The Controversial Life of Syrian First Lady Asma Assad

Elise Solé

While most of the world focuses on President Bashar Assad's alleged chemical weapons attack in August, his wife and Syria’s first lady, Asma Assad, has been making smaller waves of her own. In light of the president's brutal regime, which the U.N. says has killed 100,000 people and sent millions more seeking refuge in neighboring countries, his glamorous wife has been acting like nothing's wrong — Instagramming seemingly inauthentic photos of her on a tour of purported goodwill, shopping for fancy shoes, and even collecting pricey home furnishings.

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For starters, her Instagram account — which her family launched in July as a reported attempt to gain public approval against the backdrop of her country’s two-year civil war — boasts almost 37,000 followers and features smiling images of her greeting children, hugging the elderly, caring for the sick, and working at a soup kitchen (while wearing a Jawbone UP, a popular bracelet that measures movement and counts calories), along with airbrushed photos of her husband waving to crowds of supporters and pushing paperwork while seated at a glossy desk. In July, the U.S. State Department referred to the account as “nothing more than a despicable PR stunt.” And State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told NBC News of the couple’s social media presence, "It's repulsive that the Assad regime would use this to gloss over the brutality and suffering it's causing.”

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Then there are those family photos from the Assad's private collection that were released in 2012 and which featured the Assad’s and their three children blowing out birthday candles, enjoying family soccer games and bike rides, and building snowmen. There's even one of the president having his nose tweaked by a child.

And no one could forget the March 2011 Vogue magazine article featuring Mrs. Assad as a fashion icon and her family as a peaceful and democratic regime. The story was written after the Assad's hired PR firm Brown Lloyd James to manage their public image (the representative who handles inquiries for the Assad family was not available for comment when Yahoo Shine called). It was entitled “Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert," and included passages such as, "Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic—the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She's a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement." The story triggered national outrage, in part because the magazine ran the profile after anti-Assad demonstrations in Syria, resulting in Vogue pulling the story from its website.

Asama Assad’s reported shopping binges have also been the subject of scrutiny. In 2012, after a particularly violent time in Syria, the Guardian published leaked emails that revealed Mrs. Assad's penchant for luxury furniture and fixtures, including five chandeliers reportedly worth $420,984 from a shop on London’s King Road. And according to an article published recently in the Daily Mail, she regularly dines on Western food, ordering it in bulk for her three children so they won’t maintain a Syrian diet.

The first lady has even been dubbed a modern-day Marie Antoinette for living a lavish lifestyle at a time when, according to the Economist, 19 percent of Syrian’s live below the poverty line (compared with less than 1 percent before the war). Raised and educated in the U.K., Mrs. Assad, 38, graduated from King’s College London in 1996 with a degree in computer science and French literature. For a brief period, she worked as an international investment banker before marrying President Assad in 2000. As Syria's first lady, she rarely makes public appearances or speeches but her gilded lifestyle — for example, reportedly purchasing $6,000 crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin stilettos while her country is been plagued by poverty and violence—has been the subject of controversy.

Even the family's children have been dipping into the public eye, which undoubtedly won't help their image. Last month, Assad's 11-year old son, Hafez reportedly posted a Facebook status in which he called Americans "cowards" and challenged the United States to attack Syria.

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