Assad’s Wife: I Am the Real Dictator

Monday, 19 Mar 2012 11:30 AM

By Marti Lotman

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The wife of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad told a friend that she wears the pants in the couple’s relationship and is the “real dictator,” according to leaked emails released Monday.

A series of correspondences disseminated by Syrian activists revealed that Asma al-Assad, 36, not only supports her husband’s despotic rule, but shows no remorse for the deaths of nearly 8,000 Syrians at his hands, The Telegraph in London reported.

The approximately 3,000 messages that were distributed to media outlets, including the Telegraph, reveal Assad’s wife praised her husband in one email for being “very strong,” saying that there would be “no more messing around.”

A Jan. 17 email circulated by Asma al-Assad included a joke at the expense of the people of Homs, just before the Syrian regime launched a military assault on the city that killed hundreds of civilians.

“As for listening — I am the REAL dictator, he has no choice . . .” she wrote in another email.

With her penchant for crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin shoes and Chanel dresses, Asma is a puzzle for many. The opposition roundly rejects suggestions that she is effectively a prisoner of conscience in the presidential palace.

"She was very much, as we would say, left wing. She (created) a very, very good impression. She seemed to be very bright, very respectful of others," said Gaia Servadio, a writer and historian who has worked with Asma on several art projects.

"It's a very nasty regime ... Thousands of people have been killed. So it's very difficult to say: poor woman. She certainly should have found a way to talk."

The world was smitten by her immaculate facade. In the Western media, Asma, a 36-year-old mother of three, was described as sophisticated, elegant, confident, with a "killer IQ" and an interest in opening up Syria though art and charity.

For those who pinned their hopes on Assad as a potential reformer, his photogenic wife bolstered that image, lending a touch of glamour to his awkward public appearances.

A glowing article in Vogue magazine described her as "a rose in the desert" and her household as "wildly democratic". A French newspaper said she was an "element of light in a country full of shadow zones".

People were charmed by her classy demeanour, liberal views and British accent. She received the Gold Medal of the Presidency of The Italian Republic for humanitarian work in 2008 and won an honorary archaeology doctorate from La Sapienza university in Rome.

 

Yet emails published by Britain's Guardian newspaper this month from accounts believed to belong to the family offer a different portrait, showing her as a capricious dictator's wife spending tens of thousands of pounds on jewels, fancy furniture, and a Venetian glass vase from Harrods.

Her London contact, a Syrian businessman, appears to send emails to her using an address he has nicknamed "Party party".

The story of how the London-born daughter of a Sunni Muslim Syrian doctor married into Assad's family, members of the powerful minority Alawite sect, reads like a cautionary tale.

She was born in the west London suburbs, whose sleepy streets are lined with neat houses, just like her family's. Twelve years after she married Assad, the family home appears almost abandoned, its curtains drawn. Neighbours said her father still lives there with his wife, a former diplomat.

"We know they are there but we don't see them," said one neighbour, a veiled Arab woman who asked not to be named. No one answered the door bell when Reuters called at the weekend.

A Syrian dissident from Aleppo, who lives nearby and asked to be identified only by his nickname, Zayed, said most Syrians in Britain despised Asma now.

Zayed, angrily comparing Asma to Marie Antoinette or the wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, called on the Syrian leader's wife to "make a stand for your own sake, for your own people ... She never did."

A senior member of the British Syrian Society, set up with Assad's help to promote business ties, said he has met the first couple in London and used warm words to describe them.

"They were quite impressive to talk to. He came across as someone who wanted to listen, get ideas, get advice, open to everybody, he made it plain that he wanted Syrians abroad to help building the country again. He was welcoming and warm."

Speaking on condition of anonymity in a gentlemen's club in a smart London neighbourhood, he added: "We all felt there was an opportunity that he, the president, representing the younger generation, could lead Syria to a new age of change.

"Perhaps he feels betrayed. Why are they (the West) ganging up on him? Now some people say, he is in full control, others say that he is not. Maybe he is shocked by the fact that ... in the end they all turned against them."

Asma's father, Fawaz Akhras, a cardiologist and founder of the British Syrian Society, has not responded to a Reuters request for a meeting, made through an intermediary.

 

Known as Emma to her British friends, Asma spent the first 25 years of her life in North Acton, went to a smart London girls school, Queen's College, and read computer science at King's College London.

She was a rising star at JP Morgan when she met Bashar, who had studied ophthalmology in London but was sent home to be groomed for the presidency after his elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash in 1994.

"I was always very serious at work, and suddenly I started to take weekends (off), or disappear, and people just couldn't figure it out," she told Vogue. "What do you say - 'I am dating the son of a president?'"

They married in 2000. What followed was a life full of glamour. They once dined with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Syria. Bashar joked, according to Vogue: "Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!"

One photograph from happier days depicts them playing with their children, toys scattered around on the carpet.

The Assad side of the clan, however, didn't like Asma, not least because of her Sunni Muslim origins.

"Certainly the Assad family doesn't like her, to put it mildly ... She was constantly under watch, her telephone, she was very careful," Servadio, who spent time with the family in Syria before the uprising, told Reuters in London.

"She was shouted at. How odd, frankly, (that) somebody who is meant to be the wife of the president who is an autocrat, can be shouted at in this way." She added: "It was like a mediaeval power, warlords, one against the other."

 

Asma's husband was elected president with 97 percent of the vote in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for decades.

Before the start of the 2011 uprising, there was hope Syria could change. Syrians saw his choice of wife as proof that things were about to change.

"When he came to power, people said, 'Okay ... let's give him a chance and see what he's going to do,'" said Ghassan Ibrahim, Global Arab Network's London-based editor. "What happened is that he made corruption even more organised, Mafia appeared, poverty grew sharply ... (But) she is standing by the criminal and she supports him."


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