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Will Asma al-Assad take a stand or stand by her man?

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
August 22, 2012 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad attends an Arab women and war conference in March 2004 in Beirut, Lebanon. Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad attends an Arab women and war conference in March 2004 in Beirut, Lebanon.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For years, Syria's first lady had Princess Di image
  • She was raised in London and worked in finance
  • Talking about the Gaza War to CNN in 2009: "Where in the world could this happen?"

Editor's note: This profile was originally published in December 2011. Check out the latest coverage of Syria.

(CNN) -- In her Vogue photograph she is beautiful, wrapped in a luxurious fuchsia pashmina. She's very rich, as the story repeatedly conveys, a stern mother of three, a woman who tries to make it happen everyday while, of course, teetering in her beloved Christian Louboutin heels.

Vogue's spring 2011 profile of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was highly controversial. The piece called the British-born 36-year-old a "rose in the desert" but didn't mention Syria's abysmal human rights record. In March, protests began spreading around the country -- and met brute force from the regime led by Asma's husband. After intense criticism in the media, Vogue reportedly first defended the piece then removed the story from its website.

Since then, little has been reported about Asma Al-Assad. It's not even clear where she is. Could she have returned to her native England, where she attended fancy prep schools and got her college degree? Or is she still in Syria with her husband, as he fends off pressure from the growing protest movement and the many governments that have called on him to step down?

Syria's first family: Who are they?

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Syrian first lady quiet as thousands die

Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the violence, which the United Nations says has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Syrian soldiers who have defected said they were ordered to shoot unarmed protesters. The U.N. reports that at least 256 children have been killed since early November, including a 2-year-old girl allegedly shot by an officer who said he did not want her to grow up to be a demonstrator.

Asma al-Assad and her husband have two boys and a girl: Hafez, Zein and Karim, all elementary school age. Before the violence broke out, she was involved in volunteer work to educate Syria's youth.

What must Syria's first lady be thinking now? Could she do anything to stop the bloodshed?

"No one can say what's happening behind closed palace doors, but I doubt she feels she has any control or would ultimately have much influence over what her husband is doing," said Syrian expert Andrew Tabler, an American scholar and journalist who lived in Syria between 2001 and 2008. He knew and worked with Asma al-Assad.

"If you consider what appears to be true," he said, "you would conclude that she's standing by her man."

Tabler's new memoir, "In the Lion's Den," details his experiences with the first family and explains Washington's long tense relationship with Damascus.

More: Tweets mock Asma al-Assad profile writer

When Tabler, a Pennsylvania native, moved to Syria, interested in Middle Eastern politics, he was full of hope. Bashar al-Assad had taken power the previous year. He and his new wife seemed a modern couple, and there was the promise of reform.

Eight years later, Tabler left Syria feeling the government was so paralyzed by systemic, decades-old corruption that even the most well-intentioned leaders were unlikely to spur positive change. Now a Next Generation fellow at The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics, Tabler believes Bashar al-Assad must go.

Tabler earned a living in Syria as a freelance journalist, some of his early work in the country coming when Asma al-Assad gave him approval and funding to write and publish an English-language magazine called Syria Today in the early 2000s.

Tabler says her assistance at the time was extraordinary. There were no press freedoms in Syria, and yet the president's wife, modern in dress and direct in tone, was sanctioning an American to write about the country.

But then came problems. Tabler worked for Asma al-Assad for a year and agreed to run editions past her before publication. Just before the first edition was due to come out, it was mysteriously quashed. Her assistant delivered the bad news without explanation. At one point, he and another writer felt they were being spied on by the Mukhabarat, the country's secret police.

Syria Today went on to get other funding. Tabler continued working on the project for a short time. It is now published online and has no links with the regime.

"There are two sides to Asma al-Assad," says Tabler. "She is a modern woman, definitely apart from other wives of Arab leaders."

She ran nongovernment organizations specifically geared toward the country's worst problems: high unemployment and disparity between the rich and poor. But Asma al-Assad coveted the good life too, Tabler says.

