Assad's private emails show a leader in denial

On the anniversary of the Syrian uprising, private emails of Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma are p

On the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which has so far claimed the lives of 8,000 people, the Guardian has obtained a raft of emails from private accounts belonging to President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma.

As Assad refused to stand down and the death toll grew from his brutal repression of protesters, the emails show the first family continuing to live in luxury. Emails show Asma Assad spending thousands of dollars ordering expensive goods on the internet -- including £10,000 on tables, chandeliers, and candlesticks from Paris -- while Assad uses a third party with a US email address to sidestep US sanctions against him and buy music and apps from Apple's iTunes.

The emails, accessed by anti-regime activists after someone believed to be in the president's inner circle passed them the usernames and passwords, give an insight into Assad's mindset and his coterie of advisers.

He appears to remain light-hearted, despite the bloodshed. If there was any doubt that promises of reform were not genuinely meant, it can be put to rest. In one email, he describes these reforms as "rubbish laws of parties, elections, media". Later, he emails an aide with a YouTube clip re-enacting the siege of Homs using toys and biscuits.

There is also reference to advice from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. Both countries are suspected by international bodies of providing on the ground assistance to the regime, but have insisted their support is only moral.

Elsewhere, Asma's regular correspondence with Mayassa al-Thani, the Qatar emir's daughter, chills after Thani suggests that Assad should step down and offers the couple exile in Doha.

However, although the couple appear to be living in denial, continuing their comfortable lifestyle, there are points where the strain shows. On 28 December, Asma Assad is said to have emailed her husband to say: "If we are strong together, we will overcome this together ... I love you."

The Guardian has said that it cannot verify the emails beyond all doubt, but their checks indicate that they are not forgeries. You can read a selection of the emails here.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.