In February, Vogue magazine published, for the benefit of its 11.7 million readers, an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” about the first lady of Syria. Asma al-Assad has British roots, wears designer fashion, worked for years in banking, and is married to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has killed over 5,000 civilians and hundreds of children this year. The glowing article praised the Assads as a “wildly democratic” family-focused couple who vacation in Europe, foster Christianity, are at ease with American celebrities, made theirs the “safest country in the Middle East,” and want to give Syria a “brand essence.”
Vogue‘s editors defended the controversial article as “a way of opening a window into this world a little bit,” conceding only that Assad’s Syria is “not as secular as we might like.” A senior editor responsible for the story told me the magazine stood by it. A few weeks later, the article and all references to it were removed from Vogue’s website without explanation. In August, The Hillreported that U.S. lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James had been paid $5,000 per month by the Syrian government to arrange for and manage the Vogue article.
For all the controversy, the article’s author, former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, did manage to spend some one-on-one time with both Asma and Bashar al-Assad, an exclusive many journalists might have killed for. Today, as the world watches for cracks in the Assad regime and in the Assad family, Buck’s interviews are an increasingly important tool for understanding the man at the top of Syria and the woman next to him.
Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic–the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.
Syria is known as the safest country in the Middle East, possibly because, as the State Department’s Web site says, “the Syrian government conducts intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Syrian citizens and foreign visitors.” It’s a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark. Asma’s husband, Bashar al-Assad, was elected president in 2000, after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with a startling 97 percent of the vote. In Syria, power is hereditary. The country’s alliances are murky. How close are they to Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah? There are souvenir Hezbollah ashtrays in the souk, and you can spot the Hamas leadership racing through the bar of the Four Seasons. Its number-one enmity is clear: Israel. But that might not always be the case. The United States has just posted its first ambassador there since 2005, Robert Ford.
Iraq is next door, Iran not far away. Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is 90 minutes by car from Damascus. Jordan is south, and next to it the region that Syrian maps label Palestine. There are nearly one million refugees from Iraq in Syria, and another half-million displaced Palestinians.