The wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a television interview broadcast Tuesday that she declined earlier offers to leave her country in the now six-year-long war in return for safety and financial security for her and her children.
Asma al-Assad, 41, was speaking to Russia 24, a Moscow-based state-run television channel. It was her first interview with international media since the war broke out in Syria in 2011. She said the "foolish" offers aimed to undermine confidence in her husband.
"I was offered the opportunity to leave Syria or rather to run from Syria," Ms. al-Assad said in the 33-minute interview conducted in English. "It doesn't take a genius to know what these people were really after. It was never about my well-being or my children. It was a deliberate attempt to shatter people's confidence in their president."
She did not specify whom the offers were from.
Ms. al-Assad has largely avoided the international media since the start of protests in Syria in the spring of 2011 and rarely agrees to interview requests.
Ms. al-Assad married her husband, who is 10 years her senior, on New Year's Day in 2001 and together they have three children. She holds dual British-Syrian citizenship and grew up in a secular Muslim household in London, where her Syrian father was a cardiologist, according to an interview with The Guardian in 2002. The family spoke Arabic at home and would holiday in Syria, but she described an English childhood in which she attended a Church of England school in west London and was known as "Emma."
According to a New York Times interview from 2005, Ms. al-Assad graduated from the University of London before moving to New York, where she worked in banking with Deutsche Bank and then later at J.P. Morgan. She also worked in Paris and, besides English, is known to speak French, Spanish and Arabic. She was accepted to Harvard's MBA program but chose to return to Syria to marry Bashar, who also spent time in the U.K. while training in ophthalmology.
There has been much speculation about how the al-Assads met, but in the Guardian interview, Ms. al-Assad dispelled many of the rumours.
"It is not quite as grand as the British press is trying to make out. We have been friends for a very long time. I came to Syria every year since I was born. It is really through family friends who knew each other since childhood," she is reported to have said.
Her last major appearance was in March, 2011, for the fashion magazine Vogue, which published a profile of her titled Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert. Vogue initially defended the piece but subsequently removed it from online.
Parts of the article can still be found on the Internet. In it, she is referred to as "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.' "
Despite the low profile she has kept in the international media, she has maintained an active presence on an official presidency Instagram account and has had a highly visible role in showing support for the families of soldiers killed or wounded in the fighting, and appears regularly in hospitals and at funerals.
Syria's conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and displaced half the country's prewar population of 23 million since March, 2011, most of them inside the country.
Ms. al-Assad said everyone in Syria is at risk because of the war. But she added: "I refuse to live in fear."
She also said help from friends of Damascus such as Russia had been invaluable to alleviate people's suffering from the conflict and sanctions.
"It is these noble efforts that have helped loosened the chokehold on ordinary Syrians, and this is something we will never forget."