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Branding the Dictatorship

Documents obtained by WikiLeaks and revealed by Owni indicate that a major US public relations firm, Brown Lloyd James, continued to offer the al-Assad family PR advice throughout the Syrian dictator's brutal repression of his own citizens.

by Jean Marc Manach On July 11, 2012

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À propos de l'auteur

A 5 ans, j'ai gagné un poste TV. A 15, je voulais faire du ciné. A 17, je lançais un fanzine, underground. A 20, une revue, expérimentale. A 25, un journal gratuit, sur les "arts de l'écran". A 28, je découvrais le Net.

Journaliste internet depuis 1999, j'enquête sur la montée en puissance de la société de surveillance, @OWNI, pour LeMonde.fr (Bug Brother), sur Facebook & Twitter.


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In March 2011, as the ground shifted beneath ruling regimes in countries experiencing an Arab Spring, Vogue magazine published a gushing portrait of Asma al-Assad, the Syrian dictator’s wife, modestly entitled “A Rose in the Desert“.

Illustrated with photographs by James Nachtwey and written by Joan Juliet Buck, a former editor-in-chief of French Vogue, the article has since been deleted from the Vogue website (it can, however, still be found via archive.org).

In the US, dozens of articles soon appeared denouncing the inappropriateness of such an article, which appeared just days before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, and the manner in which it sought to humanise a dictator by pointing out how beautiful and refined his wife was.

The article would likely never have been possible without the people skills of Mike Holtzman and his employer, the public relations firm Brown Lloyd James.

A former Director of Public Affairs to the US Council on Foreign Relations, Mike Holtzman has worked at the US State Department and the Executive Office of President Bill Clinton, and was appointed as “media liaison” at Ground Zero in September 2001. Holtzman became famous in the world of public relations for helping China win the 2008 Olympic Games, something which earned him the title of “PR Person of the Year” from PRWeek magazine, and a gig with Brown Lloyd James.

Created by Peter Brown, a one-time assistant to The Beatles, and Sir Nicholas Lloyd, a former journalist with the Daily Express, the public relations firm, which recently helped Qatar to secure the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has a client list that ranges from Russia Today to Disneyland Paris, the principality of Monaco and Al Jazeera, with a particular focus on Arab and Muslim countries.

In 2002, Mike Holztman wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that called for the privatisation of diplomacy, in order to improve relations between the US and the Middle East. In 2003 he wrote a second, criticising the use of American propaganda in Arab-Muslim countries.

In 2009, Brown Lloyd James also worked on behalf of Muammar Gaddafi, helping him to publish his own opinion piece in The New York Times, facilitating his memorable visit to the UN headquarters in New York (where he accused the Security Council of being a “Terror Council, because terrorism is not just al-Qaida“), and lobbying for a meeting between President George W. Bush and Gaddafi’s son.

Brown Lloyd James have always refused to answer questions from the press. But a memo from the US Department of Justice confirmed that the company had been contracted by Syria, to improve the brand image of Asma al-Assad abroad. The company maintained that its work for the Syrian government ended in December 2010, about the time when they had organised, according to the Guardian, the interview with Asma al-Assad.

In the same month of December 2010, the French magazine Paris Match also met the wife of the Syrian dictator, during an official visit of the al-Assad’s to Paris, and marked the occasion with a four-page interview entitled Two Lovers in Paris. Contacted by Owni, Régis Le Sommier, the Paris Match reporter who wrote the piece, indicated he had “never been in contact with Brown Lloyd James or Mike Holtzman“.

However, one of the 2,434,899 emails obtained by WikiLeaks as part of the Syria Files operation, marked “classified”, reveals the presence of Mike Holtzman in Paris with Asma al-Assad in December 2010.

Other emails and documents indicate that he had continued to advise the Syrian dictator until January 2012, while Assad’s repressive regime was causing hundreds or even thousands of deaths.

A Muslim “superhero”

Several emails, unearthed by the Syria Files operation and confirmed by an article in Foreign Policy, also show that Mike Holtzman, supposed to have stopped working for Syria since December 2010, went to the Opera Dar al-Assad in Damascus for a conference on February 9, 2011.

