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The curious case of Mrs. Assad

How did Asma, a textbook product of a liberal Western education, make the transition from London banker to accessory to tyranny?

Last week’s sham vote on a new Syrian constitution fooled nobody.  As President Assad’s troops continued the bloodshed in Homs, the Syrian leader and his dutiful wife beamed at the cameras before casting their votes. While global condemnation rightly greeted Assad’s attempts at deception, little attention has been paid to another Syrian contradiction. The country’s First Lady, Asma Assad, was born and bred in London. How exactly did she end up at the side of a ruthless dictator?

By any measure, Asma Assad enjoyed all the benefits of a Western middle-class education and upbringing. The 36-year-old was born in London to a retired diplomat and a consultant cardiologist at a prestigious West End hospital. The family home was an inconspicuous terraced house in Acton, West London — the same part of the world where I grew up.

Asma attended the same local Church of England school as some of my childhood friends, where presumably she was exposed to the same values and influences as any other ’80s child in West London. Known as ‘Emma’ throughout her formative years, Asma completed her schooling at a private school on Harley Street before graduating in computer science from King’s College in 1996. A lucrative career beckoned. Like so many other ambitious graduates of the time, Asma jumped on the finance and banking bandwagon, working first with Deutsche Bank before joining JP Morgan in 1998, specializing in mergers and acquisitions. Two years later, she was married to the newly appointed President of Syria.

Incredibly, Asma must now look on as her husband orders the bombardment and wanton destruction of Homs, the very city that her family calls home. Indeed, Asma’s father is reported to be “horrified” at his son-in-law’s savage actions, which have naturally left him fearful for both his daughter and the country of his birth. So how did it come to this? It seems almost unfathomable that a wholesome product of Western liberal society should become an onlooker to wholesale human rights abuse.

A picture-perfect husband? Bashar Assad (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A picture-perfect husband? Bashar Assad (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Not to suggest that Asma could do anything to soften the force of her husband’s iron fist, even if she wanted to, yet it is instructive to ask how she made the transition from London banker to accessory to tyranny? Love is blind, some might argue. Yet, that would seem a disservice to an intelligent woman like Asma. After all, her husband’s “family business” was hardly a secret. Bashar Assad’s father, and presidential predecessor, Hafez, was an infamously brutal dictator, who in 1982 crushed dissent by flattening the city of Hama, massacring somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

Perhaps the answer to the apparent walking contradiction that is Mrs Assad lies not in her Western origins, but rather in our own naive Western response. Quite rightly, we lionize democracy and civil rights as supreme values that trump all else. So much so, in fact, that we fail to countenance the idea that others just may not see it that way. Using perfect Western logic, we reason that, given the opportunity, any sane individual would choose a system of greater individual freedom rather than less. We ignore the brutal reality, that in some parts of the world, including large swaths of the Middle East, supreme importance is attached to ancient and deep-seated loyalties to family, tribe or community which trump vague values such as democracy.

We hopefully suppose that a small dose of Western education will enlighten those foolishly attached to supposedly primitive allegiances. When Bashar Assad assumed power in 2000, many cited his ophthalmology training in London as reason enough to assume he would bring about much-needed change in Syria. His subsequent marriage to Asma, hailed as the “Diana of the East,” helped foster a progressive image that endured until as recently as early last year, when Hillary Clinton stubbornly assured the world that Assad was a “reformer.”

In a similar vein, Jordan’s King Abdullah, educated and trained at Oxford and Georgetown universities and Sandhurst Military Academy, retains a more benevolent but unquestionably dictatorial grip on power. Of course, a doctorate from the London School of Economics did not prevent Saif al-Islam Gaddafi from taking a leading role in Libya’s brutal dictatorship.  The brutal irony of his PhD thesis title, “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions,” is surely confirmation of the purely theoretical importance attributed to democracy in parts of the Arab world.

The fact that the Arab Spring has failed, as yet, to usher in a new era of democracy should surprise nobody. There is simply no democratic history or culture in an Arab world traditionally divided along tribal or colonial lines. That is not to say that democracy can never take root. Yet, it will be a far longer process than many in the West have envisaged, based on the naive assumption that a fleeting encounter with democratic values is enough to foster change.

If Asma Assad’s thoroughly Western upbringing did not prevent her from becoming a dictator’s sidekick, there is little reason to believe that a brief NATO engagement in Libya, or some words of encouragement from the West to protestors in Tahrir Square, will sow the seeds of Arab democracy. Such a change will require the West to support a steady process of evolution, rather than placing faith in the mirage of revolution.

About the Author
With over a decade of experience working with governments, politicians, NGOs and Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad, I hope to bring a fresh look at some of today's big issues.