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

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