x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Are calls for Asma Al Assad to stand up for peace futile?

Ambassadors’ wives urge Syria's first lady to stop her husband, President Bashar Al Assad, and his government, but 13 months into the uprising, she gives every sign of unflagging support.

Asma Al Assad and her husband, President Bashar Al Assad, deliver food aid at a distribution centre in Damascus in this still image from a video shown on Syrian state television.
Asma Al Assad and her husband, President Bashar Al Assad, deliver food aid at a distribution centre in Damascus in this still image from a video shown on Syrian state television.

BEIRUT // For Syria's first lady, it is a carefully cultivated portrait of the dutiful and devoted wife.

Syrian state television this week showed a smiling Asma Al Assad standing at the side of her husband, President Bashar Al Assad, as they put together aid packages said to be bound for people displaced by violence in the city of Homs.

Thirteen months into the uprising against the government and after an estimated 9,000 deaths, the 36-year-old Mrs Assad gives every sign of unflagging support of her husband and his government. For some, her public silence in the face of so much bloodshed has become intolerable.

On Monday, the wives of the British and German ambassadors to the United Nations posted a video on YouTube that calls on the mother of three to "stand up for peace." Since then, more than 30,000 people have watched "Letter to Asma Al Assad." By late yesterday, an accompanying online petition had more than 5,000 signatures.

"Asma, when you kiss your own children goodnight, another mother will find the place next to her empty," says the narrator of the video by Sheila Lyall Grant and Huberta von Voss-Wittig. "Speak out now. For the sake of your people. Stop your husband and his supporters. Stop being a bystander. No one cares about your image. We care about your action."

The video contrasts pictures of a glamorous Mrs Al Assad with images of some of the youngest victims of the fighting.

"We strongly believe in Asma's responsibility as a woman, as a wife and as a mother," Mrs Lyall Grant and Mrs von Voss-Wittig said in a statement.

"As the vocal female Arab leader that she used to be, as a champion of female equality, she cannot hide behind her husband."

Asma Akhras married Mr Al Assad in late 2000, when Syria appeared on the cusp of change. Months earlier, the former ophthalmologist had taken over as president of the country following the death of his father Hafez.

She had worked for Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan in London as an investment banker and was reportedly about to start an MBA at Harvard when she married into Syria's tight-knit, even insular, political dynasty.

In some circles, it was assumed that Asma, with her British upbringing, education and sophistication, would be an important catalyst for a blossoming "Damascus Spring".

But, the optimism was short-lived and some observers say much of the expectations that were placed on the new first lady were naive.

"She came into this big, established system and network. Asma Akhras was never going to have a role except as the cute, modern, educated, breathe-of-fresh-air, but she's never had a real role or influence," said Rime Allaf, a fellow at the UK-based think tank Chatham House and an expert on Syria.

While it is impossible to know what she really thinks about the crisis, some who know her believe her to be under pressure and say she has to appear compliant.

Other observers believe she knew what she was getting in to when she married Mr Al Assad.

"It's impossible to read what's in her mind, but one thing is for sure: She will be supportive of the regime," said Ms Allaf. "It didn't just turn bad after she married into it. From day one, she knew who she married and what this regime was."

As the violence escalated throughout 2011, there were rumours that the president's wife had fled the country with her young children. But, she continued to pop up at public events, including the appearance at the Damascus aid distribution centre broadcast on state television where she packed boxes of relief items reportedly for people in Homs, her family's hometown.

The appearances and revelations in leaked emails believed to be from the accounts of Mrs Al Assad and her husband have done little to ease the backlash against her.

Email exchanges revealed she ordered expensive jewels and furniture throughout last year and even joked that she was the "real dictator".

A glowing profile published in Vogue last year, which praised her as "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies", fuelled much of the criticism early on in the crisis.

The article, 'A Rose in the Desert', came out in the March 2011 issue, just as the Arab uprisings were sweeping the region. Syria's own demonstrations against the Al Assad regime began a couple of weeks after the story was published, which described how the first family's own household was "run on wildly democratic principles".

Just a few weeks later, people were taking to Syria's streets in greater numbers, as security forces violently tried to crush the revolt.


* Additional reporting by Reuters


Syria developments today

• The English-language edition of the Beirut-based newspaper Al Akhbar began publishing what it said were the contents of emails it claimed were obtained after hacking into the account of the president of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun. The publication of the emails comes less than a month after the British newspaper, The Guardian, published emails it said came from the accounts of Asma Al Assad and her family, as well as her friends and business associates.

• The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Al Moualem, said a plan for 250 international observers was a “reasonable and logical” number to monitor a days-old ceasefire in the country, after the United Nations said it may need more troops and aircraft. Mr Al Moualem, speaking at a press briefing in Beijing, said he did not know why more observers would be needed, adding that the UN could use Syrian aircraft if needed.

• During talks yesterday with China’s foreign minister, Mr Al Moualem pledged to respect the UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan. “Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al Moualem ... said Syria would continue to ... respect and implement Annan’s six-point proposal,” the ministry quoted the Syrian foreign minister as telling Yang Jiechi.

• Shooting broke out in the Syrian town of Erbin in Damascus province during a visit by UN monitors, Syrian state media and activists said.

• The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told Russian state television that Syria’s opposition groups are trying to stage provocations against Mr Al Assad’s government to undermine a ceasefire brokered by Mr Annan.

• Saad-Eddine Al Othmani, Morocco’s foreign minister, urged Russia yesterday to press the Syrian government to adhere to a ceasefire and withdraw forces from cities in accordance Mr Annan’s peace plan. He made his comments in Moscow after talks with Mr Lavrov.

• A Bermudan ship suspected of carrying weapons and ammunition believed to be heading for Syria has docked at Turkey’s Mediterranean Iskenderun port after receiving a warning from the United Nations to change its course, Turkish media.

• Russia has halted deliveries of light arms to Syria, Bloomberg reported, citing a “person close to the defence ministry in Moscow.”

• The British government said it is considering banning Syria’s Olympic chief from the London Games over his links with Mr Al Assad.

* Reuters, Bloomberg and Agence France-Presse