Asma al-Assad has become a hate figure for many when she was supposed to be the gentler face of a would-be reformist regime. 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 al-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 humanize 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.”
The world was smitten by her immaculate facade. 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.”