Asma al-Assad

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Asma al-Assad
أسماء الأسد
Asma al-Assad.jpg
Asma al-Assad in 2003
First Lady of Syria
Assumed office
December 2000
Preceded by Anisa Makhlouf
Personal details
Born Asma Akhras[1]
(1975-08-11) 11 August 1975 (age 40)
London, England[1]
Nationality Syrian, British[1][2]
Spouse(s) Bashar al-Assad (m. 2000)[1]
Relations Fawaz Akhras[1]
Children 3[1]
Alma mater King's College London[1]
Religion Sunni Islam[1]

Asma al-Assad (Arabic: أسماء الأسد‎‎, Levantine pronunciation: [ˈʔasma lˈʔasad] or [ʔasˈmaːʔ elˈʔasad]) (born 11 August 1975, née Akhras (Arabic: أسماء فواز الأخرس‎‎, [ˈʔasma fawˈwaːz elˈʔaxras]), is a British-Syrian national and the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[3][4] She was born to Syrian-born parents, raised and educated in the United Kingdom, and graduated from King's College London in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in computer science and French literature. She briefly pursued a career in international investment banking before she married President Bashar al-Assad in December 2000 and remained in Syria following the wedding. As first lady she played a major role in implementing governmental organizations involved with social and economic development throughout the country, part of a reform initiative under Bashar's governance that was halted with the onset of the Syrian Civil War.[5]

As of 2013 and as a result of the ongoing Civil War, Assad is subject to economic sanctions relating to high-level Syrian government officials, making it illegal in the European Union (EU) to provide her with certain material assistance, for her to obtain certain products, and curtailing her ability to travel within the EU excluding the United Kingdom.[6][7][8][9][10][11]

Early life and education[edit]

Assad was born Asma Akhras on August 11, 1975 in London to Fawaz Akhras, a consultant cardiologist at the Cromwell Hospital, London, and his wife Sahar Akhras (née Otri), a retired diplomat who served as first secretary at the Syrian Embassy in London.[1] Her parents are Sunni Muslims and of Syrian origin, hailing from the city of Homs.[1][12] She grew up in Acton, where she went to Twyford Church of England High School and later a private girls' school, Queen's College.[13] She graduated from King's College London in 1996 with a first-class bachelor of science degree in computer science and a diploma in French literature.[14] She speaks English, Arabic, French, and Spanish.[1]

Finance career[edit]

After graduating from King's College London, she started work as an economics analyst at Deutsche Bank Group in the hedge fund management division with clients in Europe and East Asia.[1][2] In 1998 she joined the investment banking division of J.P. Morgan where she worked on a team that specialized in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.[15][16] She credits her banking experience with giving her "analytical thinking" and an ability to "[understand] the business side of running a company" that inspired her later work in Syria.[17]

Assad and the First Lady of Brazil, Marisa Leticia, in the National Museum of Syria, 2003

First Lady[edit]

She reconnected with Bashar al-Assad, the future president of Syria and a longtime family friend, while he was studying ophthalmology in London, and they remained in touch.[1] After Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's death in June 2000, Bashar took over the presidency, as Hafez's intended heir, Bashar's brother, had died in a car accident in 1994.[17] Asma moved to Syria in November 2000 and married Bashar in December of that year. The marriage surprised many since there had been no media reports of their dating and courtship prior to the wedding.[1] Many interpreted the union as a reconciliation and sign of progression towards a more reformative government as Asma grew up in the United Kingdom and represents the Sunni majority unlike Bashar.[18] During this time period out of the spotlight after the wedding, Asma travelled throughout Syria to 100 villages in 13 of the 14 governorates to speak with Syrians and learn where she should direct her future policies.[19] She went on to create a collection of organizations that functioned under the charity sector of the government, a new initiative for a traditionally Ba'athist governing structure, referred to as the Syrian Trust for Development; the organizations include FIRDOS (rural micro-credit), SHABAB (business skills for youth), BASMA (children with cancer), RAWAFED (cultural development), the Syrian Organization for the Disabled, and the Syrian Development Research Centre, aimed to target rural communities, economic development, disabled citizens, cultural development, and children's and women's development, respectively. Most well-known were the MASSAR centers she created, locations that functioned as community centers for children to learn active citizenship. From this work, she earned a spot as one of the Middle East 411 Magazine's "World's Most Influential Arabs". [20] Today, the legitimacy of these organizations and their formation is criticized for being part of a reformative public image but not actually creating developmental change the way they were supposedly intended to.[5] Reports have documented stagnancy of action at the executive levels of the organizations and possible corruption.[19]


Public image[edit]

