It was almost twenty years ago now that Syria’s sights had seemed to be set on modernization and reform. It was at the turn of the millennium. Bashar al-Assad was elected to be the 19th President of Syria, and the Western world was looking to the newly elected president with small, but justified hopes that he would bring major reform to Syrian governance.
For starters, he was not a career politician.
His father, Hafez al-Assad, had served as Syria’s 18th President from 1971-2000, and had ruled Syria with an iron fist.
Bashar al-Assad, graduated from the Medical School of Damascus in 1988, was poised to become an ophthalmologist, and his older brother Basil was to follow in their father Hafez’s footsteps. But in 1994, Basil was killed in a car accident, and Bashar was called upon to take his father’s seat.
Former teachers and classmates described Bashar as humble, polite, and punctual, and that one would never guess that he was the son of a president.
Over the next six years, from 1994 to his father’s death in 2000, Bashar was groomed to become Syria’s 19th President. He spent over four years in Syrian military affairs, public affairs, and learning the mechanisms of governance.
His countrymen and the world looked on with hope as he began his presidency putting corrupted government officials of his father’s regime on trial, introducing the internet to the Syrian public, and releasing hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood from prison.
Despite the fact that Assad was an outspoken critic of the U.S. and Israel, he still gained global interest in that he seemed to be a genuine source of reform. Aside his early progressive strides as president, his marriage stood as testimony to a more open-minded Syria. Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite-Shia (a very difficult sect to distinguish from Twelver Shi’ism to the untrained eye) and his wife Asma al-Assad is a London-born Sunni-Muslim that holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the King’s College in London.
Vogue magazine published “A Rose in a Desert,” in March 2011. In it, Asma was praiseworthy, passionate, progressive, “wildly democratic,” and Syria was “the safest country in The Middle East.”
It was published as the Arab Spring was beginning to reach Syria, and right at about the same time Bashar al-Assad began to unleash merciless attacks against Syrian citizens and protestors. The article received harsh criticism, and Vogue’s editor, as well as the original author, were even accused of aiding the Assad regime through a public relations campaign. The article was removed from Vogue’s website a few weeks after it was published without explanation.
The first paragraph of “A Rose in a Desert” introduces First Lady Asma al-Assad, thusly: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not of the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate act of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.’ She is the first lady of Syria.”
Needless to say, given her accomplishments, a series of questions and speculations arose and spun rampantly around how this enigmatically sophisticated woman (who could say, among many other things, that she’d at one point been accepted to attend Harvard University to earn her MBA) had come to support Bashar al-Assad in the face of the Syrian Civil War.
World leaders such as the wives of the British and German Ambassadors to the United Nations addressed her in a video in 2012, and asked Asma to “take a risk, and to say openly: stop the bloodshed, stop it right now.”
Various countries offered her and her children political asylum, and a life afterwards that could have perhaps matched the life she had before she married Bashar. She resolutely refused, on the basis that she believed “It doesn’t take a genius to know what these people were really after. It [offer of asylum] was a deliberate attempt to shatter people’s confidence in their president.”
There was a long period of time in which she did not address the public, and was all but hidden from the public eye as the mounting death and destruction of the war was becoming historic. And much of the people thought she’d done just that: taken asylum.
Her seemingly eternal response to that public sentiment reads: “I’ve been here since the beginning and I’ve never thought about being anywhere else.”
- Asma al-Assad reveals she was offered ‘financial security’ to leave Syria in rare interview
Asma al-Assad, the Syrian president’s British-born wife, has said she turned down offers of financial security and safety for her children if she fled the war-torn country.
She has an Instagram account that’s been updated on a regular basis since the fall of 2016 that shows pictures of her on frequent trips visiting wounded soldiers and smiling children, which is how she seems to spend the majority of her time as First Lady. And it seems as if Asma had earned an overwhelming amount of “benefit of the doubt” amongst her critics when they were criticizing her for “living under a rock,” and/or making the claim that it would be impossible for Asma to not be aware of the extent of Bashar’s malice.
The fact that her critics and pleading supporters would ask themselves how it could be possible, ask the world how it would be possible, and ask Asma how it could be possible that she didn’t know what was/is going on spoke volumes of the positive person they had still perceived her to be. They had to have thought that the only rationale behind her inaction is that she didn’t know what was happening (Asma wouldn’t stand by for that). But the question remained: how could she not know that her husband, Syria’s 19th President, is one of the most ruthless dictators in the world today?
To me, at least, it wouldn’t be possible for her to not know the extent of the war’s horrors, and the death tolls.
Asma’s early role as Syria’s First Lady, when Syria seemed to be heading toward progression revolved around social and economic development. She traveled to almost all of the 14 Syrian governances in person to evaluate where the most attention was needed, and what attention was needed. From there she began establishing a series of charities that ranged from building business skills for youth, helping children with cancer, and cultural development. She publically took progressive positions for women’s rights and education, and due to her work, and her advocacy, she’d earned a place on Middle East 411 Magazine’s “World’s Most Influential Arabs,” and even earned $18 million from the United Nations to assist her development programs.
