PR firm worked with Syria on controversial photo shoot

The Syrian government hired an international public-relations firm to help coordinate a Vogue magazine profile for Asma al-Assad, Syria’s first lady.

Brown Lloyd James agreed to a $5,000-per-month contract with the presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic in November 2010 to help with the interview and photo shoot for a glowing profile of al-Assad by the high-profile fashion magazine. 

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The piece has been criticized heavily due to its publication in Vogue’s March issue, which coincided with the Syrian government’s crackdown on anti-regime protesters. 

The firm “liaised between the Office of the First Lady and the Vogue editorial team on the scheduling of interviews and photo shoots,” according to Department of Justice records. Brown Lloyd James also agreed to an extension of the contract for another $25,000, but its work for Syria has since ended, according to the firm.

“We look forward to an enduring and mutually beneficial relationship,” the firm wrote in its contract with the Syrian government.

In a statement to The Hill, Brown Lloyd James said its work for the Syrian government ended in December 2010.

“The $25,000 listed as a contract extension was for a separate project that was ultimately postponed,” Brown Lloyd James said in its statement. “This project was to support a cultural forum on Syria’s incredible antiquities. The limited scope of work would have been conducted solely in Damascus and did not affect a U.S. audience. We have not been engaged in any activity in Syria in a number of months.” 

The PR firm’s work for Syria was successful, as Vogue published a profile of al-Assad under the title “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert,” along with a full-page photo of the Syrian first lady. But when the profile was first published online in February, it faced a wave of criticism from media and foreign-policy circles.

“The article does not once mention the protests currently under way in the Middle East, including scattered evidence of demonstrations in Syria,” wrote David Kenner, an associate editor for the magazine Foreign Policy, when the profile first went online. “Instead, the article focuses on Syrian first lady Asma Assad — the ‘freshest and most magnetic of first ladies,’ endowed with ‘[d]ark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace.’ At a time when other Middle Eastern first ladies, notably Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi, have been the target of protesters’ wrath, this may not be the wisest moment for Asma to flaunt her glamour.” 

Links to the profile of al-Assad on the Vogue website have since gone dead, sending readers to an error page. A spokeswoman for the magazine did not return messages from The Hill asking for comment on the profile.

Brown Lloyd James said in its statement that its work on behalf of Syria came at a time when the country’s relationship with the United States was changing for the better.

“Our project in Syria, for example, hewed with U.S. efforts at rapprochement and normalization of relations, which were a major strategic priority to the U.S. at the time,” the firm said. “During the time of our activity, the U.S. was engaged in a thaw in relations, highlighted by the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the country. By complementing the efforts of traditional diplomacy, our approach seeks to establish a deeper reservoir of good will and a strengthening of international relationships. We aim to start dialogues and exchanges and develop constituencies for normalization in each country.”

Syria has often run afoul of Western governments, due to its poor human-rights record and having been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department since 1979.

And like much of the Middle East this year, Syria has been rocked by anti-government protests that have swept away long-entrenched regimes. Al-Assad’s husband, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has beaten back the protests brutally with his country’s military.

The latest confrontation was in the Syrian city of Hama. Syrian forces attacked protesters there this past weekend, with press reports saying the military has been shelling the town and that more than 100 people have died so far.

That crackdown has been met with disapproval from Washington. In a statement Sunday, President Obama criticized the Syrian government for its treatment of the anti-regime protesters.

“I am appalled by the Syrian government’s use of violence and brutality against its own people. The reports out of Hama are horrifying and demonstrate the true character of the Syrian regime,” Obama said. “Once again, President Assad has shown that he is completely incapable and unwilling to respond to the legitimate grievances of the Syrian people. His use of torture, corruption and terror puts him on the wrong side of history and his people.”

The president added that the U.S. government would continue to pressure and isolate the Syrian regime. On Monday, Obama met with the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and repeated his criticism of the Middle Eastern country in a White House statement.

Congress is also following up with more action against the Syrian regime.

On Tuesday, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said they would introduce legislation this week to toughen sanctions against Syria due to the government-led violence against protesters. Their bill would penalize companies that invest in, buy from or sell to Syria’s energy sector by blocking access to U.S. financial markets and federal government contracts for those firms.

“The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad,” Kirk said in a statement. “The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime.”