For the first time in 8 years, Syria's first lady Asma al Assad has given a rare interview with Russian state television. Intelligent, caring and elegant, Mrs Assad draws on Princess Diana's humility and glamour as she talks of her devotion to the Syrian people.
But beyond the designer clothes and talk of citizens' empowerment, Asma al Assad is the luxurious face of the despotic Syrian regime. With the click of her Louboutin heels, Syria's Lady Macbeth has long courted the attention of the media in an effort to obscure the reality of life under her husband's rule.
For Asma al Assad, it has been a short road from London schoolgirl to First Lady of a rogue Arab state. Born Asma Akhras in well-to-do West London, ambition ran in the Syrian immigrant family. Her father left Syria in the 1950s to chase his dream of a British education, while her mother served as the First Secretary in the Syrian embassy. At university, Asma took on the male-dominated computer science faculty and graduated with top marks. She later joined the cutthroat world of investment banking, and was well on her way to an MBA at Harvard before joining the Assad clan (a fact she is keen to publicise).
Unlike Asma, her future husband was anything but ambitious. As the awkward second son of the late dictator Hafez al Assad, Bashar al Assad lived in his elder brother Bassel's shadow. Born shortly before his father gained control of the nation, Bashar was content studying medicine while his politically ambitious brother took charge. But that all changed in 1994, when Bassel was killed in a car accident and Bashar was thrust into the role of heir apparent.
At this point, the fortunes of the Akhras family changed. They had been friendly with the Assad clan for decades, and Asma's friendship with the then-heir Bashar was the perfect opportunity for the middle-class West London family to climb the Syrian social ladder. Although their courtship was unpublicised, the pair married in 2000 shortly after Bashar ascended the throne. In Syria's regal dictatorship, like medieval matchmakers, the Akhras family successfully cemented their position with a marriage.
Now the First Lady of a state sponsoring terrorism, Asma took it upon herself to charm the Western media. Characterising herself as a woman of the people, Asma employed international PR firms to promote her image as the moderniser of a country blighted with grinding poverty. Despite Asma's lavish lifestyle akin to Marie Antoinette, Vogue wrote that the "rose in the desert" ran her household on "wildly democratic principles", while The Guardian described her "not as the submissive consort [...] but as an equal partner of her husband".
However dictators are rarely remembered for their actions during fair-weather. Despite being lauded as the bridge between the Arab and Western worlds, Asma's credentials were called into question with the advent of the Arab Spring. As her husband ordered troops to torture teenagers and open fire on protesters, Asma saw her 'Lady of the People' profile evaporate before her. Vogue subsequently removed any trace of the article from its website and Asma, the Western-educated reformer, became Mrs Assad, the wife of a Middle Eastern despot. As Bashar began to ruthlessly slaughter his victims like Sweeney Todd, London-born Asma embraced her role as Mrs Lovett.
The UK press' unfavourable coverage of the unfolding crisis raised eyebrows in the London Syrian community, and the Akhras family swung into action to protect their social capital. In private emails leaked by the Syrian opposition, Asma's father is shown to have personally counselled Bashar and Asma on how to counter the negative publicity. Despite the chaos, Mrs Assad continued her gilded lifestyle. Other leaked emails reveal how, like Imelda Marcos, she seems more preoccupied with luxury shoes than the suffering and oppression that has characterised her country.
Sitting before the Kremlin's cameras, it is easy to forget that Asma al Assad is complacent with the war crimes happening within her fiefdom. Although she speaks of her work to support local communities, it is really their support she seeks in order to maintain her husband's feudal control of Syria. Mrs Assad tells the interviewer that it is important, despite the glamorous press attention of the past, to be true to who she truly is. Unfortunately for the people of Syria, the ambitious, merciless banker has done exactly that.
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