Syria: Should We Be Stunned by Asma al-Assad's Emails?

Asma Al-Assad, the once praised Western educated and cosmopolitan woman who helped soften the image of the Syrian dictator stunned many last week after the Guardian obtained and released her private email correspondences.

Over the last year, between the start of the uprising in Syria until release of the emails on March 15th, it was nearly impossible to understand what Asma al-Assad was thinking about and concerning herself with. Rumors circulated on the streets of Damascus that she was morally tormented and that her husband had been holding her captive after she had attempted an escape back to England with her three children only to be dragged off a plane by her brother-in-law, Maher. However, the leaked emails point to a completely different picture, highlighting the degree of misunderstanding about the impenetrable al-Assad family.

The level of nonchalance in her correspondences amidst the uprising stunned many. At least one famous columnist argued that the correspondence painted a more human side of the couple, since many of us can relate to laughing at YouTube videos and downloading love ballads on iTunes. However, I believe it revealed instead a petty woman more concerned with obtaining the latest copy of Harry Potter and a chocolate fondue set than the slaughtering of her fellow Syrians at the hands of her husband's government.

So, why should we not be surprised?

The fact that, at the age of 25, Asma made a decision to court and marry a man who was being groomed to be the next totalitarian dictator of Syria is a reflection of her character. After a three year "career" in investment banking at JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, where Asma was a pre-MBA analyst likely writing pitch books and far removed from senior level executives, she married Bashar al-Assad in December of 2000. This occurred shortly after he was "democratically" voted into office with a 97% approval rating. He was only allowed to be president because the Parliament amended the Syrian Constitution to lower the minimum age of an eligible candidate from 40 to 34, following the death of his father. She accepted the Assad family as her own and acquiesced to the rigged election results which gave her husband the presidency on a silver platter. It is hard to imagine that the Western educated investment banker was not fully aware of the corrupt government she would soon make part of.

Repression in the Assad regime was never a new phenomenon and Asma gladly accepted the privileges given to her as the first lady of a totalitarian state. Hafez al-Assad, Asma's father-in-law, ruled Syria for three decades with an "iron fist." He managed to maintain absolute power through a complex security apparatus he crafted by imprisoning and torturing dissidents and anyone else daring enough to speak out against him. No Syrian can be oblivious to the Hama massacre of 1982, where an estimated 10,000 people were killed, with many leveled inside their houses, in a show of power and strength by the Assad family.

When the March 15 uprising proved a threat to the absolute control of the Assad regime, it is no surprise that she supported the repression. Maintaining the status quo would ensure that her husband, her family and eventually her children would retain the immense wealth and power accumulated over several decades.

The wealth Asma used to finance her lavish lifestyle throughout the uprising is almost entirely provided by the corrupt businesses of Bashar al-Assad's first cousin, Rami Makhlouf. During the first weeks of the uprising, he came to symbolize the economic corruption that plagued Syria. In Dar'aa, as protesters burned the offices of SyriaTel (a company where Rami Makhlouf is a majority shareholder) they chanted: "Rami Makhlouf is robbing us". It is estimated that the billionaire Rami Makhlouf owns more than 60% of all businesses in Syria. In 2008, the U.S. government accused him of manipulating the judicial system and using Syrian intelligence to intimidate rivals, imposing sanctions on him. Since the uprising began, he has also been placed on the European Union sanction list for providing the payroll of the Assad regime to crush the opposition. It seems like Asma was well versed in using the family's expanding piggy bank, managed by Rami Makhouf, to wear Christian Louboutin and Chanel, while ordinary Syrians lacked basic staples such as bread. Her Western upbringing certainly did not fail to educate her about expensive European brands.

Since the uprising began, Asma al-Assad had been largely silent and out of sight of the public. Her actions remind me of the words of Ginetta Sagan: "Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor." Only in February of this year was her silence broken when she released a statement affirming that "the president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role." It is not surprising that she would send mocking emails about the "stupidity" of the people from Homs in January. Despite Homs being her family's hometown, it was the ground-zero threatening her lifestyle. Many were stunned by the lack of concern about the Syrian people expressed in her email correspondences. In her own words to a friend in Qatar, perhaps we do not understand her "reality." However, this is not out of line with what one could have expected from someone who knowingly married into the Assads. It is now clear that Asma has and continues to support her husband's means of containing the opposition. There is no more point in trying to imagine that she is more even-minded than her husband and could be a driving force for real reforms and talks with the opposition. So long to the desert rose.