January 2012

    The house in Acton where Asma Assad grew up    Times photographer, Peter Nicholls

The house in Acton where Asma Assad grew up Times photographer, Peter Nicholls

President Bashar Assad of Syria is knee deep in blood. To keep him in power his security forces are slaughtering, torturing and locking up thousands of unarmed citizens. His regime’s savage suppression of a popular uprising has been condemned worldwide.

All of which begs the question: what does Assad’s wife, an intelligent, educated woman raised in liberal Britain and seemingly dedicated to good works, think of the evils being perpetrated daily across Syria — nowhere more so than in her family’s home city of Homs? Is Asma Assad, 36, indifferent to the suffering being inflicted on her fellow Sunnis by her husband’s Alawite henchmen — or appalled? Has Syria’s Princess Diana become its Marie Antoinette?

Once the most visible of Middle Eastern first ladies, she has all but vanished from view since the uprising began last March. She has made no speeches, given no interviews. She has said nothing about the atrocities being committed in her husband’s name.

Some close observers of Syrian affairs say that she is standing resolutely with the regime, others that she is in a state of denial. But a third group contends — quite plausibly — that she is effectively a prisoner, compelled to remain silent and unable to leave the country with her three young children.

“She would be horrified [at what is happening],” says Malik al-Abdeh, chief editor of the Syrian opposition station Barada TV, who grew up in the same West London street as Mrs Assad and knows her family. “She lived most of her life here. Her ethics and morality were formed here. I think she must be genuinely shocked.”

“I feel sorry for her. She’s in the most difficult position you can think of,” says a leading Arab commentator well acquainted with the Assad regime.

“It must weigh heavily on her conscience. Her own family comes from Homs for heavens’ sake,” says Andrew Tabler, an American scholar and journalist who once worked for her in Syria.

Certainly nothing in Mrs Assad’s suburban British upbringing prepared her for the role of tyrant’s spouse. The daughter of a distinguished Harley Street cardiologist and a former Syrian diplomat, she was raised in a comfortable home within earshot of the A40 in Acton. She went to a local Church of England school, where she was known as Emma, to Queen’s College private girls’ school in Marylebone for A levels, and finally to King’s College London, where she earned a first in computer science. After a brief spell with Deutsche Bank she joined the investment bank J. P. Morgan, working in London, Paris and New York for three years as a specialist in mergers and acquisitions.

She met her future husband, a decade her senior, during family trips to Syria when she was growing up. They grew closer when he came to London in 1992 to study ophthalmology, his older brother Basil being at that time his father’s heir apparent. They married in private on the final day of 2000, six years after Basil’s death in a car crash and six months after her husband was “elected” president following his father’s demise.

Still unknown, Mrs Assad spent three months travelling around the country incognito, learning about the people and their problems. She embraced progressive causes such as rural development, youth employment, arts and heritage and — ironically in light of present events — “active citizenship”.

She had few airs and graces. She and her husband chose to live not in a palace but in a comfortable apartment in Raouda, an up-market district of Damascus. She liked to drive her children — Hafez, 10, Zein, 8, and Kareem, 7 — to a local Montessori school. She set up a Facebook page when Facebook was still banned in Syria. She boasted last year that her home was run on “wildly democratic principles”.

Beautiful, dynamic and fluent in four languages, Mrs Assad became the very human and presentable face of a regime that was supposedly embarking on a process of liberalisation after 30 years of draconian rule by her father-in-law, Hafez Assad.

She and her husband were welcomed in foreign capitals and received by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. They hosted the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Damascus. “She had the charisma to captivate whoever was in her presence and make them feel special,” says a Syrian who worked closely with her. “She was our hope because of the influence she was having on the country.”

Vogue — in a glowing article withdrawn from its website after the uprising began — called her “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies”. Paris Match described her as the “element of light in a country full of shadows”. The Sun dubbed her “the sexy Brit bringing Syria in from the cold”.

Although Mrs Assad developed a taste for designer clothes and Christian Louboutin shoes, even vigorous opponents of the regime say that her good works were more than mere window dressing. “She was really genuine and enthusiastic about change in Syria, opening up the country and introducing civil society,” says one.

But she was never really at ease with, or accepted by, the ruling cabal in Damascus. She was too Westernised, too liberal, too independent. Her husband’s Alawite family had expected him to marry one of the clan, not a Sunni. Her formidable mother-in-law, Anisa, and her sister-in-law, Bushra, were said to be antagonistic towards her. “There was family resentment of how important she’d become; lots of resentment that she had become so well loved and they had not. It was like the Borgias,” a Syria-watcher says.

Projects such as a book she commissioned from Brigid Keenan, the wife of a former EU ambassador to Syria, and an international arts festival that she asked an Italian writer called Gaia Servadio to organise, were cancelled abruptly and without explanation. “It was to block her,” Ms Servadio says. “She’s hated by her husband’s entourage.”

So has Syria’s First Lady now made common cause with the regime’s hardliners in her husband’s hour of need? Keenan says she thought Mrs Assad was becoming “spoilt” by so much fawning. Tabler contends that over time she “morphed from a reformer to an enabler for the regime” and that she “became harder, more domineering”; in short, that she was seduced by power.

