By Maria Golovnina
LONDON, March 19 (Reuters) - She was supposed to be the gentler face of a would-be reformist regime. Now Asma al-Assad has become a hate figure for many.
Syria's London-born first lady, once breathlessly described as a "rose in the desert", is ensconced at the heart of the shadowy inner circle of President Bashar al-Assad.
As Syria slides towards civil war and foreign powers watch for cracks within the ruling clan, understanding Asma could prove vital to understanding the Assads and the future of the Syrian crisis.
A British-educated former investment banker, Asma cultivated the image of a glamorous yet serious-minded woman with strong Western-inspired values who was meant to humanise the increasingly secretive and isolated Assad family.
That image crumbled when her husband responded to an anti-government rebellion with extreme violence a year ago. Asma had clearly decided to stand by her man despite international revulsion at his actions. Assad himself says he is fighting an insurrection, involving foreign-backed "terrorists".
Asma's ancestral home is the city of Homs, now a symbol of the revolt which has been subjected to particularly fierce attack by her husband's tanks to become ground zero in the year-long conflict.
With her penchant for crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin shoes and Chanel dresses, Asma is a puzzle for many. The opposition roundly rejects suggestions that she is effectively a prisoner of conscience in the presidential palace.
"She was very much, as we would say, left wing. She (created) a very, very good impression. She seemed to be very bright, very respectful of others," said Gaia Servadio, a writer and historian who has worked with Asma on several art projects.
"It's a very nasty regime ... Thousands of people have been killed. So it's very difficult to say: poor woman. She certainly should have found a way to talk."
The world was smitten by her immaculate facade. In the Western media, Asma, a 36-year-old mother of three, was described as sophisticated, elegant, confident, with a "killer IQ" and an interest in opening up Syria though art and charity.
For those who pinned their hopes on Assad as a potential reformer, his photogenic wife bolstered that image, lending a touch of glamour to his awkward public appearances.
A glowing article in Vogue magazine described her as "a rose in the desert" and her household as "wildly democratic". A French newspaper said she was an "element of light in a country full of shadow zones".
People were charmed by her classy demeanour, liberal views and British accent. She received the Gold Medal of the Presidency of The Italian Republic for humanitarian work in 2008 and won an honorary archaeology doctorate from La Sapienza university in Rome.
"THE REAL DICTATOR"
Yet emails published by Britain's Guardian newspaper this month from accounts believed to belong to the family offer a different portrait, showing her as a capricious dictator's wife spending tens of thousands of pounds on jewels, fancy furniture, and a Venetian glass vase from Harrods.
"I am the real dictator, he has no choice," she apparently said in one of the emails in a comment about her husband.
Her London contact, a Syrian businessman, appears to send emails to her using an address he has nicknamed "Party party".
The story of how the London-born daughter of a Sunni Muslim Syrian doctor married into Assad's family, members of the powerful minority Alawite sect, reads like a cautionary tale.
She was born in the west London suburbs, whose sleepy streets are lined with neat houses, just like her family's. Twelve years after she married Assad, the family home appears almost abandoned, its curtains drawn. Neighbours said her father still lives there with his wife, a former diplomat.
"We know they are there but we don't see them," said one neighbour, a veiled Arab woman who asked not to be named. No one answered the door bell when Reuters called at the weekend.
A Syrian dissident from Aleppo, who lives nearby and asked to be identified only by his nickname, Zayed, said most Syrians in Britain despised Asma now.
Zayed, angrily comparing Asma to Marie Antoinette or the wife of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, called on the Syrian leader's wife to "make a stand for your own sake, for your own people ... She never did."
A senior member of the British Syrian Society, set up with Assad's help to promote business ties, said he has met the first couple in London and used warm words to describe them.
"They were quite impressive to talk to. He came across as someone who wanted to listen, get ideas, get advice, open to everybody, he made it plain that he wanted Syrians abroad to help building the country again. He was welcoming and warm."
Speaking on condition of anonymity in a gentlemen's club in a smart London neighbourhood, he added: "We all felt there was an opportunity that he, the president, representing the younger generation, could lead Syria to a new age of change.