"She also wanted to be a princess."

More: Leaked e-mails: Shopping amid a massacre

From work-a-day to the palace

Asma al-Assad was born in 1975 in London to a well-regarded Syrian cardiologist, Fawaz Akhras, and his wife, Sahar Otri, a diplomat at the Syrian Embassy in London.

Asma means "supreme" in Arabic.

Raised in the middle-class neighborhood of Acton in West London, Asma al-Akhras reportedly got good grades at the tony private girls school Queens College. She went on to obtain degrees in computer science and French literature at Kings College in London. After graduating, she worked for three years in finance with a specialization in mergers and acquisitions for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, according to Tabler's book.

Her colleagues had no idea she had met one of the sons of Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad -- or that they were dating after reportedly meeting while she vacationed with her family in Syria.

It wasn't expected that Bashar would carry on the family's political dynasty. He didn't seem to have the personality for the job; he wasn't deeply involved in military or government matters, according to "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire," a biography by Flynt Leverett, who worked as an expert on Syria for the CIA in the 1990s and was the senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council in the early 2000s.

Because Bashar's older brother Basil was expected to succeed his father, Bashar al-Assad went to London in the 1990s and studied ophthalmology. He and Asma are believed to have seen each other during this time. Bashar was called back to Syria in 1994 when Basil died in a car wreck. This turn of events made him first in line to rule Syria, and he was appointed president by Syria's rubber-stamp Parliament in 2000 after his father died.

More: Bashar al-Assad: A man defined by violence

Before 2000 ended, he and Asma were married.

According to Tabler's book, no photos of the wedding appeared in Syrian papers; some Syrians told him the Assad family was unhappy about the union. Assad was a member of the elite Alawite tribe, and Asma's father was Sunni. The groups have a long history of rivalry and conflict -- especially in the city of Homs, Asma's father's hometown. Homs has seen sectarian tensions and killings as the protest movement has evolved.

Shortly after her wedding, Asma al-Assad traveled around Syria incognito to try to get to know the people, Tabler wrote. She found there was massive poverty and a growing population of unemployed young people.

"Villagers are very pure, very willing," she told Tabler in an interview in 2001. "Villagers don't want to leave their villages, but economic opportunities don't exist there."

The politics of glamour

Throughout most of the 2000s, Asma al-Assad's profile in the region increased.

The first lady gained a reputation as a clothes horse, preferring Chanel on her tiny frame. She kept her chin-length honey hair in loose waves and always wore exquisite heels. Her photograph was often published, usually next to that of lithe beauty Queen Rania of Jordan, another Western-styled fashion icon with a busy public calendar.

Syrian and international writers gushed about how Asma al-Assad was not only glamorous but also a champion of women's rights.

The New York Times profiled the Assads in 2005 when they opened an opera house in Damascus: "Together they made a kind of visual rhyme with the building: Tall, slender and young, they seemed the essence of secular Western-Arab fusion, the elegant doctor-turned-president out on the town with his dazzling British-born Syrian wife, the former J. P. Morgan banker whom Syrians call their Princess Diana.

But the story also delved into the tense relationship between America and Syria, as U.S. troops were operating in western Iraq near the Syrian border. When the Times reporter asked President Al-Assad if he was concerned, he said he was not. Then Asma al-Assad "flashed a warm smile and deftly flicked" the reporter away.

''We're off duty,'' she told the Times reporter.

Asma's profile borrowed heavily from Princess Diana. This 2009 YouTube photo compilation shows Syria's first lady helping old people and sick children, sitting in classrooms, planting trees, waving and smiling alongside her husband. It's unclear who posted the video. The poster didn't use his or her real name, and the e-mail connected to the channel featuring other similar videos celebrating the Assads is no longer active.

In 2010, Asma al-Assad talked to diplomats and intellectuals at the Paris Diplomatic Academy. A YouTube video shows her speaking, without notes, about Syria's history and how that heritage informs daily life.

