The Instagram pictures could depict the wife of any mayor, governor, prince or prime minister doing the spousal good-deed drill: Ladling out food at a soup kitchen, praising kids to be their best young selves, visiting a refugee camp or hugging a senior citizen or two.
But when those feel-good photos feature Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad — whose husband, President Bashar al-Assad, has allegedly used poison gas on children and adults in his war-torn nation, and whose crackdown on insurgents has claimed thousands of lives in recent years — the world takes notice. (It remains to be seen whether this same world will retaliate against Syria, in response to the pleas for military action now being made by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry from Capitol Hill to assorted capitals around the globe).
Posted on an Instagram account called “Syrian Presidency,” the photos of the Syrian first lady taken in recent weeks have been published worldwide by numerous media outlets with varying degrees of irony, sarcasm and outrage.
The Daily Mail, based in Great Britain where Asma al-Assad was born to affluent Sunni Muslim Syrian expats, and where she met her husband when he was an optometry student, called the photos a “sickening propaganda tool.” The paper blasted her as “a stooge in this shameless PR exercise,” a woman who “seems is all too willing to try and mask the horrific atrocities being carried out by her husband’s forces.” Unlike other news sites, which ran the Instagram photos as stand-alone image, the Daily Mail paired each with a picture of Syrian carnage.
Asma Al-Assad, who turned 38 last month, is certainly not the first political wife to project a charitable public face in the service of a strongman husband, says historian Marc Pachter, former acting director of both the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American History.
“The beautiful and compassionate first lady linked to dictatorship was prototyped by Eva Peron,” said Pachter, referring to the free-spending, fashionable champion of the poor who married Argentina’s Juan Peron. She later inspired the Broadway musical and movie, “Evita.”
Asma al-Assad has more often been likened to the wife of French King Louis XVI, Marie “Let them eat cake” Antoinette, a villainess of the 18th-century Revolution.
The al-Assad Instagram photos hardly surprise Andrew Tabler, an Arabic speaker who lived in Syria for seven years, and who wrote “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.”
“For the Assad regime, it’s not about a matter of truth, it’s a matter of perception, that they are benevolent, they are handing out supplies and humanitarian assistance,” said Tabler, now a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The first lady’s family of Sunnis come from Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, which has been largely destroyed by Assad forces, Tabler said. But because she married into her husband’s ruling Alawite family and is the mother of their three children, “she is not about to break ranks. If she did, that would be great.”
The highly educated and famously chic first lady had been keeping a relatively low profile after the 2012 publication by The Guardian newspaper of a cache of private, shop-till-you-drop al-Assad family e-mails. Must-haves ranged from the latest “Harry Potter” books to fine jewelry, antique furniture and a pair of $6,000 Christian Louboutin crystal-studded stilettos. (Yes, this is the same British paper that published national security e-mails leaked by Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden).
Asma al-Asad’s recent re-appearance on Instagram has spawned new interest in a fawning 2011 Vogue profile that called her “A Rose in the Desert.” That story, which Vogue removed from its Web site last year during President Assad’s crackdown on insurgents, described her “central mission” as seeking “to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under 18, encourage them to engage in what she calls ‘active citizenship.’ It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”
Perhaps somewhere in the world, a composer and librettist are working on a musical called “Asma.”