A Glimpse at the Former "Desert Rose"
- Asma al-Assad: from Syria's 'desert rose' to 'first lady of hell' | World news | The Guardian
Bashar al-Assad’s wife has spoken about her ‘pain’ at the conflict but few believe she can be oblivious of husband’s brutal regime
Asma was born and raised in London. Her father was a cardiologist and her mother had served as First Secretary at the Syrian Embassy in London. She graduated from King’s College in London with a Bachelor’s in Computer Science and French Literature (she speaks Arabic, English, French, and Spanish) and made an entry into an investment banking career with J.P. Morgan; she was also on her way to earning an MBA at Harvard University. It was about two years later that she would marry Bashar al-Assad (in 2000) at the age of 25.
In the midst of the Syrian Civil War, Asma went eight years without giving an interview. That ended in 2016 when she did an interview with a Russian-backed news channel.
One could assume she gave the interview in response to the speculation that she had taken asylum, while others believed it was a political move by the Assad’s to exhibit strength, unity, and normality within the Assad regime. It would also then seem to be a show of confidence from the Assad’s that they didn’t feel threatened, or even as if they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
In an interview she gave to Ruptly eight months ago, she appeared about as calm and collected as she was reported to be in her 2016 interview. She stated that “it is the West dividing our children in this conflict,” which is a sentiment her husband, and their Russian allies often express, pointing in general to the framework of Western media.
Even still, it is difficult to climb 400,000 bodies and quell the sense that she is complicit with Bashar’s murderous, and often toxically sadistic treatment of Syrian civilians, be they protestors, or totally innocent.
There are even some critics that have suggested that Asma herself has succumbed to the seduction of power. The Guardian published leaked emails that showed Asma spending a fortune on jewelry, home décor, and clothing, even as the bombs were falling.
It is fairly safe to say that she has passed a “point of no return.”
Do you see a future for the Assad Regime?
The world had once been this rose’s garden, and she is now commonly perceived as a defender and spokesperson of Bashar al-Assad.
The E.U. had frozen her assets and imposed a travel ban in the spring of 2012, but she had still been allowed to travel to the U.K. However, as of April 2017, it stands for questioning as to whether her citizenship in the U.K. could be revoked on the grounds of “terror-related” crimes, which is an occurrence that is not unheard of in the U.K.
Theresa May has revoked citizenship of at least 33 people since 2010 on such grounds, but this can only be done if that citizen has retained their citizenship in another country, or could become a citizen of another country, which would be the case for Asma considering her status as a Syrian national. And it seems now that the questions surrounding her and her compliance with her husband’s actions cannot evolve much further than they already have.
How can she not know?
Is she complicit?
Is she a war criminal?
Is she a threat?
The fact that efforts to reach out to Asma have all but failed resonates in the statement she made in response to U.S. air-strikes in Syria in April of 2017.
“The Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic affirms that what America has done is an irresponsible act that only reflects a short-sightedness, a narrow horizon, a political and military blindness to reality, and a naïve pursuit of a frenzied false propaganda campaign that fueled the regimes arrogance,” she said.
Now often grouped as a “dictator’s wife,” rather than a “First Lady” her profile is still drastically different from other dictator’s wives, such as former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali’s wife, who reportedly had over 3,000 pairs of shoes, decorated the house with priceless artifacts, and punished house chefs by plunging their hands into boiling oil.
Despite the emails that showed Asma’s excessive spending, she’d always been known to be one of the most casually dressed first ladies in the world, often seen in jeans and a t-shirt, and to maintain a humble charm that matched Bashar’s in his medical school years; as well as their rather approachable demeanor during the early years of Bashar’s presidency. And while Ben Ali’s wife would have foreign ice cream flown in for their children, Asma takes to raising her children on democratic principles (while Syrian civilians are massacred for uttering a word against the regime) and chore charts. The Assad’s obviously don’t live in a humble homestead, but even still, the difference with Asma is in her belief, and the respect of Asma, be it now a hateful respect (if even respect anymore at all) is/was in her belief.
The year 2009 seems a century ago today, but it was in 2009 when she described Israel’s actions against Palestinians unfathomably. “This is the 21st century,” she said, “Where in the world could this happen?”
It’s been said that her Instagram photos, of which just about all of them feature her in her charitable work, are “out of touch.”
Look at them yourself, and ask, is there a political motive? Is it disturbingly far too little, and insultingly far too late? Is she continuing with the work she intended to do more than a decade ago, regardless of the questions, speculations, and accusations?
How do Syrians answer those questions? When all of this is said and done, will she have a chance of recovering? There are many that believe the barbaric actions taken by the Assad regime are completely unforgiveable, and that they will be perceived as occupying Syrian leadership, rather than rightfully owning it.
Will Asma be held as just as responsible as Bashar?
Along with the leaked emails that showed Asma’s luxury spending, there were also emails sent back and forth between her and Bashar.
“If we stay strong together…”
“We will overcome this together…”
“I love you,” Asma wrote.
As shown, if there’s one truth that will always hold with Asma, it’s the relentlessness of her decisions, and that her drive, for better, or for far worse won’t stop even if there isn’t a road below it.
- Could Asma al-Assad be stripped of her British citizenship? | World news | The Guardian
She was born in the UK and she’s no terrorist, but it is up to the Home Office to decide whether her marriage to the Syrian president is grounds for revocation