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Surrounded by children, Syria's first lady makes rare appearance

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
March 18, 2013 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Bashar al-Assad's official Facebook page claims his wife, Asma, took part in an event at the Damascus Opera House on Saturday.
Bashar al-Assad's official Facebook page claims his wife, Asma, took part in an event at the Damascus Opera House on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Photos show Asma al-Assad for the first known time in months, in Damascus
  • The whereabouts of Syria's first lady were not known for much of the past year
  • Expert: The regime's photos of her convey confidence that it is maintaining control

(CNN) -- The controversial wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance over the weekend at the Damascus Opera House.

Asma al-Assad attended an event Saturday called "Mother's Rally," according to a single statement on her husband's official Facebook page. The event was a fundraiser for mothers of "martyrs," or government soldiers, killed in the two-year war. The three children she has with the Syrian president joined her at the event, according to the Facebook message.

Posted photos show the 37-year-old smiling, her hair in a ponytail. Children and young women surround her. They seem overjoyed. A few snap photos. One woman kisses the first lady on the cheek.

"The regime is trying to telegraph that it's business as usual and she is a way to do that," said Andrew Tabler, an American expert on Syria who once lived in the country and interacted with the first family. "Not only is this a sign that she's standing by her man, but that the core of the regime is not cracking."

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In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
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Terrorism vs. revolution in Syria's war
Losing a generation of Syrian children

"This stunt shouldn't disguise the fact that the regime is firing missiles in Damascus at their own population," Tabler added. "The photos are a gesture of confidence that the international community will not crush them and that (the Assads) will be able to keep hold of some level of control of the country."

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As many as 70,000 Syrians have likely died since March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in February.

The uprising against Bashar al-Assad began amid the Arab Spring movement in the region that had toppled long-time leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. In the spring of 2011, protesters began to rally for more freedom in Syria. The Assad regime, demonstrators say, cracked down violently.

The rebels -- initially a ragtag group of everyday Syrians -- took up arms to fight against the then comparatively more heavily armed government forces. Soon the country was locked in an all-out war.

International peace envoys have failed to stop the bloodshed and now, experts say, the conflict threatens to seriously destabilize the Middle East.

Read: Expert: No end in sight for Syria crisis

Innocent Syrians have paid a huge price. The United Nations and numerous humanitarian rights groups have reported that government troops have kidnapped, tortured and killed Syrians, including children. It seems that nearly every month, another humanitarian report attempts to convey the carnage. Just last week, UNICEF warned that at least 2 million Syrian youths urgently need humanitarian aid, or an entire generation could be lost.

Bashar al-Assad has denied responsibility for the violence, and repeatedly said "terrorists" are committing atrocities.

Before the uprising, the Assads were photographed wearing designer clothes and hobnobbing with celebrities at fancy parties around the world. A spring 2011 Vogue profile (which the magazine has removed from it website, but al-Assad still features on his site) called Asma al-Assad a "rose in the desert."

The story was ridiculed for being tone-deaf to suffering in the country; it was published after the uprising had begun.

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Though the European Union placed her under sanctions shortly after that article, the story presented Asma al-Assad as she had worked to be perceived -- as an exceptionally modern woman in the Arab world, Tabler and other experts have said. Unlike other first ladies in the region, she seemed intent on speaking from a position of power and influence. Her focus, she said, was protecting children.

In a 2009 CNN interview, she spoke about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, saying that she would not tolerate an oppressive and violent regime. She spoke at length about how it broke her heart that children on either side would be caught in the crossfire.

So during the earlier months of the Syria war, the world waited for her to back her words with actions.

That never happened.

For the past year, Asma al-Assad's whereabouts have been mostly a mystery. Some wondered if she was living in England, where she was born and got degrees in computer science and French literature before moving to Syria to marry the president.

Leaked e-mails between her and her husband revealed that she spent time online shopping for expensive jewelry, art and furniture, and e-mailing boutiques in London and Paris.

On the same day as a massive anti-Assad rally in Hama, Syria, the first lady e-mailed a London art dealer about buying tens of thousands of dollars' worth of art.

Last summer, reports said she fled Syria and took refuge in Russia, but Moscow dismissed that.

The newest report floating around in American and international news outlets is that Mrs. al-Assad is pregnant with the couple's fourth child.

Getting to know Syria's first family

CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.

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