How do emails from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's personal inbox escape the narrow confines for which they were intended, and eventually get exposed to the light of day? It's a story that was born in the presidential palace in Damascus, bounced southeast to Al Arabiya's bureau in Dubai's sleek Media City, traveled the 3,400 miles west to the Guardian's offices in London -- and even made a brief stopover in Foreign Policy's Washington office.
From late May 2011 until Feb. 7, Syrian activists had been monitoring the personal emails of Assad, his wife Asma, and a small clique of advisors in real time. According to the activists, they quietly used that information to warn their friends of upcoming actions by the Syrian regime against them. But on Feb. 5, the hacker group Anonymous hacked into the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs and released into the public sphere the names and passwords of the accounts that the activists had been watching.
FP reported on the release of two emails uncovered by Anonymous. One of FP's blog posts was reprinted in Arabic by the opposition news source All4Syria, a website run by Syrian dissident Ayman Abdel Nour, a former friend of Assad from their days in university. According to one of the Syrian activists involved in monitoring the leak, a reader sent an angry message to the president's email address soon after the All4Syria story was released -- and the addresses that the activists had been monitoring for months went dead soon after. At that point, they decided to seek out media outlets to publish the more than 3,000 pages of emails they had culled from the personal accounts of the very top figures of the Assad regime.
The coverage of the email cache has focused on the tawdry details: the picture of a near-naked woman in the president's inbox, Asma's penchant for crystal-studded Christian Louboutin high heels, and the eclectic taste in music revealed by Assad's iTunes purchases. Less well understood is the daunting array of obstacles -- ranging from questions about the email cache's authenticity to the political and cultural sensitivities of the Middle East -- that had to be overcome before the trove was published. And that's a story of the circuitous routes that information often takes in the Middle East before it is revealed.
Weeks after the emails came to light, Syria watchers are still mulling what they tell us about the nature of the Assad regime. David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University who wrote a biography of the Syrian president, described the irony of the fact that Assad did appear to be willing to take advice from young, Western-educated advisors -- but they often counseled him to take an ever more intransigent line.
"Of the ones I've seen, they're very much advising him in his speeches to say things that are traditionally authoritarian," he said. "One of the old guard could have said those things."
Upon receiving the emails, the Guardian and Al Arabiya began conducting largely similar efforts to verify their authenticity. Both outlets sorted through the thousands of emails, cross-checking the events and details mentioned in them with the news from the period. In London, the Guardian staff was able to compile a list of over a dozen individuals named in the emails for whom it had contact information. The staff was able to reach 12 people from that list, all of whom confirmed that their emails in the cache were authentic or that they remembered corresponding with the addresses in question.
The presence of photographs, videos, and even a birth certificate of an Assad family member in the cache helped convince the Guardian that the emails were, in fact, legitimate. "It would be possible to fake it up to that point, but it would take an enormous intelligence agency-style operation to put it together," said Charlie English, the head of international news at the newspaper.