The family from hell

Sep 08, 2013, 05:25 IST | Roger Boyes

What life is really like for Asma Assad, the London-educated first lady of Syria, and her murderous clan of in-laws

Much to the disappointment of Harrods, Christian Louboutin and sundry Kings Road interior decorators, Asma Assad hasn’t been shopping recently. Asma, Vogue’s “rose in the desert”, wife of Bashar al-Assad, has, like most of the dictator’s clan, been concentrating more on how to avoid a US Tomahawk cruise missile crashing into her living room.  “She’s just hunkered down in Damascus,” says Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who used to work for the Syrian leader’s wife. “She’s standing by her man.”

A 1985 picture shows Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his wife Anissah Makhlouf (seated) and, behind them, (R to L) their five children: Bushra, Majd, Bassel, Bashar, and the youngest, Maher. AFP Photo

Asma, 38, was always a woman of three cities: Homs, the ancestral home of her Sunni family; London, the place of her upbringing; and Damascus. Now Homs is seen by her husband’s Alawite-run regime as enemy terrain. London is off-limits. The Syrian capital’s co-ordinates will soon be programmed into US missile systems. Her world, formerly of Twyford Church of England High School and Queen’s College, is shrinking.

It is all about family now, about pulling up the drawbridge. A Facebook posting by Hafez, Asma’s 11-year-old son, has set tongues wagging in the Syrian capital. It is full of defiance, the rant of an angry young boy: “No one has soldiers like we do in Syria . . . America doesn’t have soldiers, what it has is some cowards with new technology who claim themselves liberators.”

The post was quickly deleted and the account “Hafez Assad” shut down, so it could have been a stunt. It was certainly on-message: the Assads are not going anywhere fast. The calculation is simple. Survive whatever the US-led force throws at Damascus and then declare the mere act of survival to be a victory over the firepower of President Obama.

In truth there isn’t much of a Plan B left for the Assads. One of Bashar’s uncles, Mohamad Makhlouf, is holed up in Moscow’s Stalin-era Ukraina hotel managing some of the Assad assets deposited in Russia. However, a dacha exile, a kind of Edward Snowden limbo-in-the-snow, is not sought by any of the clan members.

Lebanon has become unsafe, although according to some reports Asma’s Harley Street cardiologist father, Fawaz Akhras, and his ex-diplomat wife Sahar sometimes travel there from Acton for meetings with her. And Asma’s erstwhile friends, such as the 30-year-old daughter of the former Emir of Qatar, Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani, have faded away.

And so the clan has been left to its own devices, free of democratic restraint, full of self-righteous resentment about their ungrateful citizens, the manipulations of fellow Arabs, the blundering threats of the Americans and the British who once hailed the young Assads as a breath of fresh air.

Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, while all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. But Tolstoy was wrong: there is something gruesomely familiar about the Assad clan. It was established by the paterfamilias Hafez al-Assad, who took over power in 1970 and who died peacefully in June 2000. Hafez, says Abdel Halim Khaddam, former vice-president, ignored his son, Bashar. The heir and favourite was Basil, who died prematurely in 1994 after crashing his Mercedes.

Asma, who married Bashar 13 years ago, was pitted against Anisa Makhlouf, the widow of Hafez al-Assad and a classic interventionist mother-in-law, and Bashar’s very forthright sister, Bushra, a trained pharmacist. Both found Asma wanting, too Western in her ways and too keen to get involved in policy.

What distinguishes the Assads from other miserable dynasties is of course the blood. They are like a never-ending re-run of The Sopranos scripted by Baron von Clausewitz. No one blinked an eyelid when Maher shot Bushra’s husband, Assef Shawkat, in the stomach back in 1999. Shawkat survived, seemingly took it in good part and became head of military intelligence in charge of dealing with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and manipulating Lebanese politics; a busy brief. Last year Shawkat was blown up by a rebel bomb in the security police headquarters. Bashar did not go to the funeral.

Asma, it was always said, didn’t know what she was getting into. Of course, she knew that the old Hafez was up to his knees in blood when she met and married Bashar. After all, Hafez had ordered the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982 -- some 20,000 Sunnis were killed in a month-long siege.

The idea was that Bashar, with Asma at his side, would not only de-brutalise the regime but modernise it. Before leaving JP Morgan to marry Bashar, she had been working on a bio-tech deal. Now she was supposed to become part of the plan to privatise banking. Syria under the young Assads was to get ATMs, shopping malls and personal computers introduced into the bureaucracy.

I t did not work out like that, partly because of the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003, partly because of the huge security machine that crushed reform, and partly because so many of Bashar Assad’s own clan profited from the system.

Bashar is technically head of the Assad dynasty, but is in fact constantly struggling with it, unable to decide between competing intelligence assessments or taking control of the economy. Asma has all but withdrawn from public affairs, apart from her husband’s Instagram images, and is trying to shield her three children.

Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani warned her more than two years ago that she was in a “state of denial” and that seems to be the case even today. “Asma al-Assad worked very hard for a period of 11 years to promote an image of herself as Princess Diana,” says the opposition activist Malik al-Abdeh. “She’s now nothing more than a dictator’s wife.” 

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