The problem with the Assad emails is they make him seem more human | Peter Beaumont

Syria’s opposition may yet regret releasing documents portraying the torturer-in-chief as an iPad user who listens to New Order

In Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, ordinary life continues unimpeded by the miraculous and dreadful, “the torturer’s horse” scratching “its innocent behind”.

What Auden did not describe, but could have done, is the banalities of the life of the torturer himself.

The leaked emails, purportedly written by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his wife Asma, are shocking not because they conform to a cliched journalistic stock narrative of the human rights-abusing dictator as a grandiose figure, but because how they show how ordinary are so many of their preoccupations.

There is no cunning plan revealed to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction, only evidence of how Assad got round the US sanctions imposed on him to buy items from iTunes. He swaps amusing links found on the internet, while his wife, a former investment banker with a millionaire surgeon father, buys costly candlesticks.

All extravagant, but there is no evidence of the purchase of big cats – as once owned by members of the Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Hussein families; no evidence of the importation of gold-plated guns.

Paradoxically, it is precisely because of this that the emails seem both more chilling and unsettling, reminding us that it is ordinary men who commit and order atrocities.

All of which reflects the contradictions of Assad’s personality.

When I had the chance to sit and talk to him, now almost a decade ago, he seemed both intelligent and capable of charm. At the beginning of the US “war on terror”, he only once hinted at a more ruthless side, speaking of how his father had dealt with his own “terrorist” problem and acidly remarking how he had been criticised for it.

The Syrian opposition will inevitably seize on the emails as evidence of the special callousness of the Assad family, shopping online while the country’s people are being shelled by Assad’s army. And, perhaps, they are right.

But for the opposition there are other dangers in the emails – not least the revelation of a cosier relationship until very recently with Qatar and some members of its ruling family than the Qataris have liked to present in public, not least in its recent demands that the opposition be armed.

Even as recently as this year, Mayassa al Thani, the daughter of the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, was advising Asma Assad that the family should leave Syria, suggesting Doha might offer them exile.

It was an email – intriguingly enough – that appealed not to the “dictator” and his family, but the other Assad family, the one that for so long tried to present itself as normal and lacking in pretension.

“I honestly think,” she wrote, “that this is a good opportunity to leave and re-start a normal life – it can’t be easy on the children, it can’t be easy on you!”

Another danger for the opposition, not least in the light of calls from some quarters for an arms embargo on all sides, is that the emails also appear to reveal the source of some of the smuggled weapons to Syria’s opposition – shipped from Libya – a route that has been independently confirmed to the Guardian in recent weeks by other sources.

But perhaps most dangerous for both the opposition and for Assad himself in these emails is the intimacy that they reveal, making him seem not more dangerous, but more human and frail with his frustrated outbursts, his paranoia, the revelation of his taste in music and evidence of his devotion to his wife in his “love u”s.

If the opposition had hoped to maker Bashar al-Assad seem more monstrous, then they have failed. Instead, the emails they have leaked have made a man responsible for terrible crimes seem less distant and oddly more human if not less culpable.

For that reason, it is entirely possible that the Syrian opposition – so keen to push out these emails even as their military campaign on the ground has faltered and their political alliance become ever more split and fractious – may come to regret the way in which this material has been released.

It has shown the torturer-in-chief playing with his iPad and listening to New Order, put flesh on the bones of a man who – until now – was nothing but a caricature. The dynamic of conflict, and the propaganda effort that inevitably supports it, requires not more, but less detail and dimension.

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from Peter Beaumont


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