As seen by her work above, she was described by analysts and in media as an important part of the public relations effort of the Syrian government early in her tenure as first lady and she was credited with taking progressive positions on women's rights and education.[16][21][22] The United Nations Development Program, UNDP, spent US$ 18 million to help organise a complex set of reform initiatives showing the Syrian government was working toward a more modern and progressive form of government, a key part of which was helping to create "a reformer's aura" for Assad, highlighting her participation in the Syrian Trust for Development until the program was suspended as the country descended into civil war.[23][24] As a Sunni Muslim by birth, Assad's leading role was also important for the view of the Syrian government and president, an Alawite, among the Sunni majority of Syria.[2] Much of her modern day image involves public questioning about her role in Syria's governance alongside her husband, particularly in contrast to the programs she implemented within the country before the conflict; media reports include questions such as, "What are the chances that some of the thousands who have been killed, wounded, or imprisoned during the current unrest were involved in Massar, the organization that she founded in 2005 to involve young people in active citizenship?" [25] The following remark addresses such claims:

She is said to be in favor of economic and technological reform, but there is very little information regarding her modes and areas of influence, or the extent to which she attempts to promote her ideas in the face of the opposition of other family members. Unlike Bashar’s mother, who rarely appeared in public, Asma has played a relatively prominent public role. . . . However, there is no sign that Asma is involved in any of the wider consultations that Bashar holds with his advisors, belongs to any cliques within the regime, or has had any influence on nondomestic issues (such as Lebanon or the peace process with Israel).

— Shmuel Bar[1]:380–381
Bashar and Asma al-Assad during a trip to Moscow, 2005.

Syrian civil war[edit]

A serious blow has been dealt to her public image since the Syrian Civil War intensified in early 2012, as the first lady was criticized for remaining silent throughout the beginning of the Syrian uprising.[2] The Daily Telegraph reported that in January 2012, despite worldwide condemnation of her husband's government, she appeared with him and two of their children at a pro-government rally.[26] She issued her first official statement to international media since the insurrection began in February 2012, nearly a year after the first serious protests.[21][27][28] Also in early February, she sent an email to The Times stating: "The President is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role". The communique also described her continued support for charities and rural development activities [29] and related that she "comforts" the "victims of the violence".[26][30]

On 23 March 2012, the European Union froze her assets and placed a travel ban on her and President Assad's other close family members as part of escalating sanctions against the Syrian government.[31][32] Assad herself remains able to travel to the UK because of her British nationality but she is barred from entering the rest of the EU.[33]

On 16 April 2012, Huberta von Voss Wittig and Sheila Lyall Grant, the wives of the German and British ambassadors to the United Nations, released a four-minute video asking Assad to stand up for peace and urge her husband to end the bloodshed in her country.[34][35]

She had not been seen in public regularly since the July 2012 bombing of the Military Intelligence Directorate, leading to press speculation and government denials that she had fled the country or the Capital.[36][37] She made a public appearance at the Damascus Opera House for an event called "Mother's Rally" on 18 March 2013, refuting the rumors.[38][39] As of September 2013, as well, her public Instagram page continued to be updated with photos of Asma engaged in community service activities.[40] She made another public appearance in October 2013 and further dispelled the rumors of her fleeing the country by saying "I was here yesterday, I'm here today and I will be here tomorrow".[41]

Vogue article[edit]

In March 2011, Vogue published a flattering profile of Syria's first lady titled "A Rose in the Desert" authored by veteran fashion writer Joan Juliet Buck. The article was later removed from Vogue’s website without editorial comment that spring.[2][42][43] Responding to media inquiries about the disappearance of Assad's profile, Vogue’s editor stated that "as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that [Syria’s] priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue".[44] The New York Times later reported that the piece was intended as part of a larger Syrian government-sponsored image campaign coordinated by the public relations firm Brown Lloyd James.[44][45] Buck has since written another article for Newsweek giving an extremely critical account of Assad.[46]

Personal life[edit]

