The Cable

Wikileaked: Lobbying firm tried to help Syrian regime polish image as violence raged

The lobbying firm that brought you a Vogue story featuring the Syrian first lady was still trying to help the Syrian regime improve its image abroad two months after the notoriously ill-timed article was published and then scrubbed, as the country descended into violence, according to a document revealed by Wikileaks.

The international firm Brown Lloyd James (BLJ) was officially employed by the Office of the First Lady of the Syrian Arab Republic Asma al-Assad in Nov. 2010 for $5,000 per month to help arrange and execute the article, which appeared in the March 2011 edition of Vogue. The fawning piece, entitled, "Rose of the Desert," was actually scrubbed from the Vogue website out of embarrassment when Assad began a brutal crackdown on non-violent protests that month. But you can still read it here.

BLJ's contract with the Assad regime, signed by BLJ partner Mike Holtzman and Syrian government official Fares Kallas, expired in March of last year, according to documents posted on the Foreign Agents Registration Act website. The firm had claimed its work on behalf of the Assads ended in Dec. 2010.

But in May 2011, BLJ sent another memo to Kallas and the Syrian government, giving them advice on how to improve their image and institute a more effective public relations strategy amid the exploding violence in Syria. The memo was published by the Wikileaks website in their dump of 2.4 million Syrian documents this week.

"It is clear from US government pronouncements since the beginning of the public demonstrations in Syria that the Obama Administration wants the leadership in Syria to survive," begins the May 19, 2011, memo. "Unlike its response to demonstrations in some other countries in the region, there have been no US demands for regime change in Syria nor any calls for military intervention, criticism has been relatively muted and punitive sanctions -- by not being aimed directly at President Assad -- have been intended more as a caution than as an instrument to hurt the leadership."

The memo was sent only days after Syrian military forces stormed the town of Baniyas and moved into the cities of Hama and Homs, where civilian massacres soon followed. Three days before the memo was sent, 20 bodies of murdered civilians were discovered in a shallow grave in the city of Daraa.  President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down that August. 

The memo goes on to warn the Assad regime that the mood in Washington is turning against the regime, as evidenced by tougher statements coming from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and increasingly critical stories in the U.S. media. BLJ warns the Assads that if they don't get smart about public relations quick, the U.S. system might just turn against them.

"[Increasing bad PR] not only reinforces the Administration's change of tone, it is emboldening critics -- who maintain that Syria's reform efforts are not sincere--and building up pressure on the US government to take further, more drastic steps against the country," the memo states.

BLJ then goes into an extensive set of recommendations for how the Assad regime can put a better spin on the largely government-led violence.

"[S]oft power is needed to reassure the Syrian people and outside audiences that reform is proceeding apace, legitimate grievances are being addressed and taken seriously, and that Syria's actions are ultimately aimed at creating an environment in which change and progress can take place," BLJ explains.

The Assad regime should appoint one figure to "own" the reform agenda to convince Syrians and the outside world the reform effort is "sincere," BLJ advised.

"Refocusing the perception of outsiders and Syrians on reform will provide political cover to the generally sympathetic US Government, and will delegitimize critics at home and abroad," the memo reads.

BLJ even recommends that First Lady Asma al-Assad should "get in the game," do a "listening tour" with the president, and start doing press interviews to create an "echo chamber" in the media that reinforces the idea that Assad is reform-minded.

"The absence of a public figure as popular, capable, and attuned to the hopes of the people as Her Excellency at such a critical moment is conspicuous. The key is to show strength and sympathy at once," BLJ writes.

BLJ also recommends that the Assad regime get more serious about containing negative media stories and the voices of the Syrian opposition around the world, which the memo calls "the daily torrent of criticism and lies." BJR told the Assads they should institute 24-hour media monitoring in the United States and challenge and then remove any websites that are "false."

Overall, the memo recommends that the Assad regime get smart on messaging and start trying to convince the world that the Syrian government is benevolent, that all killings by the military were not officially sanctioned, and that the crisis is not as bad as the international community believes.

"Efforts should be made to convey ‘normalcy' and a contrast to current news depicting Syria as being on the verge of chaos," the memo reads.

Contacted for comment by The Cable Friday, Holtzman said that their official work with the Syrian government came at a time when many, including the U.S. government, had high hopes for progress in opening up Syria. He also said that the May 2012 memo was a "last-ditch" effort "to encourage a peaceful outcome rather than violence."

Holtzman said that BLJ was not paid for writing the memo and that the firm hasn't done any work for the regime since. He framed the memo as an attempt to get the Assad regime to behave better.

"We noted that if the regime was serious about dramatic reform that ‘reform-oriented outreach must be dramatically improved', and recommended that Syria begin to directly ‘engage families and young people' in these reforms," Holtzman said. "Unfortunately, our advice was ignored and our professional involvement in the country ended, just prior to new U.S. sanctions being put into effect."

