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Leaked emails show Westerners truckling to the Syrian regime.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By LEE SMITH
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In the fall of 2007 Israel reportedly hacked into Syria’s air defense systems and disabled them, as a prelude to bombing a nuclear facility in the Syrian desert. This vaunted cyber exploit, it turns out, might not merit its spectacular reputation. Last week, the shadowy online activist group known as Anonymous penetrated 78 email accounts from Syria’s ministry of presidential affairs and posted their contents online. The hackers found that many of the accounts, including that of the allegedly computer-savvy Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, used one of the world’s weakest passwords: 12345. So much for Syrian cybersecurity.

Photos of Assad

The hacked emails are a downscale version of the WikiLeaks cables. There is little diplomatic sophistication. In the fashion of third-world Arab nationalist bureaucracies, everyone addresses everyone else as Your Excellency. One Excellency kept a stash of porn in his email account, another Excellency seems to have sexually harassed an attractive Her Excellency. Not surprisingly, many of the Excellencies are fixated on Israel, and any story or​—​more often​—​image that reinforces their negative feelings is cc’d to a long list of similarly obsessed Excellencies. 

The Mossad was responsible for 9/11, writes Fawaz Akhras, the father of Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, and a London physician. He emails a presidential adviser to say that he has heard his suspicions verified on BBC. The unlucky recipient has to humor him; yes, old man, for the better part of a decade Syria has been telling anyone who would listen that it was the Jews.

There are also few surprises regarding the workings of the presidential palace in Damascus. The place is run by petty bureaucrats whose power rests entirely on the willingness of others to commit acts of terrorism​—against ​either Syria’s neighbors or their fellow Syrians​—​on their behalf. When the Assad regime at last finds its back against the wall, these are not the sort of figures who will be fighting it out to the end. Rather, they will seek refuge among the many foreign friends they’ve made over the years​—the journalists, businessmen, and politicians who solicited their assistance in arranging an audience with President Assad. 

For what is most interesting about these emails is the picture they paint of a sick and grasping Western elite, the top echelon of an open society, that came on bended knee to curry favor with a dictatorship. Journalists from the three major U.S. networks vied for exclusive interviews with Bashar, even as the slaughter of unarmed Syrian civilians was under way. Other emails, requests, and meetings preceded the uprising that has cost more than 7,000 Syrians their lives. But even then Assad’s reputation was well known. He probably ordered the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. He turned Damascus International Airport into a hub for foreign fighters seeking passage into Iraq to kill U.S. troops. This was the world leader that American political figures wanted to cozy up to.

The emails show that former Fannie Mae CEO and Obama bundler James A. Johnson and his wife Maxine Isaacs dined out with Assad’s advisers. And former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Clinton White House official Martin Indyk tried to broker a meeting between his old boss and Assad.

The regime’s gatekeeper is Bouthaina Shaaban, a 58-year-old media adviser to Assad. Anyone from Western media or political circles who wants to call on the dictator comes through her. With a Ph.D. in English literature from Warwick University (she’s published on Shelley), she started her political career as Hafez al-Assad’s translator. In August 2011, the former Fulbright scholar, who spent her research year at Duke, was sanctioned by the Treasury Department as one of the “senior Assad regime officials who are principal defenders of the regime’s activities.”

Shaaban’s email cache shows her fine-tuned sense of status. When she’s invited to speak at a panel in Ankara, her assistant requests two seats for her since the flight offers neither first-class nor business. When she finds out she’s not scheduled to deliver the keynote address, she directs her assistant to cancel her appearance. Former CBS anchor Dan Rather requests an interview with Assad in October 2010 for his new HDNet show, but Shaaban tells the Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha to decline. “You mentioned in your letter that the HDNet station has a limited number of audience and therefore we kindly ask you to apologize.”

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