Joan Smith: A tyrant's wife is guilty too, as her emails show

 

Share

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.

www.politicalblonde.com

twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea