Her hair was tastefully curled, her makeup flawless and discreet. Asma al-Assad’s tone, too, was impeccably sober when she gave her first television interview in eight years earlier this week.
Like all Syrians, she told her interviewer in her light London accent, she felt “pain and sadness” when she met those injured and widowed by the conflict in her country and offered to help. “Could you ignore them? In Syria we believe in honouring our word. That’s important.”
The fact that the interviewee’s husband, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, continues to drop barrel bombs on his own civilians was not raised by the interviewer from the Russian state-backed television Channel 24, though there was an acknowledgement that there was “unprecedented” suffering on both sides of the conflict. Nor was the fact that Russia’s bombing in support of Assad’s regime has led to widespread accusations of war crimes.
Why, she was asked instead, did the foreign media insist on criticising her family rather than focusing on her charity work? “That’s a question you have to ask them,” replied Assad.
Though the interview was hardly packed with revelations, the decision to speak out after years of silence has reignited fascination with a woman who has variously been described as Syria’s “desert rose” and the “first lady of hell”. How does this smart, elegant Londoner speaking the language of compassion square with the brutality of the regime her husband heads? And why was she speaking out now?
To David Lesch, a professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and the author of a book called Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, the first lady’s decision to surface was “a sign of confidence in terms of what they perceive to be their position – that they are winning. I think this is all part of a PR attempt to portray stability, inevitability, that they are in control of the country.
“I think they very much feel as though they are secure for the near future, because of the support they have received from Russia and Iran.”
Unlike the man she would go on to marry, Asma al-Assad did not grow up in the palace of a brutal dictator but in a pebble-dashed terraced house in Acton, the daughter of a Syrian-British cardiologist. She attended a Church of England school, where friends knew her as Emma, an ordinary student who was funny and friendly, though with an occasionally short fuse.
She studied French and computing at King’s College, London, then briefly became an investment banker in New York. Having met Bashar while he was training as an ophthalmologist in London, they reconnected in 2000 and married in secret later that year, months after he became president following the death of his father. She was 25.
There were great hopes, in the early years at least, that after years of brutal dictatorship, the young, western-educated doctor and his attractive British-born wife would preside over a period of greater openness and freedom.
“People talked about the ‘Damascus Spring’ when Bashar succeeded his father,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). “There were changes, a sense of it being more open.” The new president was more approachable, he says, and some of the old guard were pushed aside. Expensive PR exercises burnished the image of the couple domestically and internationally.
But even in late 2010, when a writer for US Vogue interviewed Asma for what would become a notorious profile that called her “the very freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”, there were plenty of cracks appearing in the fairytale image.
By the time the piece was published the following year, Syria’s uprising had begun, after a group of schoolboys aged between 10 and 15 from the village of Daraa were arrested and tortured for writing “The people want to topple the regime” on the walls of their school. Locals turned out in their hundreds to protest at their treatment, and the resistance rapidly spread (editor Anna Wintour later disowned the first lady and the piece has been deleted from the magazine’s website).
For a while, early in the conflict, there were questions over how much Asma knew about her husband’s activities. The wives of the British and German ambassadors to the UN made a videoappealing to her in 2012 to “take a risk, and to say openly: stop the bloodshed, stop it right now”. She could not “hide behind her husband”, they said.
But after a long and brutal conflict, there is little credibility in the suggestion she does not know, says Doyle, who believes she condones the activities of her husband’s regime. “I think it’s the analysis of some that they started to get very comfortable in power, and … power corrupts,” he says. “They grew to love the position and the trappings of power and became more comfortable with the authoritarian bent of the regime.
“After five years of seeing such horrific levels of carnage, destruction and displacement, it’s hard to believe that she and others at the top of the regime are not fully aware of what’s going on.”
Any lingering doubt was laid to rest after the Guardian published emails leaked from the couple’s private accounts that showed she had been spending vast sumson expensive jewellery, interior decor and clothes, even while bombs pounded impoverished Syrians.
The emails also illustrate the closeness of the couple’s relationship. “If we are strong together,” the first lady wrote to her husband in one email, “we will overcome this together … I love you.” These emails have circulated widely in Syria; so have Facebook photographs of members of the elite enjoying lavish parties while some in the country starve.
There are parts of government-controlled Damascus where, even five years into the devastating conflict, it is possible for the wealthy to live a comparatively normal life, and the Assads are no different. Though the vast presidential palace stands undamaged on its hilltop site, the couple and their three children Hafez, 14, Zein, 12, and Karim, 11, are widely believed by Damascans to be living in a closely guarded house in the leafy district of Malki.
She walks the children to their Montessori school each morning. Hafez has begun to appear at youth events alongside his mother, leading to suspicions he is already being groomed for the next generation of the family business. He loves computing and has grown as tall as his father, a Facebook post declared earlier this year. He is also learning Russian.
And even as Asma has withdrawn from TV and is less frequently seen in the city, her image-building continues: the president and first lady maintain official Instagram accounts, hers showing a steady stream of humanitarian visits to wounded soldiers and smiling children. Every post comes already hashtagged: #WeLoveYouAsma.
In the stalls and small shops of the capital, trinkets showing the first family remain as ubiquitous as they ever were but few in Syria have any illusions about the president and his wife, according to a well-informed source – even among the Alawites, the minority Muslim sect from which the Assads originate.
“I think there’s a great resentment even among the Alawites towards the Assads,” says the source. “Because they feel they are the ones paying the price. Even in Alawite villages you hear it. The graves for us and the palaces for them.”
“They have certainly lost whatever lustre they had prior to the outbreak of the civil war among most of the population, because that’s what the destruction of this war will do,” says Lesch, who came to know the president well in the period before the war.
“To many Syrians, they have lost their legitimacy to rule. So the big question, if he somehow does survive is: do they realise this? Does the regime adequately realise how much the public has moved away from them?”