Syria's 'desert rose' wilting

2012-03-19 21:09

London - She was supposed to be the gentler face of a would-be reformist regime. Now Asma Assad has become a hate figure for many.

Syria's London-born first lady, once breathlessly described as a "rose in the desert", is ensconced at the heart of the shadowy inner circle of President Bashar Assad.

As Syria slides towards civil war and foreign powers watch for cracks within the ruling clan, understanding Asma could prove vital to understanding the Assads and the future of the Syrian crisis.

A British-educated former investment banker, Asma cultivated the image of a glamorous yet serious-minded woman with strong Western-inspired values who was meant to humanise the increasingly secretive and isolated Assad family.

That image crumbled when her husband responded to an anti-government rebellion with extreme violence a year ago. Asma had clearly decided to stand by her man despite international revulsion at his actions. Assad himself says he is fighting an insurrection, involving foreign-backed "terrorists".

Asma's ancestral home is the city of Homs, now a symbol of the revolt which has been subjected to particularly fierce attack by her husband's tanks to become ground zero in the year-long conflict.

With her penchant for crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin shoes and Chanel dresses, Asma is a puzzle for many. The opposition roundly rejects suggestions that she is effectively a prisoner of conscience in the presidential palace.

"She was very much, as we would say, left wing. She [created] a very, very good impression. She seemed to be very bright, very respectful of others," said Gaia Servadio, a writer and historian who has worked with Asma on several art projects.

"It's a very nasty regime... Thousands of people have been killed. So it's very difficult to say: poor woman. She certainly should have found a way to talk."

Very sharp

The world was smitten by her immaculate fa├žade. In the Western media, Asma, a 36-year-old mother of three, was described as sophisticated, elegant, confident, with a "killer IQ" and an interest in opening up Syria though art and charity.

For those who pinned their hopes on Assad as a potential reformer, his photogenic wife bolstered that image, lending a touch of glamour to his awkward public appearances.

A glowing article in Vogue magazine described her as "a rose in the desert" and her household as "wildly democratic". A French newspaper said she was an "element of light in a country full of shadow zones".

People were charmed by her classy demeanour, liberal views and British accent. She received the Gold Medal of the Presidency of The Italian Republic for humanitarian work in 2008 and won an honorary archaeology doctorate from La Sapienza university in Rome.

Yet e-mails published by Britain's Guardian newspaper this month from accounts believed to belong to the family offer a different portrait, showing her as a capricious dictator's wife spending tens of thousands of pounds on jewels, fancy furniture, and a Venetian glass vase from Harrods.

"I am the real dictator, he has no choice," she apparently said in one of the e-mails in a comment about her husband.

Her London contact, a Syrian businessman, appears to send e-mails to her using an address he has nicknamed "Party party".

The story of how the London-born daughter of a Sunni Muslim Syrian doctor married into Assad's family, members of the powerful minority Alawite sect, reads like a cautionary tale.

She was born in the west London suburbs, whose sleepy streets are lined with neat houses, just like her family's. Twelve years after she married Assad, the family home appears almost abandoned, its curtains drawn. Neighbours said her father still lives there with his wife, a former diplomat.

Make a stand

"We know they are there but we don't see them," said one neighbour, a veiled Arab woman who asked not to be named. No one answered the door bell when Reuters called at the weekend.

A Syrian dissident from Aleppo, who lives nearby and asked to be identified only by his nickname, Zayed, said most Syrians in Britain despised Asma now.

Zayed, angrily comparing Asma to Marie Antoinette or the wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, called on the Syrian leader's wife to "make a stand for your own sake, for your own people... She never did."

A senior member of the British Syrian Society, set up with Assad's help to promote business ties, said he has met the first couple in London and used warm words to describe them.

"They were quite impressive to talk to. He came across as someone who wanted to listen, get ideas, get advice, open to everybody, he made it plain that he wanted Syrians abroad to help building the country again. He was welcoming and warm."

Speaking on condition of anonymity in a gentlemen's club in a smart London neighbourhood, he added: "We all felt there was an opportunity that he, the president, representing the younger generation, could lead Syria to a new age of change.

"Perhaps he feels betrayed. Why are they [the West] ganging up on him? Now some people say, he is in full control, others say that he is not. Maybe he is shocked by the fact that ... in the end they all turned against them."

Asma's father, Fawaz Akhras, a cardiologist and founder of the British Syrian Society, has not responded to a Reuters request for a meeting, made through an intermediary.

Assads dislike Asma

Known as Emma to her British friends, Asma spent the first 25 years of her life in North Acton, went to a smart London girls school, Queen's College, and read computer science at King's College London.

