Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad has been compared to Princess Diana for her youth, beauty and compassion. Now private e-mails leaked to the Guardian newspaper portray a woman who resembles Marie Antoinette.
Since the Syrian uprising led to a brutal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad's regime a year ago, his wife Asma has largely remained out of the spotlight, except for two public appearances supporting her husband. In January she was almost inconspicuous with a beret on her head, while clutching two of her young children and feigning a smile for the cameras as her husband gave a speech at a rally.
In late February, the first lady looking more confident and elegant in black, was seen smiling and greeting supporters alongside the President as they cast ballots in a referendum on constitutional reform, which was regarded as a farce by opposition forces and condemned by the West. At the same time, the city of Homs, which has been at the epicenter of the pro-democracy movement, was bombarded with mortars and rockets. At least 8,000 Syrians have been killed in the year-long bloodbath, according to UN estimates.
Earlier in February, the First Lady provoked outrage in Britain by sending an unsolicited e-mail to the Times newspaper, saying "The President is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First lady supports him in that role."
She appears to communicate often by e-mail. On Thursday, Britain's Guardian newspaper published the first couple's private e-mail documents leaked by the opposition group Supreme Council of the Revolution. The e-mails portray a woman who ordered tens of thousands of dollars worth of chandeliers and candlesticks among other luxury items within the past eight month period, when her country was under siege and ordinary Syrians were facing food shortages.
Mrs. Assad also maintained e-mail contact with the Qatar emir's daughter Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, who urged the first couple to leave Syria and even offered them asylum in Doha, but since then relations between the two friends have apparently chilled.
A nice English girl?
The public face of Mrs. Assad shows the First Lady unquestioningly loyal to her husband, which has led many in Britain to wonder: How could a nice English girl be married to a man whose henchmen slaughter his own people? Now they are also asking how can she be ordering a fondue set from Amazon with blood being shed in her own backyard?
Asma Akhras al-Assad was born in London. Her mother is a retired Syrian diplomat and her father is still a cardiologist consultant who came to the UK from Homs in the 1970s to further his medical studies. The first lady's parents still live in the modest terraced house where she grew up in the west London district of Acton, home to many of Britain's professional middle-class immigrants.
One neighbor, Malik al-Abdeh, used to play with Asma al-Assad's younger brother, but is now the chief editor of Barada TV, a pro-democracy satellite station that broadcasts the Assad regime's atrocities to the Middle East.
Al-Abdeh believes that Asma al-Assad is at least as Syrian as she is British. "Why would you expect a girl, just because she was brought up in the UK, she would necessarily act differently to women who live all their life in the Arab world?" he asked
Through thick and thin
"Deep down she's a Syrian girl and she's been brought up in a way that says you have to stick with your husband, through thick and thin. This is the honourable thing to do, regardless of any private misgivings she may have. We shouldn't expect any different of her just because she carries a British passport," he told DW.
But there are those who argue that the first lady had a duty to publicly condemn what her husband stands for, especially since she grew up in a democracy herself.
"I had more faith in Asma than other Arab first ladies, because Asma came from British society, a democratic society. What we are seeing from the regime is not reflecting what Asma stood for 10 years ago," said Halla Diyab, a Syrian documentary producer who knew Asma al-Assad from filming the First Lady's NGO project Shabab, a microfinancing initiative for small businesses. Mrs. Assad had been an investment banker at Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan in London, New York and Paris before marrying the Syrian President.
Halla Diyab, a former colleague, says the First Lady missed the opportunity to take a stand against the regime
Diyab believes that the First Lady should have seized the moment during the Arab Spring upheavals a year ago and could have won the support of millions of Syrians by speaking out against the government massacre of teenage protesters in the Syrian city Deraa, whose only offence was to spray pro-democracy graffiti on walls.
Duty to her nation
"She had to publicly condemn what the government is doing and I know Asma is a wife, mother of three children, but when you choose to be First Lady, you are not only playing the role of mother, wife and daughter. You have a national responsibility toward people who had faith in you as a First Lady," Diyab, who now lives in the UK, told DW.
