Assad's fair ladies: the western-educated women who lulled the world into a false impression of Syria

Assad's repressive tactics have been no secret, but the outside world was previously less sensitive to them due, in part, to a hand-full of elegant, western educated women

Glamorous, young and chic - Asma al Assad.
Emily Boulter
On 18 November 2011 15:58

In the years before President Bashar al Assad was confronted with the full force of the Arab spring, his regime could rely on the assistance of a few well-educated, poised and elegant females to portray a serene image of Syria to the world.

At the start of the uprising in March, the most visible example was the flame-haired, alabaster-toned Reem Haddad, or as she was dubbed in the press “Comical Sally”, after Saddam Hussein’s spokesman Mohammad Al-Sahaff.

Her finishing school English was regularly heard across the media, as she responded to criticism with unrestrained conviction—even when confronted with the most damning evidence. She compared refugees fleeing across the border to Turkey as “having a problem in your street, and your mum lives in the next street, so you go and visit your mum for a bit."

She was eventually dropped in June as head of the department of international information, after giving one too many exaggerated explanations, for instance, she also claimed that some Syrians fled from ‘armed groups’ dressed in stolen military uniforms. It is believed she now occupies a more junior position within Syria’s state television.

Another woman who has been described as the “regime’s face to the outside world” is Bouthaina Shaaban. Always elegantly coiffed, Shaaban was a frequent interviewee, on European and American TV news shows and documentaries.

A mother of three, she has a M.A. and PH.D. from Warwick University, and has written many books and articles focusing on women, Islam and the Arab world.

In 2008, she became one of Bashar al-Assad’s chief presidential advisors, and as protests grew across Syrian towns such as Daraa and Homs, Shaaban--in a similar vein to Haddad-- embraced the party line, declaring on numerous occasions that hoards of armed gangs were provoking attacks against the military, and working to incite a sectarian conflict.

Her loyalty to the president has cost her dearly; Shaaban is now on a list of Syrian officials who have had their assets frozen by the U.S. government.

During an interview with The Independent’s Robert Fisk, she was asked about how she feels being placed in such an inauspicious category. She responded in defiant form: “I have no assets – except the assets of the love for my people”; a people drifting towards an internecine conflict due to the actions of a regime which she loyally serves.

Yet the one woman who managed to cultivate a smokescreen for the reality in Syria is President Assad's wife, Asma.  A British-educated girl from west London, with a degree in computer science and a career in financial services, Asma was key asset for the regime.

She and Bashar were the trendy presidential team who used to joke with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, while magazines such as Paris Match, called the first lady an "element of light in a country full of shadows". Vogue described her as "glamorous young, and very chic-the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies".

She certainly knew how to be chic, with a reputed love for Christian Louboutin shoes and designer suits.  She dipped her fingers into activities to encourage young Syrians to engage in "active citizenship", and launched rural and micro-finance schemes.

At the same time, she operated in a country with no independent media, NGOs or charities, and in 2010, Human Rights Watch accused her husband of having done "virtually nothing" to improve the situation of human rights in Syria.

It is hard to believe that she was unaware of the powerful role of the Mukhabarat, which kept the population sedated with fear.

Yet Asma’s own credibility as an open-minded reformer evaporated as soon as security forces turned their guns on protestors. The international media dropped both her and her husband like a stone.

Reports surfaced in the summer that Asma had fled with her three children to a safe house in London, where many of her family members still live. She now has ample time to reflect on where things went wrong.

Meanwhile, the pincers of opposition are closing in on the Assad regime.

The Arab League has suspended Syria from the organization; Jordan's King Abdullah and the Obama administration have both asked him to step down. Day by day, more soldiers are deserting, joining opposition forces, and greater numbers of Assad’s associates are subject to travel restrictions and asset freezes.

Talk of reform or a democratisation process is now a lonely pursuit, as the numbers of dead and injured grow. The United Nations estimates that at least 3500 people have been killed and the future is anything but bright for one of the Middle East’s youngest dictators.

Yet before this year’s uprising, it was no secret that the Assad regime adopted repressive tactics when coping with dissent or government critics.

However at the same it seemed the outside world was captivated by the poise and elegance of the first lady and other senior western-educated women, who lulled the world into thinking Syria might not be as bad as it first appeared. 

Emily Boulter works as a foreign affairs researcher in Brussels

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