With the death toll in Syria possibly approaching 10,000, diplomats and analysts around the world are more enmeshed than ever on President Bashar al-Assad’s state of mind. What is the Syrian strongman thinking behind closed doors, as his security forces continue to pummel demonstrators and Free Syrian Army rebels from city to city? Is he struggling personally with the decision to kill his people or is he willing to let his army continue to bombard cities to deter others from joining the opposition’s movement? And what, if anything, has Assad learned over the past year of bloodshed and turmoil in his country?
To date, most of these questions could not answered. The American intelligence community has been frank in telling the press that its reach inside Syria is not very good. The human spy networks that are prevalent elsewhere in the Middle East are nowhere to be found in Syria, where the government has been highly cognizant in keeping potential sources on the run, if not locked up in prison.
But in what appears to be an intelligence bombshell, some of the information that Arab and Western governments have long been trying to get a hold of are now open to the public, courtesy of a Syrian dissident group that managed to tap into and track the personal email files of the Syrian president and his inner circle.
The thousands of communications were handed over to The Guardian newspaper in London where some have been transcribed and posted for all to see.
It would be imprudent for other countries to base their foreign policy decisions on a small collection of emails. But this caution does not mask the fact that these communications do, in fact, help the world in evaluating the attitudes and spirits of Bashar al-Assad, his family and his inner circle.
Those evaluations, in turn, can help policymakers craft a more effective package of sanctions, diplomatic pressure, anti-Assad media blitzes and, if need be, international military intervention.
Those who have long predicted that the Assad regime is on its last legs will be disappointed to learn that the emails paint a picture of a leader that is far away from the violence and more determined than ever to continue his internal crackdown.
Moreover, it seems that Assad is getting a considerable amount of assistance from loyal men and women inside and outside of his government.
Among the noteworthy facts that can be derived from the emails is that a daughter of Qatar’s emir has been trying desperately to convince Assad’s wife to leave the country for the sake of her family and her personal safety. She writes, “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 brutually [sic] attacked.”
In January, the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes that in order “to stop the killing” in Syria, “some troops should go.” His country supported the NATO intervention in Libya last year.
A powerful Lebanese businessman urged the Syrian government to tamper down its rhetoric on Al Qaeda. The tycoon, Hosein Mortada, argued that the Assad regime would be far better off blaming the United States and the internal opposition for two suicide attacks that rocked Damascus last year. The terrorist group has come out in support of the Syrian opposition as has the Palestinian militant organization Hamas.
Syrian media advisors meanwhile appear hard at work trying to help Assad project a sense of patriotism, realism and populism in his speeches.
In what is by far the longest email in the collection, an advisor to the president’s highlights the importance of showing gratitude for the sacrifices of the Syrian army and police. He warns that if Assad neglects to celebrate their work, he could drive a wedge between the government and the families of those whose loved ones have died for the regime.
Referring to a BBC interview with a defected Syrian diplomat, another Assad advisor favored a stern response from the government in order to discourage other foreign service officers from abandoning the president.
The email suggests that when the defector’s identity is discovered, he must be discredited or punished for his act. The Syrian government’s policy in responding quickly and harshly to defectors may explain why there have been so few civilians leaving the regime — they fear for their own lives and the lives of their families.