Last week, as Bashar al-Assad’s forces continued their bombardment of the city of Homs, The Times’s Martin Fletcher asked whether Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s wife, whose family hails from the besieged city, would remain silent. “Has Syria's Princess Diana become its Marie Antoinette?” he asked.
On Tuesday he received an answer. In an email to The Times, Asma—or her office—said her husband "is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role." The email continued: "The First Lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with,” but that “she listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence."
Whether the statement qualifies as Antoinette-level tone deafness is debatable, but it likely signals the end of the Princess Diana–like position she has long occupied in the media. A stylish, London-born, quadrilingual former investment banker, Asma was skilled at garnering good press, despite the abuses of her husband’s regime.
According to Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked as a media representative for Asma’s charities, “She was used as a media emissary by the regime to the West because she grew up in London, and as an emissary for the Alawite rulers because she came from a Sunni family.” Tabler recently published a book on his experience with the Assads.
Vogue’s embarrassingly timed and much derided profile of the first lady is an extreme example of the sort of coverage she received. Published in the March issue, just as the regime’s deadly crackdown began in earnest, the article described the Assad household as “wildly democratic” and praised Syria as the “safest country in the Middle East.” There’s a saturated photograph of Bashar and their kids playing with a monster truck. “She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun,” the article says. Her central mission is encouraging “active citizenship.”
“There’s been a lot of pressure to show the international community where she stands, and it shows you she’s standing by her man.”
Though the piece came about with the help of a public-relations firm hired by the Syrian regime at $5,000 a month, Vogue is far from the only publication to puff Syria’s first lady. Two years ago, the Huffington Post published a slide show called Asma Al Assad: Syria's First Lady and All-Natural Beauty, and Paris Match called her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” In March of last year Chrystia Freeland wrote in Reuters that the lesson to learn from all the glowing coverage is that “a dictator who wants to be accepted by polite Western society should look for a charming, glamorous wife.”
Almost every profile of Asma begins with a mention of her beauty and fashion sense, though her allure is more than superficial. For those hoping for reform in Syria, her background and public statements were a source of encouragement. The daughter of a Syrian cardiologist, she grew up in London and graduated from the University of London with a degree in computer science and French literature. She worked as an investment banker at J.P. Morgan—by all accounts a very good one—and was set to begin a Harvard M.B.A. program when she married Bashar in 2000, six months after he assumed the presidency. She’d met him years earlier, when on vacation with her family in Syria, back when Bashar was set to become an ophthalmologist and his older brother, Basil, was being groomed for the presidency.
As first lady, Asma’s concern for the plight of young and rural Syrians appeared genuine. She traveled the country for three months incognito, according to the Vogue article, taking notes on the country’s problems before founding several NGOs for childhood education, rural development, and female empowerment. In 2010 she hosted a conference in Damascus calling for more NGOs and the strengthening of civil society in Syria. As late as mid-March of last year, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association was praising Asma, who had been invited as the keynote speaker at a conference, for her work fostering civil society and social change.
But Tabler points out that Syria never passed an NGO law that would allow the groups to function properly. Only charities that fall under Asma’s umbrella organization and are approved by the regime are allowed to operate, says Tabler. “In many ways I think she functioned as an enabler for the regime,” he says. “She promoted the idea of reform but they never reached fruition.”
It’s not much of a surprise that Asma would side with the regime when pressed. In a more critical profile for The New York Times Magazine in 2005, she speaks eloquently about the importance of a free press and her hopes for reform, but when James Bennett asked about the political dissidents jailed by her husband, she fires back, “'How many prisoners do you have in the U.S., political or otherwise? It doesn't mean you're a repressive society either.''
With the escalation of violence in Syria, Asma’s ability to serve as a representative for wished-for reform may be at an end. Before the letter, she had made only one public appearance since the uprising began—silent, at her husband’s side, along with two of their three elementary-school-age children. And now, with the letter to The Times, she appears to have come out explicitly against the uprising. “There’s been a lot of pressure to show the international community where she stands,” says Tabler, “and it shows you she’s standing by her man.”