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In Washington, Asfari is regarded as an important liaison to the Syrian opposition. He has visited the White House eight times since 2014, meeting with officials like Philip Gordon, the former Middle East coordinator who was an early advocate for arming the insurgency in Syria. Since leaving the administration, however, Gordon has expressed regret over having embraced a policy of regime change. In a lengthy September 2015 editorial for Politico, Gordon slammed the Obama administration's pursuit of regime change, writing, "There is now virtually no chance that an opposition military 'victory' will lead to stable or peaceful governance in Syria in the foreseeable future and near certainty that pursuing one will only lead to many more years of vicious civil war."
Asfari publicly chastised Gordon days later on Hardtalk. "I have written to [Gordon] an email after I saw that article in Politico and I told him I respectfully disagree," Asfari remarked. "I think the idea that we are going to have a transition in Syria with Assad in it for an indefinite period is fanciful. Because at the end of the day, what the people want is a credible transition."
For Asfari, a "credible" post-war transition would require much more than refugee repatriation and the integration of opposition forces into the army: "Will you get the Syrian diaspora, including people like myself, to go back and invest in the country?" he asked on Hardtalk. ""If we do not achieve any of these objectives, what's the point of having a free Syria?"
The Independent has described Asfari as one among of a pantheon of "super rich" exiles poised to rebuild a post-Assad Syria -- and to reap handsome contracts in the process. To reach his goal of returning to Syria in triumph after the downfall of Assad's government, Asfari not only provided the seed money for The Syria Campaign, he has helped sustain the group with hefty donations.
Just this year, the Asfari Foundation donated $180,000 to the outfit, according to The Syria Campaign's media lead Laila Kiki. Asfari is not The Syria Campaign's only donor, however. According to Kiki, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund also contributed $120,000 to the outfit's $800,000 budget this year. "The rest of the funds come from donors who wish to remain anonymous," she explained.
Shaping the message
Among The Syria Campaign's main priorities, for which it has apparently budgeted a substantial amount of resources, is moving Western media in a more interventionist direction.
When The Syria Campaign placed an ad on its website seeking a senior press officer upon its launch in 2014, it emphasized its need for "someone who can land pieces in the U.S., U.K. and European [media] markets in the same week." The company's ideal candidate would be able to "maintain strong relationships with print, broadcast, online journalists, editors in order to encourage them to see TSC as a leading voice on Syria." Prioritizing PR experience over political familiarity, The Syria Campaign reassured applicants, "You don't need to be an expert on Syria or speak Arabic." After all, the person would be working in close coordination with an unnamed "Syrian communications officer who will support on story gathering and relationships inside Syria."
Sadri acknowledged that The Syria Campaign has been involved in shopping editorials to major publications. "There have been op-eds in the past that we've helped get published, written by people on the ground. There's a lot of op-eds going out from people inside Syria," he told me. But he would not say which ones, who the authors were, or if his company played any role in their authorship.
One recent incident highlighted The Syria Campaign's skillful handling of press relationships from Aleppo to media markets across the West. It was August 17, and a Syrian or Russian warplane had just hit an apartment building in rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Sophie McNeill, a Middle East correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, received a photo from the Syrian American Medical Society, which maintains a WhatsApp group networking doctors inside rebel territory with international media.
The photo showed a five-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, who had been extracted from the building by members of the White Helmets and hoisted into an ambulance, where he was filmed by members of the Aleppo Media Center. The chilling image depicts a dazed little boy, seated upright and staring at nothing, his pudgy cheeks caked in ash and blood. "Video then emerged of Omran as he sat blinking in the back of that ambulance," McNeill wrote without explaining who provided her with the video. She immediately posted the footage on Twitter.
"Watch this video from Aleppo tonight. And watch it again. And remind yourself that with #Syria #wecantsaywedidntknow," McNeill declared. Her post was retweeted over 17,000 times and the hashtag she originated, which implied international inaction against the Syrian government made such horrors possible, became a viral sensation as well. (McNeill did not respond to questions sent to her publicly listed email.)
Hours later, the image of Omran appeared on the front page of dozens of international newspapers, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Times of London. CNN's Kate Bolduan, who had suggested during Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2014 that civilian casualties were, in fact, human shields, broke down in tears during an extended segment detailing the rescue of Omran.
Abu Sulaiman Al-Muhajir, the Australian citizen serving as a top leader and spokesman for Al Qaeda's Syrian offshoot, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, took a special interest in the boy. "I cannot get conditioned to seeing injured/murdered children," Al-Muhajir wrote on Facebook. "Their innocent faces should serve as a reminder of our responsibility."
Seizing on the opportunity, The Syria Campaign gathered quotes from the photographer who captured the iconic image, Mahmoud Raslan, and furnished them to an array of media organizations. While many outlets published Raslan's statements, Public Radio International was among the few that noted The Syria Campaign's role in serving them up, referring to the outfit as "a pro-opposition advocacy group with a network of contacts in Syria."
On August 20, McNeill took to Facebook with a call to action: "Were you horrified by the footage of little Omran?" she asked her readers. "Can't stop thinking about him? Well don't just retweet, be outraged for 24 hours and move on. Hear what two great humanitarians for Syria, Zaher Sahloul & James Sadri, want you to do now."