Syrian First Lady's caring image unlikely to recover

Anger at leaked details of extravagant shopping in midst of bloodshed

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The Independent Online

As recently as January, Asma al-Assad continued to polish her image as a thoroughly modern, caring and liberal-minded consort to an awkward dictator. In a rare public statement, she affirmed her support for her husband and underlined her "very busy agenda" working for charity, as the blood of protesters soaked into Syrian soil.

For a decade, the British-born first lady of Syria devoted considerable energy to convincing the world of her role as a counterweight to Bashar al-Assad's authoritarian instincts, softening the hard edges of his regime with her penchant for haute couture and informed opinions on economic reform.

But this façade of enlightened engagement, which had already begun to slip after Ms Assad claimed from her Damascus hideaway to be comforting the victims of Syria's undeclared civil war, fell away this week with the revelation that while her husband's military was engaged in savage repression, she was devoting her energies not to charity, but to shopping.

The 36-year-old daughter of a west London cardiologist is shown, in the thousands of personal emails apparently intercepted by the Syrian opposition, to be more interested in the acquisition of Christian Louboutin shoes, items in the Harrods' sale and the latest Harry Potter movie than the "dialogue" she has professed to be pursuing to help resolve the conflict.

Through the steady flow of invoices from Chelsea cabinet makers and Parisian interior-design stores, a picture emerges of a woman closer in spirit to Imelda Marcos than the moderating counsellor to her husband's excess that she might have been.

Last night her father, Dr Fawaz Akhras, was alleged to have advised Mr Assad on dealing with the media in a further tranche of released emails, a claim he was yet to respond to.

Ms Assad, ensconced in the three-storey presidential apartment in Damascus, appears through her emails to have spent tens of thousands of pounds on internet shopping, while violence erupted in Syria.

When told that her order for four gold and diamond necklaces from a Paris workshop would be delayed, the former Deutsche Bank hedge fund executive with a degree in computer science replied: "I am absolutely useless when it comes to fine jewellery!" While the Syrian Army rained artillery shells on her parents' hometown of Homs in February, Ms Assad was preoccupied with an exclusive preview of Christian Louboutin shoes, asking friends: "Does anything catch your eye?"

In November 2011, she was in touch with the nephew of the Lebanese Prime Minister. Their exchange might conceivably have touched on the strategic importance of Lebanon and the threat posed to the Assad regime by Iranian-backed Hamas. Instead, Ms Assad, the mother of three sons, wanted to know if his planned arrival date in Damascus would allow him to bring a newly released DVD of the latest Harry Potter film. In another message, an aide is asked to buy a fondue set from the Amazon website.

What the emails necessarily fail to reveal are the face-to-face conversations between the Assads which might challenge the overwhelming image of a woman who at best is displacing concern at the bloodshed being carried out in her husband's name by worshipping Mammon – and at worst seems to revel in luxury amid the Syrian regime's calculated acts of murder.

It is, however, a close marriage that is being placed under considerable strain. In one email sent last December, Ms Assad wrote to her husband: "If we are strong together, we will over overcome this together... I love you."