LONDON A provocative photograph of a near-naked young woman appears among e-mails apparently sent to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hacked by opposition activists who shared them with Western media.
On Saturday, London's Daily Telegraph published an edited version of the photograph, which has been seen by Reuters among the original e-mails. It speculated on the state of his 11-year marriage to British-born Asma al-Assad, who has stood by her husband during a year of protests that come close to civil war.
The cache of some 3,000 e-mails dated for about nine months until early February has not been repudiated by the Assads or the small circle of aides and contacts who sent them since details were first published by Britain's Guardian on Thursday.
There is no way to be certain, however, that all the content is genuine, nor to be sure that Assad's enemies, at home and abroad, are not seeking to use material to their advantage.
E-mails seen by Reuters indicate a generally affectionate and light-hearted tone between Syria's first couple and among the mostly English-speaking advisers sending messages to these private e-mail accounts. Some comments sent by female aides to the president gush with admiration: "miss uuu" writes one.
"So cute," says another young woman when sending the 46-year-old Assad a photograph showing him in his younger days.
However, with the exception of the nude photograph sent on December 11 last year, there is little that seems overtly sexual in the content. The e-mail containing the photograph is entitled "Fw: file" and carries no text, nor is there any sign in those mails Reuters has seen of a response to it by Assad.
The woman in the picture stands, back to the camera, face in profile, wearing only skimpy underwear, with her arms raised and hands against the wall of a room. Dark hair piled high, she appears to be in her 20s and bears a similarity to a woman from whose account the message was apparently sent. Data embedded in the photo file indicate the shot was taken five years ago.
On the day it was e-mailed to the head of state, his army was attacking towns that had become strongholds for rebel troops in some of the heaviest fighting that had then been seen.
It is not the only picture passed around though. Another woman apparently sent the president a computer-graphic image of a comic camel in thigh boots and bondage gear and, on another day, an obese giraffe captioned: "Just got back from America".
The e-mail cache also gives a picture of the Assads' inner circle sharing news of international reaction - especially anything that bucked the trend of generally negative comment abroad - offering advice to counter bad publicity and alerting Assad to the presence of foreign journalists in rebel areas.
The president himself, notably in warm messages to his 36-year-old wife, disparages reforms he has himself put forward to appease protesters - "rubbish", he calls them. He also shares a crude pun playing on the words "elections" and "erections", while making an eclectic series of music purchases on iTunes.
They range from country laments to New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" and LMFAO's party-rock hit "Sexy And I Know It".
Asma al-Assad, whose e-mail account appears to show a passion for luxury shopping in London, Paris and other cities as Syria's economy has collapsed under violence and trade sanctions, also seems to offer her husband support while clearly aware of the dangers after four decades of Assad family rule.
"If we are strong together, we will overcome this together...I love you..." she seems to have written on December 28.
Another e-mail from wife to husband earlier that month also illustrates how Syria's estrangement from fellow Arab and regional leaders has been a deeply personal affair for them.
A three-word email from Asma al-Assad to her husband on December 11, forwarding a solicitous message from a daughter of the emir of Qatar betrays their bitter mood toward a Gulf state that was once a key ally and investor: "For a laugh...," Asma wrote above the email, which gave assurances of the emir's friendship.
Her sarcasm strikes a jarring note amid a string of personal messages between the Syrian first lady and the Qatari princess, Mayassa al-Thani, in which they exchange warm greetings and news of their young children - messages which, however, are unlikely to have been sent from Qatar without the emirate's rulers being well aware of their value as a "back-channel" for diplomacy.
A recurring theme of Thani's correspondence is urging her Syrian friend to flee the country with her husband; "Please get the kids out before it's too late," she wrote in August. On January 30, Thani assured Assad of a welcome in the Qatari capital Doha.
Such an outcome to the conflict, which has cost 8,000 lives and raised tensions between Assad's Shi'ite Muslim Iranian allies and the Sunni Muslim Gulf states, would suit Qatar. The emir, who sent troops and arms to Libya's rebels last year, has pressed for military intervention to end the bloodshed in Syria.
In the email exchange in December, at a time when Qatar was pushing the Arab League to punish Syria, Asma al-Assad referred to Qatar not "playing its cards right". A few hours later, the emir's daughter replied: "Your last remark is unfair. My father regards President Bashar as a friend, despite the current tensions - he always gives him genuine advice."
It was that email, which urged the Assads to "come out of the state of denial" and apologised for "harsh" honesty, that Asma forwarded to Bashar suggesting he would find it amusing.
But three days later she replied: "My dear Mayassa, I don't have a problem with frankness or honesty, in fact to me it's like oxygen - I need it to survive ... Take care, aaa."
Talk of personal ties also clouds relations with Turkey, another regional player which once took a lead in trying to draw Assad out of an earlier isolation. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan once invited the Assads to a holiday resort in Turkey.
But, asked by Thani if she could pass her email address to Erdogan's wife, Asma al-Assad replied in personal terms: "I use this account only for family and friends. It would be difficult for me at this stage to consider her in either category after the insults they have directed towards the president."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)