Asma and Bashar al-Assad have three children: Hafez, Zein, and Karim.[1]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Bar, Shmuel (2006). "Bashar's Syria: The Regime and its Strategic Worldview" (PDF). Comparative Strategy 25 (5): 353–445. doi:10.1080/01495930601105412. ISSN 0149-5933. Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Golovnina, Maria (19 March 2012). "Asma al Assad, a "desert rose" crushed by Syria's strife". Reuters. Retrieved 10 January 2013. 
  3. ^ "Assad's British wife targeted by EU as Annan pursues talks on ceasefire" Saturday, 24 March 2012, The Scotsman
  4. ^ Ramdani, Nabila (10 May 2011). "Is Asma Assad in London?". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 11 June 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Ruiz de Elvira, L.; Zintl, T. (2014). "The end of the Ba'athist social contract in Bashar al-Assad's Syria: reading sociopolitical transformations through charities and broader benevolent activism". International Journal of Middle East Studies 46 (2): 329–349. 
  6. ^ Blair, David (16 March 2012). "Bashar al Assad's wife 'could face two-year prison term' for sanctions busting after shopping spree". The Daily Telegraph. 
  7. ^ "Syria crisis: EU sanctions on Asma al-Assad". BBC News. 23 March 2012. 
  8. ^ "Syria: Asma al-Assad hit with EU sanctions". The Daily Telegraph. 23 March 2012. 
  9. ^ Walker, Peter (20 March 2012). "Assad's wife to face EU sanctions". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 10 September 2015. 
  10. ^ Robinson, Frances; Norman, Laurence (24 March 2012). "EU Targets Bashar al-Assad's Wife With New Sanctions". The Wall Street Journal. (subscription required (help)). 
  11. ^ Marquardt, Alexander (23 March 2012). "Syria's Stylish First Lady's Shopping Sprees Now Hit By Sanctions". ABC News. 
  12. ^ Bar'el, Zvi (27 April 2011). "In Syria, the army's loyalty to Assad runs deep". Haaretz. Retrieved 17 July 2011. 
  13. ^ "President Assad's wife banned from travelling to Europe... but not Britain". The Mirror. 23 March 2012. Retrieved 17 July 2015. 
  14. ^ Harvey, Oliver (3 July 2009). "Sexy Brit bringing Syria in from the cold". The Sun. Retrieved 26 March 2011. 
  15. ^ "The First Lady". Embassy of Syria, Washington, D.C. Archived from the original on 21 May 2012. 
  16. ^ a b Bennet, James (10 July 2005). "The Enigma of Damascus". The New York Times. 
  17. ^ a b Buck, Joan Juliet (July 30, 2012). "My Vogue interview with Syria's first lady". Newsweek. Newsweek. 
  18. ^ Jones, L. (2001). "The European press views the Middle East". The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 20 (2): 33. 
  19. ^ a b Bevan, B. (2005). "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's trial by fire". Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 24 (5): 85–86. 
  20. ^ "World's 50 most influential Arabs" (47). Middle East 411. May 2010. 
  21. ^ a b "Syria's First Lady Asma al‑Assad Falling from Grace". Al Arabiya. Agence France-Presse. 14 January 2012. Archived from the original on 9 February 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2015. 
  22. ^ "Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man?". CNN. 25 December 2011. Retrieved 14 February 2012. 
  23. ^ Russell, George (20 September 2012). "Before Assad unleashed violence, UN showcased wife Asma as a 'champion' of reform". Fox News. Retrieved 21 September 2012. 
  24. ^ Russell, George (8 October 2012). "UN-sponsored group in Syria included Assad kin cited as corrupt by US, documents show". Fox News. Retrieved 8 October 2012. 
  25. ^ Ramdani, Nabila (May 23, 2011). "The Gloss Has Worn Off". New Statesman. 
  26. ^ a b "Syria's First Lady Asma al-Assad breaks her silence". The Telegraph. 7 February 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  27. ^ "Asma al-Assad, the glamorous face of Syria's dictatorship". National Post. 13 January 2012. Retrieved 10 January 2013. 
  28. ^ Fletcher, Martin (30 January 2012). "Has Syria's Princess Diana become its Marie Antoinette?". The Australian. (subscription required (help)). 
  29. ^ "First lady breaks silence to support President Assad". The Age. Agence France-Presse. 8 February 2012. 
  30. ^ "Asma al-Assad and the tricky role of the autocrat's wife". BBC. 8 February 2012. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  31. ^ "Syria crisis: EU to put sanctions on Asma al-Assad". BBC News. 23 March 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2012. [1]
  32. ^ "Council Implementing Decision 2012/172/CFSP implementing Decision 2011/782/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria". Official Journal of the European Union (Brussels: The Council of the European Union). 23 March 2012. Archived from the original on 26 November 2015. 
  33. ^ "Assad's relatives face asset freeze and travel ban as EU steps up sanctions". The Guardian. 23 March 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2012. 
  34. ^ "UN ambassador wives in peace plea to Syria's Asma Assad". BBC News. 16 April 2012. Retrieved 18 April 2012. 
  35. ^ International letter and petition to Asma al-Assad (Youtube video by Huberta von Voss Wittig and Sheila Lyall Grant, 16 April 2012)
  36. ^ "Hunt for Assad is on amid claims of wife Asma's exit to Russia". The Independent (London, UK). 20 July 2012. Retrieved 26 July 2012. 
  37. ^ "Free Syrian Army move HQ from Turkey to Syria". France 24. 23 September 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2012. 
  38. ^ Syria: Asma al-Assad makes rare public appearance
  39. ^ Fantz, Ashley (18 March 2013). "Surrounded by children, Syria’s first lady makes rare appearance". CNN. 
  40. ^ "Assad's wife turns to Instagram to boost image". Radio Free Europe. September 2013. 
  41. ^ "Asma al-Assad denies leaving Syria". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
  42. ^ Cook, John (28 February 2011). "Vogue Defends Profile of Syrian First Lady". The Atlantic. Retrieved 16 August 2012. 
  43. ^ Cook, John (20 May 2011). "Memory Hole: Vogue Disappears Adoring Profile of Syrian Butcher's Wife". Gawker. Retrieved 18 June 2012. 
  44. ^ a b Allen, Nick (11 June 2012). "Syria: Vogue's Anna Wintour disowns Asma al-Assad". The Telegraph. Retrieved 13 June 2012. 
  45. ^ "Syria's Assads Turned to West For Glossy P.R.". The New York Times. 10 June 2012. Retrieved 14 September 2012. 
  46. ^ "Syria's Fake First Family". The Daily Beast. 30 July 2012. Archived from the original on 30 July 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2015. 

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