- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Christmas, it seems, came early for Western governments looking to strike a blow about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Following reports that former Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi had fled to Washington, a well-known activist released private Twitter messages that show Makdissi had been in contact for months with the opposition.
"Do you think that I am blind to the heroic actions of the Syrian people?" Makdissi wrote to Rami Jarrah, an activist who has worked to disseminate Syrian citizen journalism, on July 21. "The main problem that prevents me or I can say most Syrian diplomats from openly joining the movement are the opposition ‘representatives’."
Makdissi, a former diplomat at the Syrian embassy in London and a member of the country’s Christian minority, had been the face of the Syrian regime to the English-speaking world. In early December, he abruptly disappeared from public view amidst reports that he had defected or, according to the Syrian government’s narrative, taken a three-month administrative leave. On Dec. 24, the Guardian‘s Martin Chulov reported that Makdissi had indeed defected and was in Washington, where he was debriefing U.S. intelligence officials about the thinking within President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it attempts to crush the 21-month revolt.
The messages released by Jarrah show two conversations: His first conversation with Makdissi on July 7, and then a running dialogue that stretches from July 20 to July 22. Jarrah introduced himself as someone who had been arrested for attending peaceful demonstrations, and subsequently beaten and falsely told by Syrian intelligence agencies that his wife had been raped. Makdissi refused to endorse Jarrah’s version of events in that first conversation, but his rhetoric was a far cry from the regime’s hardline rhetoric.
"We are not perfect Rami but we need to have faith in new Syria," he wrote. "We need all to Support the political process."
By July 21, however, Makdissi was even more receptive to Jarrah’s suggestions that he abandon the government. Between the two conversations, the regime had been shaken by a July 18 bombing in Damascus that had killed a number of figures in the regime’s inner circle, including Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, and intelligence chief Hisham Ikhtiyar.
"When I see that I am not able to help stop the bloodshed from my position I will leave," Makdissi wrote on July 21. He followed that up with a message on July 22, saying that he would take Jarrah’s suggestions "into consideration."
A recurring theme of the conversations is both Makdissi and Jarrah’s frustration with the Syrian National Council, then the primary coalition of opposition groups. Makdissi assailed the opposition’s "childish political behavior," and said that leaving his post would not mean joining their ranks.
The $1 million question is whether Makdissi solely corresponded with activists such as Jarrah back in July – or whether he also reached out to anti-Assad governments at the time. Makdissi visited New York in October for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly – while much of this tale remains murky, the trip could have presented him with a chance to reach out to the diplomats and intelligence officials who now seem to be benefiting from his defection.