On 27 November last year, a young, ambitious woman sent an email to her boss. It contained a single link, to a piece by the BBC correspondent Paul Wood. Wood had been smuggled into the Syrian city of Homs. His subsequent report gave a vivid account of the smouldering rebellion there, crushed two months later in a remorseless government attack.
The woman was the US-educated Hadeel al-Ali; her boss was Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The email was sent to a private account used by Assad to communicate with his wife, Asma, other family members, and a handful of trusted advisers. Some 3,000 emails from Assad and his inner circle were leaked by Syria’s opposition to the Guardian last week, revealing a first family strangely disconnected from the bloody drama engulfing Syria and its people.
This particular email appears to show Assad was personally told about the presence of western journalists in Homs, slipping into the country via a perilous crossing from Lebanon. In retrospect, it takes on a darker aspect. In February the Sunday Times’s Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik died in Homs when Syrian forces – it appears deliberately – targeted their building.
One of the most striking aspects of the emails’ leak is how Assad bypassed his male aides. Instead, as his country slipped further into bloodshed, he appears to have grown increasingly reliant on media advice from a group of young, westernised Syrian expats. Most are women. At their core are Ali and her friend Sheherazad Jaafari, a former intern at the New York-based PR firm Brown Lloyd James.
Of the two, Jaafari has the better connections: her father is Syria’s ambassador to the UN in New York, with a hotline to the leader in Damascus. But Ali’s biography and now deleted Facebook page offer clues to her rapid rise. Like Assad and much of Syria’s ruling elite, Ali is from the Alawi religious sect. She grew up in the coastal town of Qurdaha, known for its Alawi population.
Friends describe her as smart, smooth and sexy. “She was always going to excel in media and PR,” one says. “She has clearly made use of her intellect.” Between 2006 and 2008 she was a student at Montana State University in Bozeman, a city surrounded by stunning mountains. She was a political science major.
Writing of her student days for her yearbook, Ali reminisces about the “gorgeous mountains” and “almost breaking my leg learning how to ski:)”. (The same smiley faces crop up in her later correspondence with Syria’s president). She also writes about “wearing my cowboy boots and hat and feeling like a local:)” and “attending President Obama’s speech and shaking his hand (!).” Photos from this period show a petite but strikingly self-confident woman with high cheekbones and dark hair.
After university she returned to Syria. She studied English literature at Damascus University. She also taught English as a second language at the Arab International University, and volunteered part-time for UNHCR/Unicef. “She was sociable, well-spoken, and engaging,” one friend from this period said, admitting: “I was drawn to her.” Photos posted on her vanished Facebook page show Ali and Jaafari holidaying together in the souks of Iran, and strolling in the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.
When Syria’s uprising began, however, something changed. Ali quickly became active in spreading pro-regime articles, sometimes with a shrill voice, sometimes dispassionately. She dumped friends she believed sympathetic to the opposition. Her private emails to Syria’s president, “the dude” as Ali calls him in one Facebook post, reveal a strong personal and political commitment to him, and to his survival.
On 20 November last year she sent a photo to Assad of him as a young, unshaven student. She wrote: “so cute, I miss youuuuuuu”. Five days later she forwarded him a screen grab from the Facebook page of a Syrian opposition activist, together with critical comments about the president: “Sorry some of them are very rude but I thought we could find the names although most of them have fake ones,” she explained.
As Syria’s crisis darkened, it appears Ali turned down a place at Warsaw University last September to stay at the president’s side. She and Jaafari gave him regular feedback on how his speeches were perceived by supporters. She passed on requests for interviews from journalists deemed to be acceptable to the regime — and to its narrative that rebel fighters are all violent “terrorists” and Islamist extremists.
In late December she gave him strategic advice on a speech. She urged him to mention that “hostility to Israel” must be a key idea for the Syrian people, and told him to sound “balanced and rational” when setting out his “reforms”.
After the speech in January, Ali privately struck a more intimate note, and complimented him on his choice of suit and healthy complexion. She was proud of his “strength wisdom and charisma”.
Additionally, Ali is the conduit through which advice from Iran appears to reach Assad. Hussein Mortada, head of the Iranian-backed al-Alam satellite channel, said it was not in the regime’s interests to blame a string of mysterious car bombings on al-Qaida. Mortada also talked of his links to Hezbollah and Tehran. It was Ali who forwarded his emails to the boss, using the president’s secret email@example.com account.
The leak of their private exchanges will be mortifying for Ali and Jaafari. Neither has commented publicly since the scandal broke.
Nonetheless, it appears that their liberal education in the US has not so far translated into any sympathy for Assad’s opponents. Instead, both have linked their destinies with Assad, a man who for now at least appears to be prevailing mercilessly over his enemies.
The US-educated Hadeel al-Ali demonstrated a strong personal and political commitment to Bashar al-Assad and to his survival