In Depth

The dictator's wife: Who is Asma Al-Assad?

The London-born wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has faced criticism for her silence during the civil war

When British-born Asma al-Assad flew to London in December 2002, she and her husband, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had the red carpet rolled out for them and were given a private appointment with the Queen.

The young Bashar offered hope of a close relationship between Syria and the West after years of oppression under the brutal rule of his father, Hafez al-Assad.

A decade later, the Arab Spring domino effect catapulted the nation into a deadly civil war.

Six years on, more than 470,000 people have died and more than half of Syria's pre-war population has been displaced.

Today, the al-Assads are barred from entering the EU and their assets have been frozen.

So what do we know about the first lady of Syria?

From Acton to Damascus

Asma Akhras, a British national, was raised in a "modest, pebble-dashed terraced house in an anonymous street in Acton, west London" reports The Guardian.

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist, she was born into a well-educated Syrian-British family. Despite her Sunni Muslim background, she attended a Church of England school, going by the anglicised name, Emma.

An investment banker by trade

After graduating with a first class honours degree from King's College, London, Asma embarked on a high-flying career in investment banking.

For two years she worked as a hedge-fund analyst for Deutsche bank, before joining US-giant JP Morgan and moving to New York.

In 2000, she left JP Morgan and moved to Syria, intent on marrying her doctor-boyfriend, the newly appointed president Bashar al-Assad, who she met in London while he was training as an ophthalmologist (eye specialist). They had a secret wedding and now have three children: Hafez, 15, Zein, 13, and Karim, 12.

Peace, stability and dignity

Before the bloodshed of the war, al-Assad said she was committed to reforming the Middle East and ending the violence that occurs there.

In 2008, she addressed members of Follow The Women, a human rights movement.

In the prophetic speech, one that many commentators now regard as hypocritical, Asma concludes that "we all deserve the same thing: we should all be able to live in peace, stability – and with our dignities".

"A rose in the desert"

Asma gave a rare interview to Vogue in late 2010 that came under fierce criticism for its glowing depiction of her. The magazine called her "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies".

Despite the oppressive nature of the Syrian regime and mounting political unrest (the article went to print as the nation fell to the Arab Spring), the Assads were praised as "wildly democratic" and Asma described as "a rose in the desert".

Interviewer Joan Juliet Buck has since expressed regret at the depiction of Asma, labelling her "the first lady of hell" in an article for the Daily Telegraph.

A love of Louboutins

Private emails between Asma al-Assad and Bashar, which were leaked to and published by the Guardian in 2012, revealed Asma's love of exclusive Louboutin heels, along with her purchase of diamond jewellery and Parisian, tailor-made chandeliers. The Guardian said the emails "expose how Assad's coterie continue to enjoy a gilded lifestyle insulated from the slaughter around them". 

"Do not hide behind your husband"

In an unconventional move to make the President's wife engage with the violent consequences of the war, the wives of the British and German ambassadors to the UN released a hard-hitting video personally addressed to Asma.

Over four-minutes long, and released shortly after the Guardian's leaked emails were published, the video alternates between images of the luxurious life led by the Assads and graphic pictures of the war's victims, including dying children.

Asma did not publicly acknowledge the video.

Rejection of asylum

In October 2017 Asma gave her first television interview since the conflict began, speaking to the Russian-backed Channel 24.

In the interview she revealed she had been offered asylum for her and her children but turned down the opportunity to leave the war-torn nation.

Asma claimed the asylum offer "was never about my wellbeing or [that of] my children – it was a deliberate attempt to shatter people's confidence in their president."

Still on social media

On her official Instagram account @asmaalassad her posts show her holding a newborn baby inside a hospital maternity ward, laughing with loyalist families and playing with orphaned children of regime soldiers.

The "cuddly" shots show the Assads "live on a different planet from the Syrians caught up in the country's brutal civil war", says the New York Post.

Following last month's US air strike against Syria – retaliation for the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons – Al-Assad used her social media accounts to "attack the West and praise the Syrian regime's 'martyrs'", reports The Independent.  

A Briton – but for how long?

Despite the al-Assads being subject to an EU-wide travel ban, Asma is still permitted to travel to the UK on account of her British nationality, although it's highly unlikely she would come. There have been repeated calls to revoke this right and to strip her of her British citizenship.

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