Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 12, 2020

How both American and French imperialism supported Assad in 2011

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 9:20 pm

(In chapter 12 of Sam Dagher’s “Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria”, there’s a telling discussion of how both the USA and France were anxious to keep Assad in power. This was before the killing machine became too obvious to prettify. Part of the PR campaign for the dictator included a puff piece in Vogue magazine. In addition to that, there’s the eye-opening mention of how Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, former head of Doctors without Borders, and a symbol of imperialist regime change, was on board with keeping ties to the dictatorship. If you read the bullshit from Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Tariq Ali, Julian Assange, et al, you’d get the impression that there were plans to topple Assad militarily and that the burgeoning protests were a cat’s paw to accomplish that end. Dagher is a brilliant reporter and I once again urge getting his book for the all-round best chronicle of the disaster in Syria.)

By then, Asma’s [Mrs. Bashar al-Assad] touch was everywhere, both at home and in shaping Syria’s image abroad. She completely remodeled the Assad family residence in Malki where Bashar and his siblings grew up, did the same for an old presidential mansion, and fixed up the Assads’ summer home in Latakia with the help of a famous British landscape architect.? She spent a few million US dollars on abstract sculptures. In March 2011, as protests were kicking off and turning violent, Vogue magazine had a whole spread on her titled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert.” The main photo was of her wrapped in a red-wine-colored pashmina and standing on top of Mount Qasioun at twilight, with Damascus visible below. Joan Juliet Buck, the writer who flew in for the piece right after Asma’s return from Paris, spent time with her and Bashar and the children at home playing and eating fondue and later singing carols at the annual Christmas concert of the children’s choir they supported.


Photo from Vogue Magazine article on Mrs. Assad that can be read here

“This is how you fight extremism—through art,” Bashar told Buck during the concert. “This is the diversity you want to see in the Middle East.”

The article depicted them as the modern and tolerant Middle East power couple who nurtured and protected minorities like Christians. Bashar also made sure that he repeated to Buck what he often told foreigners: he had studied eye surgery because “it’s very precise… and there is very little blood.”

The article was the idea of one of Asma’s aides at the Trust, a friend from her London days. He approached the New York public relations firm Brown Lloyd James, which already represented several high-profile clients in the Middle East. The firm’s principal, Peter Brown, was friends with Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

Two months after the article came out and as the regime’s crackdown became bloodier, Brown’s firm sent another Asma aide a memorandum with advice on “crisis communications.”

The firm claimed that the US government “wants the leadership in Syria to survive,” despite the strongly worded condemnation of the violence by President Obama in April and the executive order he signed at the end of that month imposing sanctions on Bashar’s brother, Maher, his cousin Atef Najib, and mukhabarat chief Ali Mamlouk. It said that these were warning shots to prod Bashar to stop killing protesters and implement credible reforms. But the firm said the window was closing fast, as US media coverage was intensifying and officials like Senator John Kerry were beginning to reassess their positions.

Brown Lloyd James recommended drastic changes in the way the regime was articulating its reform agenda. The reform program needed “a face or brand,” Bashar must communicate more often with more “finely tuned messaging,” Asma must “get in the game” and do “listening tours,” and a reform “echo chamber” must be developed, especially in foreign media, focusing on Bashar’s desire to conduct reform in “a non-chaotic and rational way.”

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,” concluded the firm.

The PR firm was very close to the mark in its portrayal of the prevailing thinking and mood among officials in Western capitals, at least in the first few weeks of protests in Syria.

France’s ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, was one of these officials. Syria was Chevallier’s first posting, in 2009; he was a medical doctor by training and had until then worked mostly in international humanitarian assistance with the French government, as well as various NGOs and UN agencies. He accepted the Syria mission at the urging of his longtime mentor and current boss, foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, also a physician turned politician. The forty-nine-year-old Chevallier combined French charm and boyish good looks with a businesslike, practical approach to diplomacy.

To veteran French diplomats with long experience in the Middle East, Chevallier was the new kid on the block. From their perspective, he was impressionable and too eager to cozy up to Bashar and members of his inner circle, including the Tlasses.

Chevallier was interviewed for Vogue’s March 2011 piece on Asma. “I hope they’ll make the right choices for the country and the region,” he told the writer about Bashar and Asma in December 2010.

While Chevallier appeared to his detractors like an enthusiastic promoter of the Assad couple, he believed he was simply advancing his country’s policies in Syria. France was among the first in the West to bet on rehabilitating the Syrian regime and Bashar, with strong encouragement from Qatar’s superrich ruling family. The Americans, the British, and others started to reengage with Bashar after France had already made overtures, sending Sarkozy to visit Damascus in 2008 and frequently hosting Bashar and Asma in Paris. Some thought that the French had moved too fast, but France believed it had a national-interest stake in trying to steer Bashar in the right direction.

“There were two ways for them to lead the country: stick to his father’s regional alliances and family policies, or try to move forward toward a more open society, stable foreign policy, and being part of the solution in the region instead of being the problem,” argued Chevallier.16 The day after the fall of French ally Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Chevallier sent a cable to Paris from Damascus.

“Could we have a rose revolution in Damascus?” he wrote in the subject line, alluding to the damask rose. Chevallier reported that many Syrians were transfixed by what was happening in Tunisia, but it was too early to predict whether the country was going down a similar path

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