Stand By Your Dictator

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (foreground L), his wife Asma visit the exhibition dedicated to French painter Claude Monet at the Grand Palais on December 11, 2010 in Paris at the end of their official visit in France. AFP PHOTO MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

For some historical background on the war in Syria, read “The Graffiti Kids Who Sparked the Syrian War,” by Mark MacKinnon at The Globe and Mail.

Asma Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, isn’t content to raise the kids while her husband oversees torture and violent attacks on his own citizens in a bid to squash a rebellion that has been ongoing for ten years. In this startling profile at 1843, Nicolas Pelham reveals that the London-born first lady of Syria has been ruthless in acquiring power, wealth, and influence at home with dubious “improvement” projects under a sham called the Syria Trust for Development, all while courting favor with the West, pretending to be someone other than a wife solely dedicated to her husband’s ongoing tyranny.

The UN gave up trying to count the war’s death toll in 2016, when it had already reached nearly half a million. More than 10m Syrians are refugees.

In the first year of the uprising she advertised for a gardener and spent £250,000 on furniture. To circumvent sanctions she sent her hairdresser shopping in Dubai and used an alias when ordering from Harrods.

As the war continued, Bashar became more ruthless. One Western diplomat recalls the slow escalation of violence – using artillery against civilians, then air raids, then barrel-bombs. “They would…use it once, there’d be an outcry, but not to the point of international intervention,” said the diplomat. “So they would roll it out, and that would become the new normal.” International condemnation of Bashar’s crimes grew, yet this incremental choking of Syria, rather than all-out attack, helped forestall intervention.

On August 21st 2013 new footage appeared, showing people in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus with bubbles foaming at their noses and mouths, and their limbs jerking. Hundreds died. A UN investigation later confirmed that they had been killed by sarin, a nerve gas. It was the worst chemical-weapons attack anywhere since Saddam Hussein had gassed Kurds in Halabja in 1988.

The financial success and ruthless machinations have eroded Asma’s carefully cultivated image. “Some still love her, put her photo on their Instagram page. But most now perceive her as a sneaky greedy person,” said one Syrian businessman. These days, though, no one accuses Asma of failing to understand how Syria works.

Late last year residents of the Damascus neighbourhood where Asma lives noticed a surreal change in the landscape. An old statue depicting a lauded colonel was joined by a new one: a vast sculpture of a horse’s head, at the direction of Asma’s business associates. Locals complained about the extravagance. According to reports in Gulf newspapers, the authorities had the horse’s head removed. Hours later it was back. The message was clear: in post-war Syria, Asma calls the shots.

State media gives increasing air time to “the Lady of Jasmine”. Huge posters of her image have been spotted in her parents’ hometown of Homs, covering entire housing blocks. Uniquely for a Syrian First Lady, ministers have taken to displaying her portrait in their offices alongside Bashar’s.

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