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Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma. (Hassene Dridi/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma. (Hassene Dridi/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Then and now

Syria today and Russia in 1917: two teetering dictatorships Add to ...

Only a year ago, Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was described in Vogue magazine as “a rose in the desert.” Now, as the native Londoner watches her husband brutally suppress a Syrian uprising, she has become a thorny question.

This week – while many Western countries removed their envoys from Syria and U.S. President Barack Obama called for her husband to leave office to avoid further bloodshed – Ms. al-Assad broke a nearly year-long silence in an e-mail to The Times of London.

“The President is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role,” it said. “The First Lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with. … These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.” The next day, Unicef reported that children were being tortured, murdered and sexually abused by Syrian security forces.

Compare Ms. al-Assad's e-mail to another letter from a wife eager to mop up her husband's bloody trail: “Nicky's cross is a heavy one to bear. … Don't believe all the horrors the foreign papers say. They make one's hair half stand on end – foul exaggeration.”

In truth, this wife wrote, the murdered were insurrectionists, a rabble-rousing minority. Her husband had the undying loyalty of his true subjects: “The Russian people are deeply and truly devoted to their Sovereign. …”

That sovereign was Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, and the letter was written by his wife, Empress Alexandra, after the Russian army had massacred hundreds of people during a workers’ march in St. Petersburg in 1905.

Alexandra would be his fiercest defender (as well as one of the causes of the family's downfall) until the couple and their five children met their gruesome end at Ekaterinburg 13 years later.

The parallels between these two teetering dictators, and between their wives, make for interesting reading.

Separated by little more than a century, two men – unprepossessing, even shy, and raised in the shadow of strong-arm fathers – married foreign women against family wishes and brought them home, first to warm wishes, but then to increasing mistrust from their own people.

Nicholas, the reluctant autocrat, failed to gauge the temper of the times, leading to a fall that changed world history. Now Bashar al-Assad, the erstwhile would-be reformer, faces a showdown that could determine the future of the Arab Spring and stability in the Middle East.

Perhaps Asma al-Assad is sitting in the family's apartment in Damascus, reading Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra and pondering the place in history of the German princess who became the last Russian empress.

The al-Assad apartment, where the presidential couple live with their three children, is governed by “wildly democratic principles,” according to Vogue. If true, that sets it apart from the rest of the country.

The apartment is far from where Ms. al-Assad, who was called Emma as a child, spent her teenage years at Queen’s College girls school in the upscale London neighbourhood of Marylebone. The daughter of a cardiologist, Fawaz Akhras, and his wife, Sahar, a former worker in the Syrian embassy in London, Ms. al-Assad, now 36, was raised in a modest house in West London. After studying computer science and French at King's College in London, she worked in banking, first for Deutsche Bank and then J.P. Morgan.

She met Bashar – the second son of Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who seized power in 1970 – on childhood trips to Syria; while the al-Assads belong to the minority Alawi sect, her family is Sunni, coming from Homs (the rebel centre her husband's forces are currently shelling to rubble).

Bashar moved to London in the 1990s to study ophthalmology – he seemed to have few political ambitions, and was described as shy and self-effacing. But he was called back to Syria to join the army after his more flamboyant older brother, Basil, who had been his father's presumed heir, was killed in a car accident.

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