* Hacked e-mail cache contains woman's near-nude photo
* British newspaper cites picture to question Assad marriage
* E-mails also show personal bitterness at former allies
By Alastair Macdonald
LONDON, March 17 A provocative photograph
of a near-naked young woman appears among e-mails apparently
sent to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hacked by
opposition activists who shared them with Western media.
On Saturday, London's Daily Telegraph published an edited
version of the photograph, which has been seen by Reuters among
the original e-mails. It speculated on the state of his 11-year
marriage to British-born Asma al-Assad, who has stood by her
husband during a year of protests that come close to civil war.
The cache of some 3,000 e-mails dated for about nine months
until early February has not been repudiated by the Assads or
the small circle of aides and contacts who sent them since
details were first published by Britain's Guardian on Thursday.
There is no way to be certain, however, that all the content
is genuine, nor to be sure that Assad's enemies, at home and
abroad, are not seeking to use material to their advantage.
E-mails seen by Reuters indicate a generally affectionate
and light-hearted tone between Syria's first couple and among
the mostly English-speaking advisers sending messages to these
private e-mail accounts. Some comments sent by female aides to
the president gush with admiration: "miss uuu" writes one.
"So cute," says another young woman when sending the
46-year-old Assad a photograph showing him in his younger days.
However, with the exception of the nude photograph sent on
Dec. 11 last year, there is little that seems overtly sexual in
the content. The e-mail containing the photograph is entitled
"Fw: file" and carries no text, nor is there any sign in those
mails Reuters has seen of a response to it by Assad.
The woman in the picture stands, back to the camera, face in
profile, wearing only skimpy underwear, with her arms raised and
hands against the wall of a room. Dark hair piled high, she
appears to be in her 20s and bears a similarity to a woman from
whose account the message was apparently sent. Data embedded in
the photo file indicate the shot was taken five years ago.
On the day it was e-mailed to the head of state, his army
was attacking towns that had become strongholds for rebel troops
in some of the heaviest fighting that had then been seen.
It is not the only picture passed around though. Another
woman apparently sent the president a computer-graphic image of
a comic camel in thigh boots and bondage gear and, on another
day, an obese giraffe captioned: "Just got back from America".
The e-mail cache also gives a picture of the Assads' inner
circle sharing news of international reaction - especially
anything that bucked the trend of generally negative comment
abroad - offering advice to counter bad publicity and alerting
Assad to the presence of foreign journalists in rebel areas.
The president himself, notably in warm messages to his
36-year-old wife, disparages reforms he has himself put forward
to appease protesters - "rubbish", he calls them. He also shares
a crude pun playing on the words "elections" and "erections",
while making an eclectic series of music purchases on iTunes.
They range from country laments to New Order's "Bizarre Love
Triangle" and LMFAO's party-rock hit "Sexy And I Know It".
Asma al-Assad, whose e-mail account appears to show a
passion for luxury shopping in London, Paris and other cities as
Syria's economy has collapsed under violence and trade
sanctions, also seems to offer her husband support while clearly
aware of the dangers after four decades of Assad family rule.
"If we are strong together, we will overcome this
together...I love you..." she seems to have written on Dec. 28.
Another e-mail from wife to husband earlier that month also
illustrates how Syria's estrangement from fellow Arab and
regional leaders has been a deeply personal affair for them.
A three-word email from Asma al-Assad to her husband on Dec.
11, forwarding a solicitous message from a daughter of the emir
of Qatar betrays their bitter mood toward a Gulf state that was
once a key ally and investor: "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 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 Muslim 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.
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."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)