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Monitor Group rebuked on Syria

Cambridge firm defends its project to train youth

The work Monitor Group did with Asma al-Assad was naive in light of Syria’s crackdown on protests, critics say. The work Monitor Group did with Asma al-Assad was naive in light of Syria’s crackdown on protests, critics say.
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Two years ago, the first lady of Syria, Asma Assad, hired a Cambridge-based consulting firm to take on a sensitive job: help train Syrian youth to become community activists.

But the project, which was aimed at reaching out to a generation that has become disillusioned with the regime, collapsed in March amid an antigovernment uprising and vicious government crackdown that human rights activists say has killed more than 1,400 people, including many teenagers, according to human rights groups.

Now Monitor Group is facing criticism from those who say the firm was naive about the Syrian government’s desire for reform and that its assistance indirectly improved the image of a brutal regime.

“How could any Western consulting firm take a look at the track record of this regime and believe that it was on the reform trajectory?’’ asked Andrew Tabler, a media adviser for Assad in 2004 who wrote a book about the experience.

But those involved in the project say it was a noble attempt to build civil society in an authoritarian state that badly needs it.

“There is no question it was worth trying,’’ said Marshall Ganz, a Harvard lecturer and famed community organizer who Monitor brought in to help design the training for Syrian youth. “If it produced some real benefit in terms of increasing the capacity of young people to organize and make their claims on the future, it would have been a good thing.’’

The project, known as the Syrian Youth Agenda, was in some ways an unlikely assignment for a global consulting company better known for selling business advice.

But the Syrian work was part of Monitor’s burgeoning portfolio in a niche industry: delivering customized solutions to foreign governments for a wide range of problems, some of which are far afield from traditional consulting.

Monitor counted among its clients some of the most repressive governments in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya. The company’s work in Libya from 2006 to 2008, which included a stealth project aimed at bolstering Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy’s image, sparked condemnation this year after his attacks on civilians.

Monitor acknowledges that it erred in Libya and says it will refrain from public relations work in the future, which it says is not a core area of expertise. But spokesmen for the company say its projects in Syria, which focused on youth and culture, are consistent with services it will continue to offer. There is no evidence that its work in Syria was geared toward influencing the country’s image.

But the company has braced for criticism since it pulled out of Syria in March amid widespread attacks on civilians and negative news coverage about its role in Libya.

“We believe that our work made a positive contribution and fervently hope for a peaceful and prosperous future for the citizens of Syria,’’ Eamonn Kelly, senior partner for the firm, said in a statement.

Monitor and Ganz declined to say how much they were paid for the work.

Attempts to bring change to Syria are not new. When Bashar Assad became president in 2000 after his father’s death, many hoped he would loosen his family’s decades-old grip on power.

Assad, a bookish, British-trained eye doctor, spoke frequently about the need to modernize his socialist state. The woman he married, a London-born investment banker from a prominent Syrian family who wears Chanel sunglasses and no head scarf, seemed to signal that he meant it.

At first, Assad released political prisoners, loosened press restrictions, and replaced old Ba’ath party stalwarts with Western-leaning technocrats. But over time, he cracked down on dissent, imprisoned critics, and drove technocrats away.

Yet his wife continued talking about reform. She established a string of nonprofit organizations - among the few that had permission to operate - to work with the rural poor, children, and the arts.

One project called Massar gave Syrian children day-long learning experiences focused on critical thinking and civic responsibility. Teenagers were exposed to the United Nations’ universal declaration for human rights and the concept of freedom of speech.

“We weren’t encouraging the kids to go to a place where they could put themselves at risk, but we were encouraging them to explore the edges of their envelope,’’ said Robin Cole-Hamilton, a consultant and former manager at London’s Science Museum, who was recruited to set up Massar.

Asma Assad’s work earned her positive news coverage in America and a profile in Vogue magazine. The Harvard Arab Alumni Association, which held a conference with her in Damascus in March, praised her for spearheading a new era of reform.

But Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said her work, while positive, gave the false impression of progress.

“Her efforts were used to say, ‘Look at Syria now. They are allowing independent civil society,’ ’’ he said. “But the truth is they were not allowing independent [groups] to operate.’’

Nadim Shehadi, a Syria specialist at the British think tank Chatham House, said the first lady’s nonprofits co-opted civil society, “soaking up all the donor funding and distributing it to those loyal to the regime.’’

Efforts to reach Assad and her organization, Syria Trust for Development, were unsuccessful.

In 2008, Assad hired Monitor to help her reorganize her nonprofits. She trusted Monitor’s Syrian-American vice president, Emad Tinawi, so much that she invited him to serve on her nonprofit board. She also put him in charge of a massive effort to revamp Syria’s 34 museums and 5,000 heritage sites with funding from the European Union, aimed at generating tourism, national pride, and overseas donations.

Then she asked for his help with another problem: A quarter of Syria’s population is under 25, with few job prospects and little affection for the regime. Assad decided to start a nationwide program to train them to be “active citizens’’ able to help build Syria’s future.

Tinawi’s team researched youth empowerment programs and settled on the teachings of Ganz, a community organizer who dropped out of Harvard in 1964 to join the civil rights movement. Ganz, who devised training that galvanized youth during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. A former student who became a Monitor consultant invited him to Syria.

Eager to nurture civil society in an authoritarian state, Ganz traveled three times to Damascus as an adviser to Assad, not a Monitor consultant.

“It was very strange because it was unclear just how much room there was to do something,’’ Ganz recalled. “On the one hand, people would say, ‘We know we need to reform . . . and young people are going to create the country’s future.’ And on the other hand, gee, it’s a national security state in which there were sources of serious resistance to change.’’

Working with Arab colleagues, Ganz developed training to teach Syrians how to hold community meetings to work toward a collective goal.

The training programs, beset with false starts and delays, were slated to begin in Sweida in March. But they were canceled when protests erupted in nearby Daraa, sparked by the arrest and torture of 15 youths accused of writing antigovernment graffiti on a wall.

Since then, the protests - anchored by a youth movement that organized without Assad’s help - have swelled to some 100,000 people. Now Syrian security forces are accused of killing at least 30 youths, including a 13-year-old boy whose castrated corpse was shown in a video that went viral on the Internet. Assad has been so silent that she is rumored to have fled Syria with her three children.

“I can only assume this must be agonizing for her because what is happening seems so completely at odds with everything she has been striving for,’’ said Cole-Hamilton.

The daily news out of Syria has also shocked Ganz, who says the regime should have done more sooner to engage youth.

“It was this promising little rivulet,’’ he said. “But when push came to shove, it all went down the tubes disastrously, and I just think it’s tragic.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.