Currently, Syria is on the brink of civil war, with rebel forces being met with startling violence from the Syrian government that has been condemned by the U.S., Arab League, China, Russia, and EU states. Syrian army deserters and civilians have united to create an opposing army called the Free Syrian army, but it currently lacks organized leadership and has little-to-no prospects of foreign intervention.
Called “a rose in the desert” by Vogue magazine in its March 2011 edition (an article that has been scrubbed from the internet), Asma al Assad’s (wife of Bashar al Assad, the iron-fisted ruler of Syria) life is one of polarizing ends. Truly, she is a rose. Painted in the media as a woman of grace and splendor, she represents the beauty of a rose well; however, she also carries the thorns as she has become a controversial public figures during the conflict in Syria.
Sporting designer labels like Chanel and Christian Louboutin, Asma oozes with elegance and poise, aided by her British accent and high IQ. On one end her presence alone is enough to spark hope in Westernizing Syria as she delivers statements like, “We all deserve the same things. We should all be able to live in peace, stability, and with our dignities.” On the opposite end, she’s married to one of the fiercest dictators in the Middle East and has stood silent as the country is in turmoil, left to shop in Europe during the first uprisings, and has since been banned from traveling to or shopping in Europe. Even Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, has disowned Asma, when just last year she was praising her.
Born in London where she was known as Emma, Asma worked as an investment banker and met her husband Bashar in London. They fell in love and married in 2000 after Bashar’s father died, and he was voted in as president with 97% of the vote. They lived a life full of glamour, dining with American celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and traveled to exotic places.
As Bashar ascended to the presidency, many hopes were pinned on him redirecting Syria towards more Western values, and Asma was meant to be the face of that new regime, because well, people like looking at her face. These hopes stemmed from the fact of their marriage—Asma hails from Sunni origins, and the Ba’ath party, which the Assads are a part of, are strongly tied to Shia Islam. The Ba’ath party disapproved immensely of their marriage, but many hoped that this marriage was a sign of more understanding coming between the two factions of Islam. Also, both Bashar and Asma were educated in London, so as they returned to Syria many promises of Westernization were fluttering around.
In July of 2001, Asma created a fund that would foster economic development and improve the quality of life. Traveling around to different villages in Syria, Asma encouraged community support and a respect of heritage. Another of her campaigns was to improve the lives of women and highlight their key roles in development. In April 2002 Asma al-Assad hosted the largest gathering of business women in the Middle East.
Although she is a woman in a Middle Eastern country, underestimating the first lady of Syria would be unwise. According to an article from Reuters: “As Syria slides towards civil war and foreign powers watch for cracks within the ruling clan, understanding Asma could prove vital to understanding the Assads and the future of the Syrian crisis.”
Two wives of UN ambassadors also felt this way. In April 2012, the two women sent a video letter to Asma urging her to stand up for peace, and also launched an online petition. The video, “signed by women everywhere”, has some harsh criticism for Asma: “No one cares about your image, we care about your action. Right now.” The voice over is set to pictures of the horrors of Syria, and contains graphic images of the children dying due to Asma’s husband’s actions. The video has a call to action, directing Asma to “stand up for peace” and asking women everywhere to send a letter to the first lady of Syria, urging her to do something.
Some say that Asma has no choice or power, but others refute that with an email leaked from Asma published in March 2012 that quotes her saying, “I am the REAL dictator. He has no choice.”
In January 2011, Syrian demonstrations began with demands for the overthrow of the Ba’ath Party, which the Assads are a part of. Although neither side discloses that sectarianism is playing a role in the conflict, it is interesting to note that the uprising is led by the Sunni Muslims, whereas the presidency is associated with Shia Islam.
The Syrian conflict is spilling over into neighboring Lebanon, where civilians there are supplying the Syrian rebels with weapons. The future is tense, and the world is watching with bated breath to see if Asma will be able to play a role in bringing peace where it is so desperately needed.
Check out more pictures of Asma al-Assad, the face of troubled Syria, and pictures of the Syrian conflict at Newscom.
You may be interested in some of these other posts from FocalPoint: