For some journalists, Syria has been one of the least hospitable countries in the Middle East, a place where reporters — if they can get in — are routinely harassed and threatened as they try to uncover the repression that has propped up the al-Assad government for decades.
For other journalists, it has until recently been a country led by the cultivated, English-speaking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who, along with his beautiful British-born wife, Asma, was helping usher in a new era of openness and prosperity.
That second impression is no accident. With the help of high-priced public relations advisers who had worked in the Clinton, Bush and Thatcher administrations, the Syrian president and his family have sought over the past five years to portray themselves in the Western media as accessible, progressive and even glamorous.
Magazines like Paris Match and the French edition of Elle, and online outlets like The Huffington Post have published complimentary features about the family, often focusing on fashion and celebrity. In March last year, just as al-Assad and his security forces initiated a brutal crackdown on political opponents that has led to the death of an estimated 10,000 Syrians, Vogue magazine ran a flattering profile of the Syrian first lady, describing her as walking “a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles,” a reference to her Christian Louboutin heels.
Fawning treatment of world leaders — particularly attractive Western-educated ones — is nothing new. However, the al-Assads have been especially determined to burnish their image and hired experts to do so. The family paid the Washington-based public relations firm Brown Lloyd James US$5,000 a month to act as a liaison between Vogue and the first lady, according to the firm.
This web of politics and public relations ensnared Barbara Walters recently. After she conducted an aggressive interview with al-Assad on ABC News in December last year, she offered to provide recommendations for Sheherazad Jaafari, the president’s press aide and the daughter of the Syrian ambassador in Washington, who was applying for a job at CNN and admission to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Walters issued a statement on Tuesday last week expressing regret for her actions, which she called “a conflict.”
Jaafari, 22, who has been accepted by Columbia, had worked as an intern at Brown Lloyd James. Last year, she expressed her feelings about the al-Assad family in an e-mail to Mike Holtzman, a partner at the firm who, according to his online profile, advised former US president Bill Clinton’s administration on trade issues and worked in the US State Department during former US president George Bush’s administration.
“I have always told you — this man is loved by his people,” Jaafari wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained by the UK newspaper The Guardian.
Holtzman replied: “I’m proud of you. Wish I were there to help.”
Holtzman did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
The al-Assads were in many ways ripe for celebrity treatment by the news media. The Syrian president, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, received part of his education in the UK, where he met his wife, a Briton of Syrian descent who grew up in London and worked as an investment banker in New York.