Syria’s first lady no longer idol­ized

Bri­tish-born mother of three now de­nounced as part of bru­tal regime

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH A. KENNEDY

ABEIRUT s Syria’s blood­shed wors­ens, the Bri­tish­born first lady has be­come an ob­ject of con­tempt, a Marie Antoinette fig­ure who shopped on­line for crys­tal-en­crusted Chris­tian Louboutin stilet­tos while her coun­try burned.

The Euro­pean Union last week slapped sanc­tions on Asma As­sad, the 36-year-old wife of the Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. For the past decade, she of­fered a ve­neer of re­spectabil­ity to one of the world’s most opaque and ruth­less dic­ta­tor­ships.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s fe­ro­cious crack­down on a year-old up­ris­ing has shat­tered the im­age of her as a glam­orous, re­form-minded woman who could help bring pro­gres­sive val­ues to a coun­try that has been ruled by the As­sad fam­ily dy­nasty for more than 40 years.

The Euro­pean ac­tion, the lat­est pun­ish­ment im­posed by world lead­ers on Syria for its crack­down, bans her from trav­el­ing to EU coun­tries and freezes any as­sets she may have there.

“She is one of the regime’s de­cep­tions,” said Amer Mat­tar, a 26-year-old Syr­ian who re­cently fled the coun­try be­cause of the vi­o­lence that has killed 8,000 peo­ple in the past year. “She is def­i­nitely part of this ugly for­mula in Syria.”

A trove of emails — pur­ported to be from the pri­vate ac­counts of Mr. Bashar and his wife and pub­lished last month by London’s Guardian news­pa­per — have helped cor­rect that de­cep­tion.

The emails ap­pear to cap­ture the first lady splurg­ing on lux­ury goods, as vi­o­lence sweeps her coun­try. They show her plac­ing or­ders for ex­pen­sive jew­elry, cus­tom-made fur­ni­ture and a $4,200 vase from Har­rods depart­ment store in London.

Life in the sub­urbs

Born Asma Akhras to a prom­i­nent Syr­ian fam­ily liv­ing in Bri­tain, the fu­ture first lady grew up in the West London sub­urbs, a gen­er­ally af­flu­ent, quiet part of the city with com­fort­able houses, tree­lined streets and large parks.

In a haunt­ing twist, her fam­ily is orig­i­nally from Homs, a city in cen­tral Syria that regime forces have be­sieged with tanks, snipers and re­lent­less shelling to crush the re­sis­tance there. The blood­ied city is now a sym­bol of the up­ris­ing.

Known among child­hood friends as “Emma,” she stud­ied at King’s Col­lege London, grad­u­at­ing in 1996 with a de­gree in com­puter sci­ence and a diploma in French lit­er­a­ture. She was work­ing at JP Mor­gan in London when she met a va­ca­tion­ing Bashar As­sad, who was then the son of the ruth­less Syr­ian pres­i­dent, Hafez As­sad.

De­spite their di­ver­gent up­bring­ings, the two could trade sto­ries about life in London. Mr. As­sad had stud­ied oph­thal­mol­ogy in London be­fore re­turn­ing to Syria to pre­pare for a life in pol­i­tics. He was groomed for the pres­i­dency af­ter his older brother, Basil, widely re­garded as his fa­ther’s cho­sen heir, died in a 1994 car crash.

The cou­ple mar­ried in 2000, the same year Mr. As­sad in­her­ited power from his fa­ther. Mrs. As­sad quickly be­came a glam­orous face of the new regime. With her honey-col­ored hair and de­signer clothes, she pro­vided a charm­ing coun­ter­point to her hus­band’s gawky, some­what awk­ward de­meanor.

She was out­spo­ken about hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sues, a fact that many Syr­ian now point to as a sign of deep hypocrisy. In 2009, she de­cried an Is­raeli siege in Gaza as “bar­baric,” telling CNN that the world was “work­ing against the clock” to save lives there.

“This is the 21st cen­tury,” she said in the in­ter­view. “Where in the world could this hap­pen? As a mother and as a hu­man be­ing, we need to make sure that these atroc­i­ties stop.”

Be­fore the Syr­ian up­ris­ing be­gan in March 2011, the As­sads of­ten were spot­ted driv­ing around town, even pho­tographed in Da­m­as­cus rid­ing bi­cy­cles with their three chil­dren: Hafez, 10; Zein, 8, and Ka­reem, 7. They live in an apart­ment in the up­scale Abu Rum­maneh dis­trict of Da­m­as­cus, as op­posed to a pala­tial man­sion like other Arab lead­ers.

Fawn­ing head­lines, fluffy pro­files

In the years af­ter her hus­band as­cended to the pres­i­dency, Mrs. As­sad played a key role in shoring up the im­age of the regime, gath­er­ing fawn­ing head­lines from fea­ture writ­ers and fluffy pro­files in fash­ion mag­a­zines.

“From chic, chic and still chic,” gushed France’s Elle mag­a­zine in 2008, which went on to name her the world’s most stylish woman. In 2009, Bri­tain’s top-sell­ing tabloid, the Sun, in­tro­duced its readers to the “sexy Brit” who was “bring­ing Syria in from the cold.”

One pro­file in par­tic­u­lar, a big spread in Vogue mag­a­zine, has come back to haunt her. Pub­lished only a month be­fore the start of Syria’s crack­down, the ar­ti­cle re­hashed the main sta­ples of her lofty im­age:

It cited her “killer IQ ,” her char­ity work and the no­tion that, like Dis­ney’s Princess Jas­mine, Mrs. As­sad liked to slip out in incog­nito to meet her peo­ple.

But the ar­ti­cle, which has since been pulled from Vogue’s web­site, has been ridiculed as sin­is­ter in ret­ro­spect.

The As­sad house­hold, the ar­ti­cle said, is run on “wildly demo­cratic prin­ci­ples.” In the ar­ti­cle, Mr. As­sad ex­plains why he stud­ied oph­thal­mol­ogy as his cho­sen field of medicine. The rea­son, he said, is “there is very lit­tle blood.”

Mrs. As­sad has been mostly out of sight in the year since her hus­band’s regime came un­der fire. Although she has been largely silent, she ap­pears to be stand­ing by her man.

She showed up briefly at a regime rally in Jan­uary, smil­ing with her chil­dren as her hus­band said the “con­spir­acy” against Syria was in its final stage. On Feb. 26, dressed in a con­ser­va­tive black dress, she ac­com­pa­nied her hus­band to a polling sta­tion dur­ing a ref­er­en­dum on a new con­sti­tu­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and wife Asma ar­rive for a for­mal din­ner af­ter a Mediter­ranean sum­mit meet­ing in July 2008 at the Petit Palais in Paris. As Syria’s blood­shed wors­ens, the coun­try’s Bri­tish­born first lady has be­come an ob­ject of con­tempt. The EU has banned her from trav­el­ing in its coun­tries.

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