She was a rising star at JP Morgan when she met Bashar, who had studied ophthalmology in London but was sent home to be groomed for the presidency after his elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash in 1994.

"I was always very serious at work, and suddenly I started to take weekends [off], or disappear, and people just couldn't figure it out," she told Vogue. "What do you say - 'I am dating the son of a president?'"

They married in 2000. What followed was a life full of glamour. They once dined with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Syria. Bashar joked, according to Vogue: "Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!"

One photograph from happier days depicts them playing with their children, toys scattered around on the carpet.

The Assad side of the clan, however, didn't like Asma, not least because of her Sunni Muslim origins.

"Certainly the Assad family doesn't like her, to put it mildly... She was constantly under watch, her telephone, she was very careful," Servadio, who spent time with the family in Syria before the uprising, told Reuters in London.

"She was shouted at. How odd, frankly, [that] somebody who is meant to be the wife of the president who is an autocrat, can be shouted at in this way." She added: "It was like a mediaeval power, warlords, one against the other."

Chilling glimpse

Asma's husband was elected president with 97% of the vote in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for decades.

Before the start of the 2011 uprising, there was hope Syria could change. Syrians saw his choice of wife as proof that things were about to change.

"When he came to power, people said, 'Okay... let's give him a chance and see what he's going to do,'" said Ghassan Ibrahim, Global Arab Network's London-based editor.

"What happened is that he made corruption even more organised, Mafia appeared, poverty grew sharply ... [But] she is standing by the criminal and she supports him."

E-mails leaked by Syria's opposition offer a chilling glimpse into the lavish lifestyle the couple enjoyed even as Assad's troops shelled opposition strongholds.

  • Jaba - 2012-03-19 21:54

    Have you ever met someone who is extremely beautiful physically yet when you get to know them, you see another quality--an internal ugliness to them? meet Asma Assad, wife of the butcher of Damascus.

      Winsome - 2012-03-20 19:43

      @Jaba - so you have met her then? Somehow this article doesn't read true - we don't know what the story is until we hear from her - I hate it when there is all conjecture and almost no facts in an article.

      Africa21stcentury - 2012-03-20 21:07

      @Winsome, That's sooo true, maybe she is just a sweet little thing, MARRIED TO A MASS MURDERER!!!

  • Glyn - 2012-03-19 23:04

    La belle dame sans merci!

  • Fred - 2012-03-20 02:58

    Unfortunately her life is going to end prematurely. How tragic. Unless she becomes the liberator.

  • Matt - 2012-03-20 09:06

    Its hard to pull the \lavish lifestyle\ card. Look how Obama lives while he drops bombs overseas. Look at the Lavish lifestyles dictators in Yemen, Soudi Arabia Qatar etc etc. While they quell rebellions. I'm not justifying it, just pointing it out as a product of society we live in, todays leaders are only interested in their own power and greed.

      Matt - 2012-03-20 09:32

      I'm saying look around you, its the norm. Provide a source for that interesting fact.

  • Michael - 2012-03-20 10:36

    Anthony I guess "bitch" is a word that rolls easily from your mouth as you are obviously a misogynist. This pathetic article is just a stupid bit of skinner and gives no verifiable information about the real state of mind of this woman. Only an idiot would rush to judgement based on this nonsense.

  • Michael - 2012-03-20 10:45

    Concerning the emails, the really stupid thing is that despite there being no smoking gun among them, there was a real opportunity to continue to monitor them in case of obtaining some worthwhile intelligence. But the disjointed resistance could not hold back from the propaganda opportunity. Poor strategy once again Anthony and Fred . Damn when will you guys get it?

      Africa21stcentury - 2012-03-20 12:01

      Michael, I am flattered that you think, that I can influence the happenings in Syria. The truth is that I can't do so by even one iota. i am not, like some on this site, bloated with self importance. i just want to share my believes and thoughts about certain subjects, That's all !!!! Coming back to Asma, it is obvious that this bitch is influentual, and through this ,carries part of the blame of 9000 opposition members being murdered, besides being corrupt!!!

      Matt - 2012-03-20 12:13

      9000 people have died, not all opposition members this includes civilians and security forces. It is hard to argue with someone who lies so blatantly, so regularly. it seems, you start believing your own lies the more you repeat them.

  • allcoveredinNinjas - 2012-03-20 12:48

    Pretty, beautiful , rose ..... she will be dragged down the damascus streets and butchered like the rest should she not heed the demands of Syrians . The Ivory tower is crumbling and the child like empress cannot see the blood stained walls .

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