Bashar al-Assad took advice from Iran on how to handle the uprising against his rule, according to a cache of several thousand emails received and sent by the Syrian leader and his wife.
The Syrian leader was also briefed in detail about the presence of western journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homs and was urged to "tighten the security grip" on the opposition-held city in November.
The revelations are contained in more than 3,000 documents downloaded by activists from private accounts belonging to Assad and his wife Asma. The documents, which emerge on the first anniversary of the rebellion that has seen more than 8,000 Syrians killed, paint a portrait of a first family remarkably insulated from the mounting crisis and continuing to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.
As the world watched in horror at the brutal suppression of protests across the country and many Syrians faced food shortages and other hardships, Mrs Assad spent more than $15,000 on candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris and instructed an aide to order a fondue set from Amazon.
Assad established a network of trusted aides who reported directly to him through his personal email account – bypassing both his powerful clan and the country's security apparatus. Assad made light of reforms he had promised in an attempt to defuse the crisis, referring to "rubbish laws of parties, elections, media". Assad sidestepped extensive U.S. sanctions against him by using a third party with a U.S. address to make purchases of music and apps from Apple's iTunes.
The emails appear to show that Assad received advice from Iran or its proxies on several occasions during the crisis. "It is not out of our interest to say that al-Qaida is behind the operation because this claim will [indemnify] the U.S. administration and Syrian opposition," wrote Hussein Mortada, a Lebanese business with strong connections to Iran. In another email Mortada advised the president that the regime needed to take control of public squares between 3pm and 9pm to deny opposition groups the opportunity to gather there.
The emails also offer a rare window into the mind of the isolated Syrian leader, apparently lurching between self-pity, defiance and flippancy as he swapped links to amusing video footage with his aides and wife. On one occasion he forwards to an aide a link to YouTube footage of a crude re-enactment of the siege of Homs using toys and biscuits.