If a novelist were trying to imagine the internal world of a brutal dictator, it seems likely that extravagance, sentimentality and self-pity would emerge as themes.
Only last year, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi offered an insight into the wastrel habits of his adult children, while the colonel's evident surprise moments before his lynching suggested someone who hadn't spent too much time worrying about his victims: "What did I do to you?" he asked. Gaddafi's final words came into my head last week as I read leaked emails received and sent by another dictator, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and his wife, Asma.
In February, as his forces massacred civilians in Homs, Assad was feeling so sorry for himself that he sent his wife a song by the US country singer Blake Shelton, who sings: "I've been a walking heartache/ I've made a mess of me/ The person that I've been lately/ Ain't who I wanna be." Assad's introspection, and his wife's restless quest for diamonds and bespoke furniture, is so close to the stereotypical dictator's family life that I couldn't help wondering whether the emails were genuine. What is one to make of a woman whose mind is exercised not by the fire-blackened ruins in her family's home city, Homs, but the necessity of obtaining a chocolate fondue set?
Several days after it was published in The Guardian, there seems to be agreement that the correspondence is authentic. I've often thought that dictators are just extremely wealthy people with armies, and their bad taste is both expected and a symptom of wider isolation; I don't suppose advisors were lining up to tell Colonel Gaddafi how many people hated him, and until recently foreigners were falling over themselves to tell Asma al-Assad how fabulous she was. Who could forget Vogue's fawning profile, published last year under the headline "A Rose in the Desert" and describing her as "a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind"? Also last year, Harvard's Arab Alumni Association announced an event in Damascus with the president's wife – "a thought-provoking, inspiring and tireless leader and advocate" – as its keynote speaker.
I've lost count of the times I've had conversations with people who thought that because Asma grew up in London, she must be a civilising influence on her horrible husband. But I've never believed it's possible to marry into such a notorious family without knowing what you're doing. Now we've seen emails assumed to be from from her father, a Harley Street cardiologist, advising his son-in-law how to respond to what appear to be graphic images of the torture of children by Syrian armed forces. The Assads' modernity consists of surface things: listening to New Order, getting a Harry Potter DVD, discussing US TV shows.
Judging by their emails, Asma al-Assad is a significant factor in strengthening her husband's determination to stay in power. By maintaining a semblance of normality, she makes it easier for him to live with the terrible crimes he has commissioned. "If we are strong together, we will overcome this together... I love you ..." she assured him in December. A few weeks later, she broke off a correspondence with a daughter of the Emir of Qatar, who had gently suggested that the couple might consider going into exile. Syria has been ruled by the Assads for more than 40 years, and this lawless gangster family has closed ranks.