Syria's first lady faces sanctions, contempt

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By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — As Syria's bloodshed deepens, the British-born first lady has become an object of contempt for many, a Marie Antoinette figure who shopped online for crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin stilettos while her country burned.

The European Union slapped sanctions Friday on Asma Assad, the 36-year-old wife of the president who for the past decade offered a veneer of respectability to one of the world's most opaque and ruthless dictatorships.

The Syrian government's ferocious crackdown on a year-old uprising has shattered the image of her as a glamorous, reform-minded woman who could help bring progressive values to a country that has been ruled by the Assad family dynasty for more than 40 years.

The European action — the latest punishment imposed by world leaders on Syria for its crackdown — bans her from traveling to EU countries and freezing any assets she may have there.

"She is one of the regime's deceptions," said Amer Mattar, a 26-year-old Syrian who recently fled the country because of the violence that has killed 8,000 people in the past year. "She is definitely part of this ugly formula in Syria."

A trove of emails — purported to be from the private accounts of Bashar and Asma Assad and published last month by London's Guardian newspaper — have helped unmask that deception. They appear to capture the first lady splurging on luxury goods as violence sweeps her country, placing orders for expensive jewelry, bespoke furniture, and a 2,650-pound ($4,200) vase from Harrods department store in London.

Born Asma Akhras to a prominent Syrian family living in the U.K., the future first lady grew up in the west London suburbs, a generally affluent, quiet part of the city with comfortable houses, tree-lined streets and large parks.

In a haunting twist, her family is originally from Homs, a city in central Syria that regime forces have besieged with tanks, snipers and relentless shelling to crush the resistance there. The bloodied city is now a symbol of the uprising.

Known among childhood friends as "Emma," Asma studied at King's College London, graduating in 1996 with a degree in computer science and a diploma in French literature. She was working at JP Morgan in London when she met Bashar Assad, who was then the son of the Syrian president, reportedly during a family vacation to the country.

Despite their divergent upbringings, the two could trade stories about life in London. Bashar had studied ophthalmology in London before returning to Syria to prepare for a life in politics. He was groomed for the presidency after his older brother, Basil, widely regarded as his father's chosen heir, died in a 1994 car crash.

The couple married in 2000 — the same year Bashar inherited power from his father — and Asma quickly became a glamorous face of the new regime. With her honey-colored hair and designer clothes, Asma provided a charming counterpoint to Bashar's gawky, somewhat awkward demeanor.

She was outspoken about humanitarian issues, a fact that many Syrian now point to as a sign of deep hypocrisy. In 2009, she decried an Israeli siege in Gaza as "barbaric," telling CNN that the world was "working against the clock" to save lives there.

"This is the 21st century," she said in the interview. "Where in the world could this happen? ... As a mother and as a human being, we need to make sure that these atrocities stop."

Before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the Assads often were spotted driving around town, even photographed in Damascus riding bicycles with their three children: Hafez, who is 10; Zein, 8, and Kareem, 7. They live in an apartment in the upscale Abu Rummaneh district of Damascus, as opposed to a palatial mansion like other Arab leaders.

In the years after her husband ascended to the presidency, Asma played a key role in shoring up the image of the regime, gathering fawning headlines from feature writers and fluffy profiles in fashion magazines.

"Du chic, du chic et encore du chic," gushed France's Elle magazine in 2008, which went on to name her the world's most stylish woman. In 2009, Britain's top-selling tabloid The Sun introduced its readers to the "sexy Brit" who was "bringing Syria in from the cold."

One profile in particular, a deluxe spread in Vogue magazine, has come back to haunt her. Published only a month before the start of Syria's crackdown, the article rehashed the main staples of the Asma legend: Her "killer IQ"; her charity work; and the notion that, like Disney's Princess Jasmine, Asma liked to slip out into the country incognito to meet her people.

But the article — which has since been pulled from Vogue's website — has been ridiculed as sinister in retrospect.

The Assad household, the article says, is run on "wildly democratic principles" and is equipped with a blackboard which tracks when anyone raises their voice. In the article, Bashar explains why he studied ophthalmology as his chosen field of medicine. The reason, he says, is "there is very little blood."

Asma has been mostly out of sight in the year since her husband's regime came under fire. Although she has been largely silent, she appears to be standing by her man.

She showed up briefly at a pro-regime rally in January, smiling with her children as her husband said the "conspiracy" against Syria was in its final stage. On Feb. 26, dressed in a conservative black dress, she accompanied her husband to a polling station during a referendum on a new constitution..

In one of the emails obtained by the Guardian, she describes herself as "the real dictator" in the family, a tacit acknowledgment that her husband is seen in the wider world as a despot leading a suffocating regime.

The emails portray Asma as an enthusiastic online shopper. One of the emails published by the Guardian — apparently sent as Syrian forces were preparing their ferocious assault on Homs — appeared to catch her asking a friend what she thought about a pair of 6-inch Christian Louboutin heels, laden with crystals.

"I don't think they're going 2 b useful any time soon unfortunately," the unidentified friend replies.

The Associated Press has not been able to obtain any of the emails or independently confirm their contents.

It's not just Asma's English princess image that's been wrecked by the emails; her fairy tale marriage has also come under scrutiny. Last week, The Telegraph in London published a photograph apparently sent to her husband's account of a nearly naked woman pressing her hands against a wall. The woman's identity is not known, but the paper said it wasn't his wife.

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AP writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Raphael Satter in London, Don Melvin in Brussels and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS Corrects spelling of ophthalmology throughout. With interactive /2011/syria/.)

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