Deluged with documents
For the second time since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, leaked e-mails are offering a glimpse inside the Syrian regime
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Demonstrators display a large Syrian opposition flag as they protest against Al-Assad at Binsh near Idlib
The WikiLeaks website announced on 5 July that it would begin publishing documents on Syria, including 2,434,899 e-mails that the website had hacked between August 2006 and March 2012, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.
The e-mails had been obtained from 680 Syrian sites, including the presidential palace and the ministries of foreign affairs, finance, media, transportation and culture. About 400,000 of the e-mails are in Arabic and 68,000 are in Russian, with the remainder being in other languages.
WikiLeaks said that the documents would reveal details of how the Syrian government operates. According to Julian Assange, the site's founder, the files are "embarrassing for both Syria and its opponents abroad," implying that they could reveal deception by European states that continue to deal with the Syrian regime despite the international sanctions.
Only a small portion of the documents have so far been published, but these have triggered condemnation on the domestic and international fronts. One of the first documents to be published revealed that the Italian defence company Finmeccanica had violated the sanctions against Syria by signing a 40 million euro contract to supply the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with Tetra communication devices after the outbreak of the crisis.
It had also sent Italian engineers to train Syrian technicians on how to use the equipment, which is used by the military to intercept signals and decode data. It is likely that Syrian intelligence uses the technology to monitor the Internet and to track down activists and members of the opposition, as well as to intercept their communications.
The leak apparently angered US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warned European companies against ignoring or circumventing the sanctions against Syria at the Friends of Syria meeting that convened one day after the leaks began.
The leaked e-mails also revealed that Al-Assad had been advised by PR firm Brown Lloyd James on how to handle the crisis at home, respond to the positions of the US administration regarding the Syrian regime, and counter perceptions in the US media about the Syrian uprising.
Al-Assad had apparently been counseled on Syria's political relations and foreign diplomacy, which the firm described as "unbalanced". He had been advised to strike a balance between using "soft force" against the protesters and introducing acceptable "reforms".
Al-Assad was told to make more public appearances and to involve his wife in the regime's response to the uprising. The PR company suggested that the media be monitored 24 hours a day for negative comments and a "response team" be established to counter them.
There should also be greater monitoring of social networks and increased daily statements and news conferences, Al-Assad was told.
Many Syrians were curious about the fact that the WikiLeaks documents revealed the existence of several women in Al-Assad's life, indicating that some 800 e-mails had been exchanged between Al-Assad and a woman in her mid-30s called Lamis Ismail Omar who worked at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
The website said that Al-Assad had paid her tuition to study abroad, had sent her gifts and had exchanged almost daily e-mails with her despite the death and destruction going on in Syria at the time. Omar is expected to graduate next September.
She is the third woman after Hadeel Al-Ali and Shehrazad Al-Jaafari that Syrians believe have been part of Al-Assad's intimate life, the e-mail exchanges revealing deep friendship with the president.
In the e-mails, Omar often writes that she loves him and signs her e-mails with lines of poetry or jokes and anecdotes, as if they were living in a bubble removed from the reality of Syrian affairs.
Some observers believe that over the next two months WikiLeaks will reveal details of the relationship between the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian counterparts, perhaps uncovering covert trade deals among them.
The leaks could also tie the Iran-backed Hizbullah group in Lebanon to the crackdown in Syria. They are likely to expose more countries and companies violating sanctions against the Syrian regime, uncovering deals indicating the corruption of senior Syrian officials.
WikiLeaks is not the first site to leak e-mails from the Syrian regime, since the British Guardian newspaper earlier uncovered some 3,000 private e-mails between Al-Assad and his wife that it had obtained from a Saudi Arabian computer hacker.
The newspaper tried to verify the information and argued that the e-mails were most likely authentic and not forged. The e-mails contained private family information, as well as documents and photos, and they revealed that Al-Assad had sent love songs to his wife when the city of Homs was under siege.
The e-mails showed that Al-Assad had heeded Iran's advice on how to deal with the uprising, and one senior Iranian official had suggested that Al-Assad should use "strong and aggressive language" with the protesters. Exchanges with a Lebanese businessman close to Hizbullah indicated that Al-Assad had been advised to stop accusing Al-Qaeda of being behind the protests as this could empower the opposition and the West in their hostility to the regime.
They also revealed that Al-Assad had been informed of the presence of two western journalists in the Baba Amro district of Homs last November when he ordered the "tightening of the security hold" on Homs. This resulted in the bombing of the city's media headquarters, leading to the killing of US journalist Marie Colvin and her French colleague Remi Ochlik.
The e-mails revealed that despite the spiralling crisis in Syria, the president and his wife were enjoying a luxurious lifestyle. The president's wife was apparently obsessed with shopping and making online purchases using a pseudonym, for example, and she had spent tens of thousands of dollars over months of bloodshed and instability buying jewellery and candles, while the Syrian people were short of basic foodstuffs.
As a result of the present batch of e-mails, including a large number of exchanges between Al-Assad and Al-Jaafari, who is the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the UN, and Al-Ali, a television anchor whose e-mails imply an intimate relationship, many Syrians are likely to feel that their country is being ruled by women.
The WikiLeaks documents do not only contain materials on the Syrian regime, since they also contain documents about the rulers of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia immediately before their countries' revolutions.
WikiLeaks had previously published documents revealing the abuse of power by ousted Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and his family, as well as about main players in the former Egyptian regime, among them the former intelligence chief and vice president, the former president's sons and various army leaders. There has also been material revealed on the funding of NGOs in Egypt and covert diplomatic relations.
WikiLeaks has exposed many aspects of the lives of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his children, as well as on how they spent their wealth.
Many Arab regimes are attracted by conspiracy theories, and they are likely to view the WikiLeaks revelations as part of a US-sponsored plot to overthrow them, claiming that they are incitements against the regimes and calls for revolution.
However, all the elements making for the Arab uprisings were already present even in the absence of the WikiLeaks revelations, including restrictions on freedoms, the absence of political parties, the control exercised by the intelligence agencies over civilian life, the absence of a free media, the tiny role played by civil society, and the rampant corruption of officials.
While the WikiLeaks documents are significant, no one was behind the Arab revolutions apart from the Arab peoples themselves.