Has the desert rose wilted?

As the wife of a dictator held responsible for the slaughter of his people, Asma al Assad finds herself in the shadows, writes Christopher Dickey

ASMA al Assad: Glamorous, charming, and smart, she was a darling of the Western press — until her dictator husband crossed the line.

Before her husband answered Syria’s peaceful revolution with ruthless slaughter, before the country began careering toward civil war, Western reporters routinely used words like “elegant” and “intelligent” to describe Asma al Assad.

A Vogue profile of the British-born, highly educated banker, written before the uprising and headlined “A Rose in the Desert”, told of a lissome 36-year-old who drove her own 4X4, wore Christian Louboutin shoes, and ran a “wildly democratic” household — her three young children could outvote their parents (including the president) on what furnishings to buy and where in the house to put them.

The Syrian first lady came across as a young professional and as a young mother trying to find a sane balance among all the demands on her time and energy. In her way, that’s what she very probably was.

These days, people aren’t sure what to make of her. As one Arab woman in her broad circle of acquaintances puts it: “When the West was trying to make a deal with Bashar [al Assad], Asma was regarded as his asset. There must be something interesting about this man if he is married to this kind of woman.”

But now that nobody likes Bashar anymore, everybody is saying: “How can such an educated, elegant woman marry a monster like this? There must be something wrong with her.”

Perhaps — just perhaps — the phrase to sum up Asma al Assad is “the good wife”. As far as anyone outside the family knows, she has stood by her man. Or, more likely, stood by her children while events overwhelmed her country, her people, and even her ancestral hometown — which happens to be Homs, ground zero in her husband’s ferocious efforts to crush resistance to his rule.

She’s seldom seen in public now. In January she attended a rally for Bashar, standing in the audience clutching one of her sons and her little girl. At the end of February, she showed up with the president to vote on a new constitution. She seemed to be working hard to look relaxed.

“In the photographs she looked stunned,” says Gaia Servadio, a British-Italian writer who spent two years working with Asma, trying to organise a cultural festival.

The reign of terror starts at the top and can touch anyone who isn’t trusted, even a first lady, says Servadio — but this one “should have had the guts to say something”.

One way to understand Asma’s position is to think of The Godfather movies. The Assads — the blood relatives — are real-life gangsters with their backs to the wall, ruthless and unrepentant. If they kill enough people, they believe, they might survive.

If they surrender, they are surely dead. Asma is the outsider, the Diane Keaton character. She married the heir to the fortune, but she never bargained for this life. No wonder they’re not letting her speak publicly. Who knows what she might say?

Before last year’s uprisings, Asma was one of a very few extraordinary women who had achieved something practically unheard of in modern Arab history: They had emerged from the shadows and become publicly the powers behind — or beside, or in front of — the throne.

One was Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the Egyptian dictator, who had raised her own profile even as she championed her son to succeed his father as president. Another was Queen Rania of Jordan, stunningly beautiful and highly Westernised, who consistently outshone her husband but has drastically reduced her glamorous appearances over the past year.

And then there was Asma.

No Assad woman before her ever had a public profile, not even the president’s mother, Anisa Makhlouf, or his sister Bushra, who are said to be among the most powerful and ruthless members of the clan. Asma was the rose of the desert — and now she’s all but forgotten in the storm of war.

* (c) 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast


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