In the first email, Rachel Walsh, who works for Brown Lloyd James in Qatar, wrote to Sondos Sosi, head of press relations at the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs, that her “colleague Sheherazad Jaafari had advised her to send some documents regarding the conference on February 9“.

Sheherazad Jaafari is not just anybody: daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations and communications advisor to the al-Assad family, she completed an internship at Brown Lloyd James, and Mike Holtzman had been her “boss”. In a follow-up message sent to Sondos Sosi, she attached a table of reserved seats for the February conference. The front row is assigned to members of the Syrian government as well as foreign ambassadors, but also to Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s wife, next to whom is seated Mike Holtzman.

Hours later, Sondos Sosi sent by email the evening’s program to Luna Chebel, another al-Assad press relations consultant and a former Al Jazeera journalist. Mike Holtzman is presented as the “master of ceremonies for the evening”, responsible for introducing all the guests.

That evening, a month before the Syrian uprising would begin, Mike Holtzman presented “The Silver Scorpion“, a comic book that tells the story of a young Arab with both legs amputated after have stepped on a land mine, written by young disabled Americans and Syrians, and produced by the Open Hands Initiative NGO – on the advisory board of which sits Mike Holtzman – to open “a new diplomatic phase” between the United States and Arab-Muslim countries…

‘It’s not necessary to destroy the country’

The Syria Files reveal another, even more embarrassing document. On May 19, 2011, Mike Holtzman sent to Fares Kallas, close confidant of Assam al-Assad, a “memorandum” entitled “Crisis Communications Analysis“. In it he explains what needs to be done so that the image of Syria is not overly tainted by the brutal campaign of repression which had begun two months earlier.

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. 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…

The memorandum underlines that the position of the US might change depending, in particular, on media coverage, and deplores the “imbalance in its (Syria’s) communications approach since the beginning of the crisis“.

If hard power is necessary to quell rebellion, soft 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.

In early May, while Michael Holtzman was writing the memorandum, NGO’s estimated that several hundred people had already been killed by the army, and thousands more had been arrested. Holtzman confines himself to alerting the Syrian president to the risk of “restiveness and instability” if by chance the demonstrators were sent home out of fear rather than by “the conviction that their government is responsive to their concerns“.

Syria seems to be communicating with two hands. One is offering reform and the other, rule of law. Rule of law is a fist. Reform is an open hand. Right now the fist appears to the outside world, and probably to many Syrians, as though it is ten times bigger than the outstretched palm. They must be brought into better balance.

Brown Lloyd James suggests that the Syrian President communicate more often, while “the First Lady needs to get in the game…The key is to show strength and sympathy at once.”

The consulting firm also suggests launching an international press campaign explaining the difficulties faced by Bashar al-Assad in his commitment to reform, but also to improve his communication “in terms of security,” by publicly being seen to impose penalties on security forces who, disrespecting his direct orders, fired on unarmed civilians.

It would be a way of unequivocally showing that anyone who breaks the law–whether they be demonstrators or soldiers–will be held accountable.

To counter the bad publicity emanating from “Syrian opposition figures” living abroad, but also to counteract “the daily torrent of criticism and lies”, Brown Lloyd James also suggests implementing a 24 hour media monitoring unit “with assets in UK and US markets”. Furthermore:

Social media sites should be monitored and false sites should be challenged and removed.

In conclusion, Brown Lloyd James recommends appealing to the patriotism of Syrians in order to emphasise the fact that “there is no need to destroy the country to achieve goals that everyone shares: a free and prosperous country”. Holtzman focuses on two recommendations.

  • Acknowledge that the violence taking place is regrettable. But the leadership did not seek this. The leadership is obligated to protect Syria and to create the conditions of calm necessary for reform to take place.
  • Continue to express confidence in the future, and that the crisis is waning.

Mike Holtzman continues to refuse to answer journalists’ questions.


Pierre Leibovici contributed reporting.

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