In 2009, the Huffington Post featured a spread of her top fashion looks. A year ago, Vogue profiled her as a “Rose in the Desert,” with her Chanel necklace and Louboutin silk handbag. And just last March, she was patroness and keynote speaker at a Damascus conference of the Harvard Arab Alumni Club.
Then Syria erupted in revolt against the dynastic dictatorship of her husband, Bashar al-Assad, and Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, pretty much vanished from view. More than 5,000 Syrians have died, as the government has descended to the brute depths of shooting and shelling its own people, in its own cities — this brutality abetted by the Quds Force of Iran. For the past 11 months of mass protest and bloody repression, Asma al-Assad has been an elusive figure, rumored to be in London, then perhaps back in Syria, then reported last month as in Damascus but trying — unsuccessfully — to escape.
Now the Times of London is reporting having received an email from Asma, or at least from an intermediary in her office, saying her husband “is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role.” The Times is a subscribers-only site, but the Telegraph reports on the Times’s story, quoting the unverified email as saying that Asma’s “very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has been involved with” as well as “supporting the President as needed,” and “bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue” as she “listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.”
What to believe? Did Asma al-Assad actually author that email? Or authorize it? Did someone in her husband’s office decide it was time to put the First Lady on the record, again — for the first time in quite a while — as supporting the dictator?
It’s tempting to suggest, yet again, that Vogue apply for a follow-up interview, and this time bring us the real picture, along with whatever details they deem necessary about Asma’s shoe collection. But no one’s expecting that to happen. So we’re left trying to peer into the hall of mirrors that dictatorships become. Is Asma al-Assad, in some New Age version of “Let them eat cake,” really gliding around to her favorite Syrian charities, saying “Let them bridge gaps”?
Right now we simply don’t know. But Syria’s regime was built on repression, secret police, dungeons and torture chambers long before the misery flared into the demonstrations and answering government violence of the past 11 months. To live gaily atop that scene required either a lack of conscience or a level of self-delusion that could, perhaps, extend to interpreting months of mass murder in the streets as reflecting merely an absence of “dialogue.” That’s how dictatorships work. That’s how, sometimes, immersed in their own unrealities, they go right over the edge.