In Brief

Assad’s wife leaves horrors of Syria for England

But did Asma al-Assad walk out in disgust - or is shewaiting to rejoin her husband?

Asma al-Assad Bashar al-Assad Syria

Has it all got too much for Syria's First Lady, British-born Asma al-Assad? In a sign that her husband's regime is beginning to falter, reports have surfaced that she has escaped to England with their children. What is unknown, however, is whether she walked out in disgust or whether she is holing up here until the storm passes. A diplomatic source was quoted in the Arab press as saying that she had been told to "get out as soon as you can". The source continued: "Her evacuation was carried out under conditions of immense secrecy, but she is now safely with her children and surrounded by security guards." She is believed to be either in London or the Home Counties. But the very fact that she is in England at all is unusual; it has long been believed that in an emergency the Assad family would move to Saudi Arabia, where they are known to have millions of assets stashed away. Of course, her family would have been a big factor. The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a diplomat, Asma grew up in Acton and studied at King's College University in London, where she was known as Emma. She married Bashar al-Assad in 2000, the same year he came to power following his father's death, and promptly quit her job at investment bank JP Morgan to relocate to Syria. Despite being married to the leader of a country whose human rights record ranks with that of Burma and North Korea, Asma was largely sheltered from the reality of life for most Syrians. With the death of his father, Bashar enjoyed the attentions of everyone from America and Britain to Turkey and Iran as each clamoured to make strategic alliances with the new government. The contrived image of Bashar as a reformer, restrained only by the lingering power of his father's old guard, was bolstered by his marriage to Asma. Beautiful, western and familiar, she was the perfect wife to present a fresh face for Syria. For a long time, it worked. As late as this March, American Vogue ran an article entitled ‘Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert’. It commented, with no trace of irony, on the "wildly democratic principles" on which the presidential family's house was run. "We all vote on what we want, and where," Asma told Vogue. "[The kids] outvoted [Bashar and I] three to two on that," she continued, pointing at a chandelier made of comic books.

To be fair to Vogue, the article would have gone to press early in the new year, before the pro-democracy protests began. And Vogue is not alone in having gushed over a woman who is intimately tied up in her husband’s cruel regime. Harvard's Arab Alumni Association organised an event earlier this year in Damascus at which Asma was to be the keynote speaker. "A thought-provoking, inspiring and tireless leader and advocate," they wrote on their website, "the First Lady's address will certainly be the highlight of our event." The day before the planned event on March 17, Reuters reported that a group of non-violent protesters were beaten and detained for calling for the release of the estimated 3,000-4,000 political prisoners currently held in Syria. Although such occurrences have always been common place in Syria, over the last few months, the Arab Spring has finally caught up with Bashar's regime. Protests, which started in the small southern town of Daraa, have snowballed across the country. Unlike in Egypt, however, they have been met with characteristically brutal and undisguised force, including snipers, prevention of medical access, and tanks. Human rights organisations estimate that around 800 civilians have so far been killed. Even women, normally dealt with more leniently, have become fair game for Syria's army as they battle to suppress opposition to Bashar's dictatorship. Over the weekend, three women were shot dead by plain-clothed security agents whilst taking part in an all-female demonstration just outside the coastal city of Baniyas. It is possible that the well-educated and London-raised Asma, finding this a step too far, has decided to escape to the bosom of her own family. But she could simply be waiting for her husband’s crackdown to finally take effect – or, if that should fail, for him to join her in exile.

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