"Perhaps he feels betrayed. Why are they (the West) ganging up on him? Now some people say, he is in full control, others say that he is not. Maybe he is shocked by the fact that ... in the end they all turned against them."
Asma's father, Fawaz Akhras, a cardiologist and founder of the British Syrian Society, has not responded to a Reuters request for a meeting, made through an intermediary.
"WARLORDS, ONE AGAINST THE OTHER"
Known as Emma to her British friends, Asma spent the first 25 years of her life in North Acton, went to a smart London girls school, Queen's College, and read computer science at King's College London.
She was a rising star at JP Morgan when she met Bashar, who had studied ophthalmology in London but was sent home to be groomed for the presidency after his elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash in 1994.
"I was always very serious at work, and suddenly I started to take weekends (off), or disappear, and people just couldn't figure it out," she told Vogue. "What do you say - 'I am dating the son of a president?'"
They married in 2000. What followed was a life full of glamour. They once dined with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Syria. Bashar joked, according to Vogue: "Brad Pitt wanted to send his security guards here to come and get some training!"
One photograph from happier days depicts them playing with their children, toys scattered around on the carpet.
The Assad side of the clan, however, didn't like Asma, not least because of her Sunni Muslim origins.
"Certainly the Assad family doesn't like her, to put it mildly ... She was constantly under watch, her telephone, she was very careful," Servadio, who spent time with the family in Syria before the uprising, told Reuters in London.
"She was shouted at. How odd, frankly, (that) somebody who is meant to be the wife of the president who is an autocrat, can be shouted at in this way." She added: "It was like a mediaeval power, warlords, one against the other."
Asma's husband was elected president with 97 percent of the vote in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for decades.
Before the start of the 2011 uprising, there was hope Syria could change. Syrians saw his choice of wife as proof that things were about to change.
"When he came to power, people said, 'Okay ... let's give him a chance and see what he's going to do,'" said Ghassan Ibrahim, Global Arab Network's London-based editor. "What happened is that he made corruption even more organised, Mafia appeared, poverty grew sharply ... (But) she is standing by the criminal and she supports him."
Emails leaked by Syria's opposition offer a chilling glimpse into the lavish lifestyle the couple enjoyed even as Assad's troops shelled opposition strongholds.
The tone of those emails is incongruously jokey. In one, Asma's husband disparages his own reforms as "rubbish". He also shares a pun playing on the words "elections" and "erections".
Asma appears to have written in an email: "If we are strong together, we will overcome this together ... I love you."
As the revolt unfolded she gradually disappeared from public view but broke her silence in February, saying in a statement: "The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role."
In a haunting interview with CNN, looking nervous, she once said: "We are losing time. We are working against the clock. Three thousand and three hundred people injured. More than that, 22,000 people have been displaced from their homes ... This is the 21st century. Where in the world could this happen?"
She was talking in 2009 about an Israeli operation in Gaza.
"VIRTUALLY A PRISONER"
Some believe she is a propaganda tool of the Assad family, a liberal going through a moral crisis in Damascus, unable to speak up or escape.
"She is virtually a prisoner. The two of them missed their boat," said Servadio. "I would certainly accuse him (Assad) of being a coward. ... I think he is a puppet, very much used.
"For them (the family) it's wonderful to have a scapegoat, these two people at the top who are absorbing all the hatred."
Ibrahim disagreed. "It's not true at all. Assad has been in power for over 12 years. He is in full control. Giving such excuses to him is unacceptable. They are like the Mafia."
As battles raged across Syria, Asma kept spending on designer baubles from London, according to the emails.
For ordinary Syrians, Asma al-Assad is now a hate figure.
"They have stolen Syrian money. She is squandering it here in London," said Fawaz, a man who came to an opposition fund-raising event in London wrapped in a Syrian flag.
"She and her father are accomplices to this crime. They learned nothing from the democracy here in the UK." (Writing By Maria Golovnina Editing by Giles Elgood)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS