Friendship soured: how Assads "laughed" at ally

Fri Mar 16, 2012 6:57pm EDT

(Editors note: Please be advised that paragraph 15 contains language that may be offensive to some readers)

* Sarcasm after solicitous emails from Qatari "friend"

* As isolation grows, aides, family share links to "good news"

* Circle of female advisers showers Assad with compliments

By Alastair Macdonald

LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - Syrian estrangement from fellow Arab leaders is a deeply personal affair, as apparently hacked emails between President Bashar al-Assad and his wife illustrate.

Few relationships have turned as sour as between Damascus and the Gulf state of Qatar, whose fabulously wealthy emir was once among Assad's closest friends and investors but now leads a push to oust him, by force if necessary, after a year of revolt.

A three-word email from Asma al-Assad to her husband on Dec. 11, forwarding a solicitous message from a daughter of the emir - part of a trove of hacked correspondence obtained by Britain's Guardian newspaper and seen by Reuters on Friday - betrays the couple's bitter mood toward Qatar: "For a laugh...," Asma wrote above the email, which gave assurances of the emir's friendship.

Her sarcasm strikes a jarring note amid a string of personal messages between the Syrian first lady and the Qatari princess, Mayassa al-Thani, in which they exchange warm greetings and news of their young children - messages which, however, are unlikely to have been sent from Qatar without the emirate's rulers being well aware of their value as a "back-channel" for diplomacy.

A recurring theme of Thani's correspondence - among some 3,000 emails between the Assads' inner circle whose authenticity the Guardian has established - is urging her Syrian friend to flee the country with her husband; "Please get the kids out before it's too late," she wrote in August. On Jan. 30, Thani assured Assad of a welcome in the Qatari capital Doha.

Such an outcome to the conflict, which has cost 8,000 lives and raised tensions between Assad's Shi'ite Iranian allies and the Sunni Muslim Gulf states, would suit Qatar. The emir, who sent troops and arms to Libya's rebels last year, has pressed for military intervention to end the bloodshed in Syria.

FRIENDS

In the email exchange in December, at a time when Qatar was pushing the Arab League to punish Syria, Asma al-Assad referred to Qatar not "playing its cards right". A few hours later, the emir's daughter replied: "Your last remark is unfair. My father regards President Bashar as a friend, despite the current tensions - he always gives him genuine advice."

It was that email, which urged the Assads to "come out of the state of denial" and apologised for "harsh" honesty, that Asma forwarded to Bashar suggesting he would find it amusing.

But three days later she replied: "My dear Mayassa, I don't have a problem with frankness or honesty, in fact to me it's like oxygen - I need it to survive ... Take care, aaa."

Talk of personal ties also clouds relations with Turkey, another regional player which once took a lead in trying to draw Assad out of an earlier isolation. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan once invited the Assads to a holiday resort in Turkey.

But, asked by Thani if she could pass her email address to Erdogan's wife, Asma al-Assad replied in personal terms: "I use this account only for family and friends. It would be difficult for me at this stage to consider her in either category after the insults they have directed towards the president."

JOKES

If there is a sense of scorn for friends who have fallen out, the email cache, running for about nine months until early February, when the Assads realised they had been compromised, offers a picture of warm, light-hearted, at times flirtatious, relationships between the couple and a small group of aides.

While Asma, 36, orders luxury goods from abroad - her main buyer appears to have her stored in his email address book as "Party party" - Bashar, 46, indulges eclectic musical tastes on iTunes via a sanction-busting address on New York's Fifth Avenue. They range from country laments to New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" and LMFAO's party-rock hit "Sexy And I Know It".

Emails to his wife, sometimes tenderly personal, also reveal a disdain for "rubbish" political reforms he has offered.

One four-letter joke from American comedienne Bette Midler, which he forwards to his wife marked "rude but so true!!!!!", plays on the words "elections" and "erections" to suggest that both are potentially harmful - "either way we're fucked".

Bracketing the problems of running Syria with those of the White House, Bashar - sam@alshahba.com - sent his wife - ak@alshabha.com - a link to a story about the U.S. first lady's troubles with the media, headlined "Michelle Obama Can't Win".

GOOD NEWS

Advisers used the email accounts to share links to those few news items that offer some respite from negative commentary.

In one, Asma al-Assad's father, London cardiologist Fawaz Akhras, sends the president a news item noting that French far-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen has spoken up in his defence.

On Jan. 11, one of two U.S.-educated media advisers who write often, Sheherazad Jaafari, sends "Amazing News!!!!", with a link to online comments from Americans complaining of anti-Assad bias in U.S. media after Assad was interviewed by Barbara Walters of ABC. The president forwarded that one to his wife.

The other, Hadeel Al Ali, used a gushing tone in English common to both women advisers in complimenting Assad on that interview, including his choice of suit. She and her friends had concluded: "WE LOVE HIM SOOOOOOO MUCH!!! WE'RE SO PROUD OF HIM AND HIS STRENGTH, WISDOM CHARISMA". The same adviser forwarded Assad a photograph of himself, younger, unshaven and in his eye doctor's white coat saying: "so cute, i miss youuuuuu".

Among the endearments and shared Internet pictures - Asma sent her husband a photo of bumper sticker reading "Be nice to America - Or we'll bring democracy to your country" - there are dark shadows of the conflict raging beyond the palace walls.

A relative of the first lady asks in late December if she can help the family of a Damascus student who has been arrested, and Al Ali, forwarding "rude" comments about him from a Facebook page, suggests some of those who wrote could be tracked down.

In January, Asma's father, who also offered advice on countering negative publicity, forwards Assad a request from a Syrian American doctor for help getting medical supplies to Homs, where rebels and civilians were under siege by the army.

Just before the email record goes cold there is jubilation in the tone, reacting to developments at the United Nations, where, for all the agitation from the likes of Qatar, Turkey and the Western powers, Russia and China have ensured that the Assads' grip on Syria is safe from immediate outside challenge.

Less than an hour after Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 that called for Assad to step aside, Jaafari wrote to the president in typical emailese:

"Two vetoooooosssss congratulations to Syria! ur the best!" (Editing by Louise Ireland)