He says that people who have met her recently found her to be “solidly behind Bashar” and confident that the regime could shoot its way out of trouble. He argues that her surprise appearance beside her husband at a rally in Damascus this month showed that she was “standing by her man”.

Others argue quite the opposite. They believe that she was forced to appear at the rally to scotch reports that she had fled the country and consider her retreat from public view significant. “One could perhaps read into that some distress,” Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, says.

A Saudi newspaper recently claimed that she had intervened to help some employees of one of her charities who were arrested for joining an anti-government demonstration. In September she reportedly summoned some aid workers to find out what was really happening in Homs, although she apparently remained expressionless when they told her. A family friend told a Syrian source based in London that she “wasn’t sleeping at night because she’s so worried”.

Of course, it is possible that living in relatively peaceful Damascus and being surrounded by regime stalwarts, Mrs Assad really believes the regime’s propaganda about the opposition being a bunch of armed terrorists. It is possible that she is in denial, especially as she appears to be devoted to her husband and may well believe that he alone can hold his disparate country together. But neither scenario seems likely. “She’s too clever — too smart — for that,” the Arab commentator says. “She knows everything. She’s fully aware,” says her former Syrian colleague, who insists that she has full access to the internet and Western media. “She’s highly intelligent and worldly wise. I find it very difficult to imagine she shares the view that this is a conspiracy of saboteurs and al-Qaeda,” says a friend of her father’s.

Everyone agrees, however, that if she is appalled by the crackdown there is little she can do except plead with her husband in the privacy of their home. She would face terrible repercussions if she spoke out. Still less could she leave Syria, with or without her beloved children. “The security services would never let her out. It would be too much of a blow to the regime and its prestige internally,” Doyle says. “She’s a prisoner of her own situation,” the Arab commentator concurs. “She has no choice. She has to carry on, however unpleasant it must be. She has to think of her family and her kids,” says the Syrian who worked with her.

Despite — or because of — its brutality, the regime will eventually fall. When it does, Assad will either be killed outright, or tried and executed, or forced into exile somewhere beyond the reach of the International Criminal Court, such as Moscow or Tehran.

Mrs Assad could go with him, however grim the prospect. Or presumably she could return with her children to her parents’ home in Acton, as she retains a British passport and has committed no obvious crimes herself.

She could not expect a rapturous welcome. Her old neighbourhood is full of Syrians, almost all of them opponents of the regime. “She did have a conscience, but I don’t know whether she still has,” one of her old neighbours says. “When she agreed to marry him she knew what she was getting into,” a second declares. “She’s tainted,” says al-Abdeh, who still lives in her street. “She, her father and her family are on the wrong side of everything.”

The plight of the father

Asma Assad was raised in one of the spacious homes that line a suburban street in Acton, West London, and it is easy to spot which. There is the large satellite dish that enables her parents, Fawaz and Sahar Akhras, to follow events in their native Syria on Arabic channels. There are the traces of red and black paint bombs on the front of the house. There is the garden wall that was toppled by an angry crowd last August.

The protesters came from across London, but even within the immediate neighbourhood there is antipathy towards Dr Akhras. Many Syrians live in the surrounding streets. Some have had relatives killed or imprisoned. He and his wife are “going through hell,” a non-Syrian neighbour said.

Understandably, perhaps, Dr Akhras, 65, an eminent cardiologist, has gone to ground. He does not answer the door. He does not reply to letters or telephone messages. He still works at the Cromwell Hospital and his Harley Street clinic, but seldom appears at the social functions he used to enjoy so much. “We occasionally see him diving into his car, but that’s all,” another neighbour said.

When The Times finally obtained his mobile number, he very politely declined to speak. “Whatever I say people take it the wrong way,” he explained, but he did concede that he was in an “extraordinary situation”. Those who have had dealings with Dr Akhras sing his praises. They say he is a decent, congenial, courteous man who is devoted to his work and treats poor patients for nothing, both here and in Damascus. He founded the British Syrian Society to improve relations between the two countries, and he and his wife do a lot of charitable work. “There’s not a bad bone in him,” one source said.

Though some claim that Dr Akhras relished the social and economic opportunities that came with being the president’s father-in-law, most accept that he is now in an impossible position, caught between family loyalty and worldwide outrage at the brutality of Mr Assad’s regime. Friends say he was quietly pushing for reform when the uprising began, detractors that he has become an apologist for the regime, but what he really thinks is a closely-guarded secret. “The last thing he wants to do is say something that puts his daughter at risk,” one fellow Syrian said.

His wife apparently told a neighbour whose brother was arrested in Hama that he should not have been demonstrating, but she, too, may have been terrified of compromising her daughter.

A fellow member of the British Syrian Society said he cannot believe that Dr Akhras swallows the regime’s line that Islamic terrorists are responsible for the uprising. “I’d have thought he’s going through a terrible crisis,” he said.

A veteran Arab journalist added: “I would say he’s worried sick by the situation as a whole, and the situation of his daughter and grandchildren.”