The U.S. government has long imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has presided over more than nine years of a civil war that has claimed the lives of an estimated half a million people. But for the first time ever, on June 17 his British wife Asma was targeted with economic restrictions of her own.
“We anticipate many more sanctions, and we will not stop until Assad and his regime stop their needless, brutal war against the Syrian people,” U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “I will make special note of the designation for the first time of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Bashar al-Assad, who with the support of her husband and members of her Akhras family has become one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”
In recent years, she has been referred to in the press as everything from the “feminine face of Assad’s dictatorship” to “Mrs. Monster” to “Lady Jasmine” — but who exactly is Asma Assad and what role has she played in the bloodletting?
“Asma al-Assad’s public roles have been as a propagandist and pseudo-humanitarian, but it is widely understood that she has been more intimately involved with her husband’s political decisions,” Kenan Rahmani, advocacy manager for Washington-based The Syria Campaign told Fox News. “She has also bolstered the regime’s image, feeding into regime propaganda demonstrating her and her husband Bashar as patriotic Syrians inspired by humanity and a duty to serve their people.”
Born the eldest child and only daughter of a Syrian cardiologist father and Syrian diplomat mother, Asma Akhras was born into the upper echelons of London society in 1975. Referred to as “Emma” by her friends, the then-Akhras graduated from King’s College in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in French literature and computer science before stepping into the fast-paced world of investment banking. But just as she was preparing to take on an MBA at Harvard University, she reconnected with Bashar – an acquaintance who she had met years earlier – and they wed in a secret Damascus ceremony in December 2000.
As a Sunni Muslim marrying into the Assad Alawite leadership, an offshoot of Shiaism, the first couple were considered to be young, fresh reformers who would guide Syria into a new level of advancement and secularism, with Asma actively behind the prohibition of hijabs in educational institutions and visits to churches and other religious minorities.
“When Bashar married a Sunni, that created an impression among the Syrians that a change in the sectarian policy of the regime could take place and play a positive role,” said Saad Sharea, member of the board of directors of the Syrian research firm Bakkah Media. “Rather, it was the exact opposite that happened.”