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The ambassador’s daughter

At the U.N., Syria’s Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari is the public face of the Syrian regime — a rigid and unyielding defender of President Bashar al-Assad‘s year-long crackdown on protesters. But behind the scenes, it was his daughter, Sheherazad Jaafari, who served as the link to the country’s beleaguered leader, passing along her father’s official notes, ...

At the U.N., Syria’s Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari is the public face of the Syrian regime — a rigid and unyielding defender of President Bashar al-Assad‘s year-long crackdown on protesters.

But behind the scenes, it was his daughter, Sheherazad Jaafari, who served as the link to the country’s beleaguered leader, passing along her father’s official notes, advising Assad on press relations, and engaging him in often flirtatious email banter, according to a trove of President Assad’s and his wife Asma al-Assad‘s personal emails, leaked by opposition activists to The Guardian and Al Arabiya.

Still in her early twenties, Jaafari has emerged as an improbable member of Assad’s inner circle, part of a coterie of young, Western-educated Syrian women that maintained highly informal relations with the president, at one point referring to him as the "dude" while advising him on how to restore his battered reputation in the United States.

The disclosure provided unexpected insights into President Assad’s management style, and his reliance on a group of savvy young women to advise him on matters of state. "We were shocked about this, that she had more access to the president than her father," said Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. The young Jaafari, and other advisors, he noted, lacked any of the experience required for high affairs of state.

Based in Manhattan, where her father has served as Syria’s top diplomat since 2006, Jaafari established connections in the New York media world, playing a role in arranging and preparing interviews for the president with Barbara Walters. As the government crackdown intensified, leaving more than 8,000 dead, the young Jaafari demonstrated her loyalty to the president.

"I have always told you," she boasted to Mike Holtzman, an executive at the public relations firms Brown Lloyd James, who had previously employed her. "This man is loved by his people."

But the tone of the Jaafari’s exchanges with the president went beyond that of a fawning loyalist. In one email, Jaafari wrote of her affection for the president, passing along a note to President Assad through another American-educated press aide, Hadeel al-Ali.

"Tell him," Jaafari wrote in an email published by Al Arabiya, "…that I love him so so so much and that I miss him..and that I remembered him a couple of times." Jaafari concluded another email sent directly to the president’s account: "I miss U."

Ali, a Damascus-based press aide who studied at Montana University, addressed the president in similarly familiar way.  Last November, Ali sent an email with a photo of the president as a university student. "So cute, I miss youuuuuuu."

Some of the president’s exchanges went beyond playful banter or flirtation.

At one point, one of the president’s correspondents sent a photograph of a young woman, posing with nothing but a thong and a bra, according to an account in the Daily Telegraph. The identity of the woman, whose face is turned to the side, remains unclear.

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born scholar at the National Defense University, said the emails expose the weakness of Syria’s institutions. Influence in the Syrian regime, Jouejati said, is based on "patronage and who you know. It’s not at all surprising that a young lady would be in direct contact with the president, going over the heads of her father and the whole Foreign Ministry." 

The young Jaafari was a student of international relations at Hunter College when her father introduced her to a representative of a public relations firm, Brown Lloyd James. The firm was previously paid $5,000 a month to assist Assad’s wife, Asma, prepare for an interview in Vogue, the Hill reported last August. The laudatory article, entitled "Asma Al-Assad: Rose of the Desert," went online in February, just as the popular uprising against the regime gained momentum.

The firm hired Jaafari as an unpaid intern, where she worked for several months. Jaafari served as a translator for the firm on a trip to Syria, where Brown Lloyd James was promoting an initiative by the Open Hands Initiative to create a new comic book, the Silver Scorpion, that featured a disabled Muslim boy with superpowers.

A source familiar with the arrangement said Jaafari took advantage of the trip to cultivate a relationship with the Assad couple.

While Brown Lloyd James suspended its work with the Syrian government in December 2010, according to the firm, Jaafari soon parted ways with the company and returned to Damascus, where she was given a role as a media advisor. However, Jaafari continued to maintain email contact with Holtzman, at least through January 2011, according to emails and a source who verified that some of the emails were authentic.

Jaafari later returned to New York, where she wrote frequently to the president at his personal email account — sam@alshahba.com — updating him on a range of issues, including the political mood of the United States and the French bid last January to press for a Security Council resolution calling for a political transition in Syria.

Using the email address Sherry.Hunter@hotmail.com, the young Jaafari reported to the president about her meetings with Christian and Jewish leaders and many people from "the media industry like [NBC anchor] Ann Curry and others…the American media is very confused about what is happening in Syria…so they are not 100% negative…I don’t really trust them but that’s what they told me."

Jaafari also played a role in preparing Assad for his interview with Barbara Walters in December.  "Hello dear," she wrote to Luna Chebel, a former al-Jazeera anchor who serves as one of Assad’s Damascus-based media advisors. In the email, she recommends Assad play up the role of armed anti-government groups, and acknowledge some mistakes have been made but stress that his government is part of the solution. "American psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are ‘mistakes’ done and now we are ‘fixing it,’" she wrote.

Efforts to reach Sheherazad Jaafari were unsuccessful. Ambassador Jaafari did not deny the emails’ authenticity, but declined to comment. "I comment on politics, not on caricatures," he said.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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