A New York-based public relations firm tried to help the Syrian government “brand” its reforms last year as media reported its crackdown on protesters, according to an email released Friday by WikiLeaks.
The firm, Brown Lloyd James, had earlier helped arrange a rosy profile of Syrian first lady Asma Assad in Vogue magazine that praised her as “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” It had been paid $5,000 a month for that work, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act document.
Months later, in a memo last May to one of her aides, the firm advised Syria that it needed to buff up its image abroad as decidedly unflattering stories of mass arrests and alleged killings spread in the press.
“Mass arrests of activists, protesters and in some cases males older than 15 have skyrocketed, with thousands held in detention centers where human rights activists say they have been subjected to physical and mental abuse,” the Los Angeles Times reported eight days before the firm sent its memo. A later article said dissidents claimed a mass grave filled with slain protesters had been found in the south.
The public relations firm said Syria suffered from “an imbalance in its communications approach” that had failed to reassure the Syrian people and outsiders that it was genuinely pursuing reform.
“Syria seems to be communicating with two hands. One is offering reform and the other, rule of law. Rule of law is a fist. Reform is an open hand. Right now the fist appears to the outside world, and probably to many Syrians, as though it is ten times bigger than the outstretched palm,” the firm wrote in its email, which WikiLeaks dated to May 19, 2011. “They must be brought into better balance.”
Bringing Asma Assad into the limelight could help, the firm wrote, possibly by launching a listening tour with her and her husband. It also recommended polling Syrians on their reform ideas and creating a reform “echo chamber” by seeding stories in foreign media about “the President’s difficult task of wanting reform, but conducted in a non-chaotic, rational way” through interviews and op-eds.
Brown Lloyd James partner Mike Holtzman told Foreign Policy magazine that the firm wasn’t paid for writing the memo and depicted it as an effort to get the Syrian government to truly engage in reform, created at a time when many still had hope that Syria could embrace peaceful change.
"Unfortunately, our advice was ignored and our professional involvement in the country ended, just prior to new U.S. sanctions being put into effect," Holtzman was quoted by Foreign Policy.
The memo is part of a stash of millions of Syrian government emails slowly being unveiled by WikiLeaks, the controversial website that has angered world powers by airing out U.S. State Department cables, files on the Guantanamo Bay prison and other secret documents. The messages, dubbed the “Syria Files,” will embarrass both Syria and its opponents, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said this week.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma Assad in a file photo from July 2010. Credit: Hassene Dridi / Associated Press