Syria’s first lady no longer idolized

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

BEIRUT

As Syria’s bloodshed worsens, the British-born 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, tree-lined 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, Mr. 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.

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