It's interesting to consider how Mrs Assad forms an accurate view of things, how she determines what is real rather than what people want her to see, or what they believe she wants to see. Because, to be blunt, everyone here is first and foremost trying to please her. Given the nature of the system here, that is not a surprise - getting on the right side of the powerful is a mechanism for survival at worst and preferment at best. But it is at the same time why systems like this cannot truly succeed. It means that too often those in charge have no real idea of what is happening in the real world. They get told what they are expected to want to hear rather than what really is the case. No-one wants to be the bearer of bad news. And as a result, problems get swept under the carpet when they could be dealt with, and only become apparent when it is much too late. If a problem is raised it is usually accompanied by the (highly partial) nomination of a scapegoat, and a lively blame game begins which again gets no nearer to sorting the problem out.
My advantage here is that I don't have a personal stake in the Syrian system. I don't have children here to find good jobs for, or expectations of a future for me here beyond the life of this project. So I am in the fortunate position of having nothing to lose by telling it like it is to the First Lady. If we have problems, I tell her. If we've cocked things up, I tell her what we've learned and what will be different next time. She gets the good news and the bad with equal honesty. And so far I think she has welcomed this, and it has built a climate of trust between us. Certainly I am now being asked to advise her on people and stuff well outside the remit of the project,because, I hope, she knows I will always tell her what I think. Long may it last.