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Middle East

The PR firms trying to aid Assad's regime


At the very least, it was a case of unfortunate timing.

Vogue magazine invited ridicule and condemnation last year when it printed a glowing profile of the Syrian First Lady in the same month that a violent crackdown on protests in the country began. But the 3,200 fawning words on Bashar al-Assad's wife, Asma, was just one part of a public relations campaign carried out by Western firms to burnish a friendlier image of the Assad family – the extent of which is still coming to light.

It was later revealed that international PR firm Brown Lloyd James agreed a $5,000-per-month contract in November 2010 to help with the photo shoot and interview, which described the British-born Mrs Assad as the "freshest and most magnetic of first ladies".

The Vogue interview, headlined "A Rose in the Desert", was arguably the high point of a public relations blitz designed to make the Assad family appear progressive and accessible.

But the campaign began years earlier, in 2006, with the hiring of UK-based Bell Pottinger. The firm was employed by Mrs Assad to set up a communications office for herself. "Laura Bush had started the first ladies club and she wanted a role in that," said Lord Bell, co-founder of the firm.

Bell Pottinger spent six months setting up the press office before their business together ended.

A few years later, with her press team in full swing, more positive articles appeared about Mrs Assad. Paris Match called her an "element of light in a country full of shadow zones," and French Elle counted her among the best-dressed women in world politics.

Now, after an estimated 10,000 deaths in Syria, the positive press has run dry. Vogue's editor-in-chief Anna Wintour publicly disowned Mrs Assad this weekend.