Not many in Russia were surprised to hear the news (or rumors, as they now appear) that the first lady of Syria, 35-year-old Asma Assad, had fled to Moscow with her three children.
According to a reports first circulated on Twitter, the London-born and educated Mrs. Assad, who is banned from traveling to Europe—and who is now very much blamed along with her husband for the deaths of thousands of civilian victims—landed in Moscow two days ago. A spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, quickly laughed off the report, but Russian experts on the Middle East believe the invitation for the Syrian leader’s wife and other family members is a long decided matter.
“Doubtlessly, the evacuation plan for Assad’s wife, children, mother, and other family members has been ready for a long time,” says Yuri Krupnov, a pro-Kremlin analyst. “Everybody is going to be moved to Moscow safely as soon as it is really needed.” Illustrating the tricky diplomacy matters that would prevent many other nations from sheltering the Assads, Krupnov dismissed the chance that neighboring Belarus would become a new home for the first lady, given investments in Belarus by Gulf states: “[Belarussian president Alexander] Lukashenko will not do it—he cannot risk investments and contracts with Qatar,” Krupnov said.
But, unlike two other likely possibilities for the Assad family’s exile—Tunisia and Iran—Russia has earned a reputation as a welcoming place for tyrants’ families. The fact that human-rights groups accuse President Assad of commanding troops that have killed over 10,000 victims would probably not stop Moscow from welcoming the “Rose of Desert,” as Syrians once called his wife for her beauty, manners and excellent education.
And sometimes official confirmations fall behind the reports.
Back in 2000, when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic gave up his grip on power, Yugoslavian media reported that his son had fled to Russia with his wife and child. At first, officials in Moscow denied the claims. Yet, over the course of the next eight years, they not only confirmed his presence but went on to give political asylum to his son, a brother, and a widow of the “Butcher of the Balkans.” Milosevic himself died in his cell at the Hague war crimes tribunal's detention center in 2006, but is wife and son still live in luxury, though quietly, in Moscow. They reside in Borviha, a posh outlying district not far from current president Vladimir Putin’s residence.
In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev let Eastern Germany leader Erich Honcker and his wife, Margot Honcker, escape from their raging constituents and become guests in Moscow. Only a year later, President Boris Yeltsin forced the exiled couple to leave Moscow within three days. The Purple Witch, as Germans used to call their former first lady for her bright hair and love for the Stasi secret police, still lives in Santiago, Chile.
More recently, under Putin’s rule, Russia has shined as a welcoming home for fleeing dictators: Aslan Abashidze, the former leader of the breakaway republic of Adjaria in Georgia, who is wanted by Georgia’s courts for murder, misuse of office, and embezzlement, has been living in Russia since 2004. In 2005, Putin personally invited the former president of Kyrgystan, the allegedly corrupt Askar Akayev, and his family to come and live in Moscow after Kyrgyz opposition stormed the presidential palace in Bishkek and seized control of the state.
Alexander Cherkasov, a senior researcher for Memorial, a Moscow-based human-rights group, questions the morality behind Moscow’s tendency to grant residence to people considered outlaws in other countries, giving still more examples of the troubling trend. “The Kremlin’s motivation for letting in war criminals like Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, riot police officers from Latvia, or Georgian general Roman Dumbadze is a mystery,” Cherkasov says.
“At least for now, legally, Assad’s wife has not been accused for any crimes against humanity and theoretically, there is nothing to stop Russia from letting her in,” Cherkasov said. “But she could be investigated by international court.”
Moreover, the Assad family already has long had close ties to Moscow. For decades, first the Soviet Union and then Russia was loyal to the Syrian clan—though it’s up for debate how strong a role that would play in a hypothetical offer of haven. Last month, in the midst of the current conflict, two famous brains behind Cold War maneuvers, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, discussed Damascus’s future at an international economics forum in St. Petersburg. The Kremlin’s top adviser on Middle East countries, Primakov made it clear that Russia would never betray Assad—not from personal loyalty, he said, but because its political analysts simply see no better leader for Syria. “The United States did not learn their lessons in Egypt and Libya,” Primakov said, hinting at the rise of Islamic radicals.
Meanwhile, Bashar Assad continues the war against his people – dozens are dying every day in a country once beloved by tourists. Thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, away from Russian-made Kalashnikov bullets and Russian-made helicopters. Human-rights defenders working in Syria “on the field,” reporting mass murder and torture cases, see no other place for Assad and his clan than a court, as a defendant. Anna Neistat, a Human Rights Watch reporter, spoke to 11- and 12-year-old victims of Assad’s army torturers. “HRW insists on making Assad, his family, commanders and bureaucrats responsible for all human rights violations that took lives of over 10,000 people in Syria,” she says.