"Some often ask me how then can Syria remain stable, moderate and influential in a region that is increasingly being surrounded by extremism, ideologism (sic), sectarianism and all other forms of negative perceptions in our society," she told the gathering. "The typical answer I get is because of military, political, security reasons. Again, I believe I have a different view.

"It's the very essence of our culture. It's what our history teaches us of openness and engagement," she said. "It's the sense of identity and pride that we have knowing who we are in the world and knowing what we've contributed to the world over thousands of years that gives us that sense of stability and that sense of moderation.

"Some of you might think I am talking politics. ... Trust me, I have no interest in politics," she continued. "My interests are elsewhere. But living in the region for as long as I have, I realize that politics affects every facet of our lives."

"In the Lion's Den" portrays Asma al-Assad as confident, charming, gutsy and focused, but also naïve, someone who seemed to sincerely believe she could better the country through various charities and NGOs.

Tabler describes one meeting he attended with European diplomats where the first lady charmed everyone and left the impression that the Syrian first family was approachable, at least compared to other members of her husband's regime.

Asma al-Assad was "a comprehensible and reasonable individual in an opaque regime," Tabler wrote.

In December 2010, around the time a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire and inspired a wave of protests across North Africa, Asma al-Assad and her husband were photographed in Paris. They were smiling, as they left a Monet exhibition.

More: al-Assad's inner circle, mostly family, like 'mafia'

'These atrocities'

Three months later, the first major protests broke out in Syria. About 3,000 people gathered in Damascus on March 16 to demand the Assad regime release hundreds of political prisoners, many jailed during Hafez al-Assad's regime. Reuters and other news agencies reported that security officers detained and beat demonstrators.

The next day, Asma al-Assad gave the keynote speech at an event hosted by the Harvard Arab Alumni Association at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus.

In a description online, the alumni group wrote: "In her role as Syria's first lady, Her Excellency Asma al-Assad applies her experience, energy and influence to her country's social and cultural development. Her role reflects the significant economic, political and social change that is happening in Syria today. Asma al-Assad's work supports that of President Bashar al-Assad by fostering the emergence of a robust, independent and self-sustaining civil society."

The group's program director, Sena Halabi, said he didn't have a transcript of the talk and that it wasn't videotaped.

Harvard spokesman Joe Raposo said he could not provide details of her remarks because the conference was a private, non-Harvard-sponsored event.

In October as bodies piled up in the streets of Homs and Hama, aid workers told Britain's Independent newspaper they had met with Asma al-Assad in Damascus, at her request.

The first lady asked the group about the risks of their jobs, one worker told The Independent. But she was expressionless, the workers said, when they told her about abuses they had witnessed by security forces and soldiers.

"There was no reaction. She didn't react at all. It was just like I was telling a normal story, something that happens every day," one worker said.

Tabler said he suspects the first lady "is in denial" about just how severe the violence in Syria has become -- and about her husband's culpability.

"They talked so much about reform that I think she has fooled herself," he said.

But Asma al-Assad's head seemed quite clear two years ago when she spoke with CNN about how she would not tolerate an oppressive and violent regime, except in this instance she was talking about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

She said that 60% of Middle Easterners are under 25 and feel increasingly frustrated with a lack of economic opportunity. Governments must make those young people "believe in a future," she said.

"The reality on the ground is increasingly ... going further and further and further away from that," she said, foreshadowing the causes of the Arab Spring, a movement led primarily by young people.

The first lady went on to speak about 2009's Gaza War, a three-week bombing and invasion of Gaza by Israel that began in late December when Israel launched a surprise airstrike.

Asma al-Assad called Israel's actions "barbaric" and said innocent Palestinians were dying in droves. She was appalled by reports from human rights workers who witnessed the carnage.

"This is the 21st century. Where in the world could this happen? Unfortunately it is happening," she said.

"As a mother and as a human being we need to make sure that these atrocities stop."

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