Massacres, emails, and a modern Marie Antoinette

Published in the Daily Mail (March 15th, 2012)

Among a stash of emails that emerged yesterday, apparently sent by the Syrian president and his wife, it is the small details that are so damning: the desperate search for a Harry Potter DVD, the concern over getting hold of a new chocolate fondue set, or swapping details with friends of crystal-encrusted designer shoes costing nearly £4,000.

Even the language is toe-curling, with snippets of text-speak amid shocking insouciance to the slaughter, torture and rape of their fellow Syrians as they rose up against their bloodstained regime — or were merely caught in the crossfire of a deadly conflict.

‘I am absolutely clueless when it comes to fine jewellery,’ witters Asma al-Assad, the president’s 36-year-old British-born wife, to her cousin as she awaits delivery of gold, onyx and diamond-encrusted necklaces being made for her in Paris. ‘Kisses to you both, and don’t worry, we are well.’ She signs off ‘aaa’.

On June 17, 2011, Asma’s thoughts had turned to a £2,650 vase she wanted. In an email to the family’s London ‘fixer’, Soulieman Marouf, she wrote: ‘Pls can Abdulla see if this is available at Harrods to order — they have a sale.’

Other purchases in the email traffic show how, last July, Asma was placing an order for £10,000 worth of candlesticks, tables and chandeliers which were to be shipped from a Paris designer through a company in Dubai. And in November 2011 — as the violence tipped into armed conflict on the streets of Syria — Asma was asking a London art dealer about works costing between £5,000 and £35,000.

However, in January of this year she was less than happy after unpacking a pair of bedside tables shipped by a Chelsea cabinet-maker as she complained they had ‘different finishes and they have different colour draws (sic)!’. Five months ago, Asma was in contact with a bespoke furniture supplier in Billingshurst, Sussex, as she ordered a £6,257 marble-topped table.

The electronic documents emerged on the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising and were apparently intercepted by the Supreme Council of the Revolution Group. The emails were published yesterday by The Guardian, which admitted it has been impossible to verify whether all the messages are genuine. But the damage is done.

With this damning leak, this brilliant woman — a former banker who speaks four languages and was styled as her nation’s answer to Princess Diana — has been cast in a far harsher light: as the Marie Antoinette of the Middle East. 

She comes across as a shallow ingenue, focused on internet shopping rather than the horrific plight of the people she professes to care for. What makes it all the more shocking is that her own family comes from Homs, the city at the centre of the uprising that has been brutally battered by her husband’s regime.

There is often much that is tawdry when we glimpse the humdrum humanity behind dictators. Their public self-aggrandisement makes them appear one-dimensional monsters, yet even Adolf Hitler was fond of painting watercolours.

Now, we learn that Bashar Assad, 46, likes country music and the gloomy Manchester band New Order. In the newly released cache of messages, there is an extraordinary email — typed as the conflict entered a new stage with the massacres in Homs early last month — in which the president sent his wife the lyrics of a country and western song by American singer Blake Shelton.

He wrote: ‘I’ve been a walking heartache  /  I’ve made a mess of me  / The person that I’ve been lately  /Ain’t who I wanna be.’

Of course, though these messages appear genuine, they have not  been independently verified  beyond doubt. 

Yesterday, Syrian national television said they were the work of a hoaxer, though that’s what you’d expect it to say. Certainly if they are accepted as being sent by the Assads, these messages are devastating. In particular, they crush the carefully constructed image of Assad’s wife as perhaps the most sophisticated woman in world politics, a modern mother-of-three who was dedicated to her charities while determined to modernise Syria.

Paris Match called her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadows’, and, even after the revolt began  last year, Vogue drooled over her as ‘a rose in the desert’ in one of  the most fawning magazine articles ever written.

As protesters demanding the most basic human rights were being beaten to death, she was quoted talking about her ‘wildly democratic’ family. ‘We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it,’ she said with no trace of irony.

Her pose fooled politicians and celebrities. When French president Nicolas Sarkozy was warned by aides that Bashar Assad was an appalling tyrant, he replied that ‘with a wife as modern as his, he can’t be completely bad’.

Meanwhile, Asma was seen joking about her supposed lack of security protection with Brad Pitt when he visited Syria with Angelina Jolie, while a long-standing apostle of human rights such as Sting was happy to be pictured laughing beside the president and his wife.

Now Asma can be seen for what she always was: the glamorous facade of a vicious, vile regime. 

‘We put a lot of faith in her being able to reform the system,’ says Andrew Tabler, a U.S. writer who lived in Syria for nearly a decade and worked for one of Asma’s charities. ‘But she was used to get Western powers to engage with Syria.’

Like many others, Tabler fell for Asma’s easy-going charm and apparent candour. ‘It’s hard not to like her — she’s a very affable person,’ he says. ‘The trouble is that she married Bashar and he is leader of this terrible, corrupt system that has hijacked her.’

The daughter of a Harley Street cardiologist and his diplomat wife, Asma grew up in the London suburb of Acton. Though a Muslim, she went to a Church of England school, where friends called her Emma.

After studying computer science and French literature at King’s College, London, she was working as a banker at JP Morgan in the Nineties when she started secretly dating Bashar, the nerdy former eye doctor being groomed to succeed his despotic father in Syria.

‘What do you say — “I’m dating the son of a president”? You just don’t say that,’ she later told an interviewer. ‘Then he became president, so I tried to keep it low-key.’

There was concern in Damascus over their union, because she is a Sunni Muslim, like the majority of Syrians. Her husband’s family are members of the minority Alawite sect — one reason there are fears this secular country may implode into sectarian civil war, fuelled by anger at their brutal kleptocracy.

When Bashar took power in 2000, there were hopes he would relax the regime and its shadowy network of feared security forces. While he dropped heavy hints of reform, his Westernised wife threw herself into good works.

But it was a mirage, and there were few real changes. The country remained as corrupt as ever, and one insider compared her charities to those run by Colonel Gaddafi’s favourite daughter, Aisha, in Libya — used to extend state control with favours for supporters.

Tabler believes Asma — who he says is ‘very smart’ — meant well, but became sucked into the system. Underlining the impression given out by the vacuous tone of many of the leaked emails, he adds that she became increasingly obsessed by the world of haute couture.

‘She may be trapped,’ Tabler said. ‘But at the end of the day, life is about choices and your character is determined by these choices.’

After the uprising began a year ago, there were rumours Asma had fled the country. But in January she made a rare appearance at a rally addressed by her husband, then last month sent an email to The Times claiming she was busy supporting her charities and comforting families caught up in the violence.

It was yet more artifice. Clearly, she has decided to stand by her husband, despite his actions in hastening such a pivotal nation’s descent into civil war.

In one of the most revealing online exchanges, Asma refused a request from the Emir of Qatar’s daughter to pass on her private email address to Emine Erdogan, the wife of the Turkish prime minister. ‘I use this account only for family and friends,’ she said coldly, adding that she no longer considered Mrs Erdogan a friend after the insults directed towards her husband by the Turkish leader.

If the emails are accepted to be genuine, unfortunately for her it is no longer just her family and friends who have seen her private thoughts. The world has seen them — and Asma al-Assad appears to be a callous fraud, shopping online for designer baubles while her fellow Syrians die in the most terrible circumstances.

In this digital age, it is a new twist on an old story: the awful banality of evil.

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