company. This is generally how the Assad regime relates to the Western media. For better or worse, but in this case these are the interlocutors,” said Foreign Policy editor David Kenner, referring to Assad’s interview with Charlie Rose.
“It’s not like Bashar al-Assad or Buthaina Shaaban gives a call to Charlie Rose. They have people in Washington generally who do that,” Kenner added.
Rose has been trying to have an interview with Assad since 2011. In a leaked e-mail obtained by Al Arabiya, Rose wrote to Jaafari the daughter of Syria’s U.N. envoy, asking her to arrange for an interview with Assad.
“Any word on our interview with the president,” Rose asked Jaafari in an email dated on Jan. 19, 2012. “Can you give me an update.” A few hours later, Jaafari replied: “I don’t think he is willing to make an interview now.”
When Assad finally decided to grant CBS the interview, it seems it was on his own terms. First, Assad was selective with the timing, making sure the interview coincided with Obama’s media campaign for military action. “I think they felt they had to do an interview at this moment,” CBS News chairman Jeff Fager told The Hollywood Reporter.
Second, Assad made sure the interview would not be taken out of context like he said was his previous interview was with ABC’s Barbara Walters.
“Their biggest fear was that his words would be taken out of context. They felt that in their last American network interview experience they were taken out of context,” Fager added.
Assad and his wife Asma are seen as well experienced in employing public relations firms to reach prominent media outlets.
“These companies have shown again and again that they will work with anyone, no matter how blood-thirsty the dictator is, no matter how cruel. These companies are out solely for money: they’ll work for Qaddafi, they’ll work with Assad. It doesn’t really matter to them,” said Foreign Policy editor Kenner.
Assad’s family are not thrifty when it comes to spending on their image.
When Assad’s wife employed public relations firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ), it paid it $5,000 per month, according to a document published on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act website.
But the money was apparently worth it for Asma as BLJ managed to feature the Syrian first lady in Vogue magazine, calling her a “Rose in the Desert” and displaying her with charm.
Vogue removed the article when President Assad’s killing machine began to slaughter his people in 2011.
Vogue’s Paris editor Joan Juliet Buck who conducted the interview with Assad’s wife then left the magazine after 40 years of service.
But even then BLJ continued to work for Assad, sending a memo to his government in May 2011 offering to help the regime improve its image amid growing international indignation at its brutality.
In leaked emails published by The Guardian in May 2012, Mike Holtzman, a Brown Lloyd James partner, wrote to Jaafari, the daughter of Syria’s U.N. envoy expressing his wish to be in Syria and help Assad polish his image.
One year later, Holtzman attended a performance at the Dar al-Assad opera, sitting only one seat away from Assad’s wife Asma, according to a seating chart attached with an e-mail sent by Jaafari, Al Arabiya reported in an exclusive story in July 25, 2012.
Other emails revealed that Holtzman even instructed Jaafari to hide information that could tarnish the regime’s image from Buck, The Vogue’s editor who interviewed Assad’s wife.
“Remember that Joan has no impression at all of Syria,” Holtzman wrote to Jaafari in an email, as they were both arranging for the interview. He went on to instruct Jaafari “not mention anything controversial to her (Joan),” this included “lists Syria maybe on, rumor, et..What she (Joan) sees must 100 affirmative.”
BLJ denied in an email to Al Arabiya having had any role in arranging Vogue’s interview with Syria’s first lady. They said the magazine and Assad’s wife had already agreed on the interview before the PR firm was involved.
Meanwhile, Buck wrote on July 30, 2012 in an article on Newsweek that a PR company hired by Assad’s wife “pushed her” to conduct the interview.