The First Lady could have been a role model for young people and women in particular, but Diyab sees a lack of moral courage.
"She 's very fragile. The image of her as a Damascena rose is very her. She is not a strong woman as such, because she was born and bred in England where you don't need to show a lot of resistance to prove your point. Maybe her fragility fails her to support her nation," she said.
Although Diyab now feels betrayed by the First Lady's failure to take a public stand against the violence in Syria, she had once deeply admired her. "Asma was the first Syrian First Lady in public. There was a vitality, energy and passion which inspired me as a young Syrian girl. I felt she had a lot of creative ideas," said Diyab, who explained that Mrs. Assad wanted to apply the democratic principles she grew up with in Britain to Syria by engaging young people in what the First Lady describes on her website as "civil society."
Asma al-Akhras, now 36, married Bashar al-Assad, 46, only months after he took over as Syria's leader in the year 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who was regarded as one of the most repressive dictators in the Arab world. Bashar had actually been the spare, not the heir to Hafez. He was a medical doctor, who was pursuing further studies as an eye surgeon in London in 1994, when his elder brother Basil was fatally injured in a car crash. The mild-mannered Bashar was summoned home to Damascus and groomed to become his father's successor. He had been acquainted with his wife for many years before they married.
Syrians saw hope
The young attractive and modern couple were perceived as being as closely tied to the West as well as Syria and many saw them as a symbol of hope for a battered nation. Asma in particular was dubbed the Princess Diana of Syria for her youth, glamour and hands-on involvement in projects ranging from discovery centers for children to her cultural heritage mission.
Gaia Servadio, an Italian-British writer and cultural historian, who became friends with the First Lady when she was hired to organize an arts festival in Syria several years ago, found the First Lady's initial openness refreshing. "She was doing everything to open up Syria and indeed all the promises her husband made to the people, I believe came from her," she told DW.
At the same time Servadio felt the young Englishwoman had illusions about what she could change in Syria. "She began to describe a Syria that didn't exist actually. I noticed how misinformed she was, because nobody informs people in power, even though she wasn't powerful," she added
Power was held by others. Servadio, who observed the inner sanctum of the presidential palace first hand, saw a young woman intimidated by a security apparatus run by Machiavellian in-laws, who had little time or interest in her reformist instincts.
"Her sister-in-law was very powerful. You never see her, but she's very heavily committed in inside politics. Between her, her mother and the others, they really have command of all the secret services and they are many, dreadful and very very powerful," she explained.
"When we had this huge discussion at this festival, I saw them having the upper hand and she being tamed. She was rather frightened. I saw them shouting at her. They're very violent people and I haven't seen the worst. It's like the mafia, really. They kill easily, they don't think about it twice," she added.
Servadio believes that the First Lady's public appearances and statements have been staged by others for the regime's purposes. "I really suspect that she is fed with things to say, that the safety of her children is threatened. That declaration in the Times: she would never say that." (In the e-mail to the Times, sent in her name, Asma al-Assad appears to offer her full support to her husband, saying he is the president of all Syria, not a "faction of Syrians" and that she "listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence" - the ed.)
How Asma al-Assad handles the conflict between the democratic principles she presumably still stands for and the bloodshed perpetuated under her husband's watch remains a matter of speculation. Even a family member, Ribal al-Assad, founder of the London-based Organisation for democracy and Freedom in Syria, is sympathetic to the First Lady. "I'm sure she's horrified. Of course she did not forget about the values she was raised on here in the UK. I do hear her brothers and others who are also complaining about what's happening," he told DW.
Ribal al Assad, who is the first cousin of the Syrian President, has lived in exile ever since his father Rifaat's failed coup against his brother Hafez back in 1983. He pointed out that the city at the center of the pro-democracy protests is the First Lady's family home. "Let's not forget that the city of Homs got bombed, their own city. But at the end of the day we have to understand that in the MIddle East, it's very difficult for a woman to go against her husband," he said.
Author: Diana Fong, London
Editor: Rob Mudge