When she first became known to the world, Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, stood out for her efforts to put a twenty-first-century gloss on Middle Eastern dictatorship, a profession widely seen as hidebound and heavily mustachioed.
Having spent her entire life in the UK, Asma al-Assad attended King's College London to gain a bachelor's degree in computer science and a diploma in French literature and went on to work at JP Morgan. Few would have guessed that she would return to Syria, of her own choice, to become co-dictator in 2001.
She grew up in Acton in the UK, where she went to a local Church of England school and her friends called her Emma, before moving on to a private girls' school, Queen's College. She graduated from King's College London in 1996.
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Asma al-Akhras met Bashar al-Assad, the future president of Syria, while he was studying ophthalmology in London. After Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's death in June 2000, Bashar took over the presidency. Asma moved to Syria in November 2000 and married Bashar in December of that year. They have three children.
The debate on whether Asma is a co-conspirator and complicit in al-Assad's mass murder or a casualty herself and a victim of circumstance with little power to influence her husband is still wide open. On the face of it however, she has come out and supported her husband, saying that "The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role."
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However, even if she was not supportive of her husband's actions, there would probably be little she could do about it in the current circumstances.
Given her unique situation as a first lady, she also may believe she has no outlet or way to escape without certain death or injury to herself or her children. Asma is also surrounded by a network of family that is heavily entrenched in the political and social underpinnings of Syrian affairs. It is highly likely that she would not receive any sort of physical or moral support from family if she decided to leave Bashar.
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Disturbingly, however, as scores of her people continued to die under her husband's brutal crackdowns, her extravagant shopping continued. The first lady has been known to have purchased expensive designer accessories and products by some of the most expensive European brands. A year ago, when the fighting started to get really bad, a trove of al-Assad household emails got leaked to the public, revealing Asma's arrangements to purchase a vase from Harrod's and a fondue set from Amazon. The e-mails also went on to show that she spent tens of thousands of pounds on jewelry and furniture from stores including Harrod's.
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For now, however, Asma is in hiding. She has not been seen in public regularly since the July 2012 bombing of the Military Intelligence Directorate in Damascus, leading to press speculation and government denials that she had fled the country or the capital. However, she made a public appearance at the Damascus Opera House for an event called Mother's Rally on March 18, 2013, refuting the rumors.