David Kenner contributed reporting to this article.

James Nachtwey

The Cable

Will Congress scuttle the new U.S.-Pakistan deal?

The Obama administration is planning to release more than $1 billion of held-up funds to the Pakistani government this month, following Pakistan's opening of the supply lines to Afghanistan. But Congress can thwart that plan and at least one senator is going to try.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby confirmed to The Cable on Friday that the Pentagon is planning to give Pakistan $1.1 billion in Coalition Support Funds (CSF), reimbursement money that Pakistan has already spent in the joint effort to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. The U.S. government has been holding up the money over the past six months while the supply lines were closed. Pakistan closed those supply lines after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border in November, but opened them up again this week after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally, publically, said "we're sorry" for the mistakes that led to those killings.

Clinton didn't mention the funds when she announced the deal to re-open the supply lines. Kirby didn't say the money was a quid pro quo deal in exchange for opening up the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC), as other officials and experts allege, but he did acknowledge that the two issues are linked.

"Now that the GLOCs are open, we intend to submit the approximately $1.1 billion in approved receipts under the Coalition Support Fund for costs associated with past Pakistani counter-terrorism operations," Kirby told The Cable. "Now that the GLOCs are open, we are prepared to move forward with these claims."

Kirby said that congressional leadership was kept in the loop during the discussions with Pakistan about re-opening the supply lines. "We look forward to working closely with Congress to process these claims," he said.

Multiple Senate offices told The Cable that the notification for releasing the $1.1 billion to the Pakistan military has not yet reached Capitol Hill but is expected in the coming days. After Congress receives the notification, lawmakers have 15 days to object to the release or the funds will go through.

Congressional anger at Pakistan is at an all-time high, and not just because of the closing of the supply lines, which have cost U.S. taxpayers about $100 million extra per month, according to Kirby. Lawmakers are upset that the Pakistani military can't or won't eliminate the safe havens in Pakistan where insurgents live and from where they launch cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers are also upset that the Pakistani courts have condemned Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help positively identify Osama bin Laden. Afridi was sentenced last month to 33 years in jail for treason. Last week, before the deal over the supply lines was announced, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable he would force a vote on an amendment to halt all aid to Pakistan this month, due to the Afridi case.

"My goal is that the guy who helped us get bin Laden will not be in prison for the rest of his life," Paul said in an interview.

Afridi has an appeals hearing on July 19, so Paul is planning to wait and see if the Pakistani courts reverse themselves before he uses a rare procedural move to force a vote to cut off all aid to Pakistan.

"I've decided to try to have the vote on July 20 to give them one more chance to review his case," Paul said.

Senate leadership is dead set against letting Paul have a vote on his amendment, out of concern that senators won't want to publically stand up in defense of sending more American taxpayer money to our greatest frenemy. But Paul said he plans to use Senate Rule 14 to force a vote and his office has collected 33 signatures from other senators on a petition to push for that vote. It's not clear if this legislative tactic will work, but Paul is confident.

"I can go around the leadership on that. I don't think they can stop me from having a vote. There will be a vote on Pakistan," Paul said. "It doesn't happen very often, but I have the signatures and I can get a vote."

Paul met with the State Department and Pakistani Ambassador Sherry Rehman last week. After the GLOC deal was struck this week, The Cable asked Paul spokeswoman Moira Bagley if the Kentucky senator would also try to stop the release of the CSF money. She said he would.

"Sen. Paul is dedicated to seeing Dr. Afridi -- an integral figure in finding Osama bin Laden -- released from prison in Pakistan. He is prepared to use all legislative tools possible to obtain this goal, including blocking U.S. taxpayer-funded aid to the government of Pakistan until they cooperate with this request," she said. "Should the opportunity to block these ... funds come before the Senate, Sen. Paul will urge his colleagues to do so."

The funding is technically under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, but the leaders of those committees were out of town this week and their offices declined to comment on the CSF funding because they have not yet received the notification.

"Secretary Clinton did a great job negotiating the re-opening of supply routes from #Pakistan to #Afghanistan," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) tweeted on July 4, but it's not clear if he will support the release of the $1.1 billion CSF. McCain is currently traveling in Afghanistan and the Middle East, he could not be reached for comment.

If Congress does let the funds go through, that could be a key confidence-building measure between the two countries, which are trying to dig themselves out of the worst period in the bilateral relationship in over a decade.

If Congress halts the funds, the very short uptick in relations will be scuttled and the two nations will return to their all-too-familiar pattern of retaliation and recriminations. But there's little chance that Pakistan will close the supply lines, now that they are open again.

"Several trucks have gone through, and they will continue," Kirby told Pentagon reporters at a Thursday briefing. "I mean, this will continue now that the gates are open."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images