Is Syria Awakening to a Hillary-Style First lady?

Published January 17th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

The announcement on January 2 in Syria’s official Tishreen daily that President Bashar al-Assad had wed was typical of the manner in which the 35-year-old leader’s late father, Hafez, treated his matrimonial affairs. Although the article held a front-page position, the text was brief and it was accompanied by a photograph of the president—and not his bride. 

But sources suggest that Syria’s new first lady is unlikely to remain a background figure for very long. On the contrary, they say, Assad’s new bride—Asma—is likely to assume a prominent and public role befitting the wife of a modern head of state, and is an individual whose opinion the president will seek out. 

Asma al-Akhras was born in London in 1975 into a prosperous but modest Sunni Muslim family of Syrian immigrants. Her mother, who hails from Damascus, once served as Syria’s consul in London. Her father, Fawaz, is a consultant cardiologist in London’s exclusive Harley Street medical district. He was born in Homs, 160 km north of Damascus, where the Akhras family is prominent. Fawaz’s cousin, Dr. Tariff al-Akhras currently serves as the president of the Homs Chamber of Commerce. 

Asma’s upbringing and education was typical of an individual growing up in an English upper-middle class family. Living in the West London suburb of Acton with her parents and two brothers Firas and Iyad, she was schooled at Queens College, before studying computer science at Kings College, London University. After graduation, she embarked on a business career, taking up a position as an economist in the London division of the American investment bank J.P. Morgan. Her work reportedly took her frequently to the United States and the Middle East. 

There have been contradictory reports about how Bashar and Asma met, with some stating that the marriage was “arranged” in the traditional manner, with others suggesting that the two made each other’s acquaintance while Bashar was completing his residency as an eye specialist at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. What is clear though is that, in deciding to wed, a configuration was created that challenges the accepted norm of Syrian leadership. Bashar flipped tradition—and conventional political wisdom—on its head by choosing to marry outside of his Alawite sect, where most of the reins of power in Syria are held. Asma consciously set her business career aside and selected to take up residence in Damascus’ presidential palace, where in the past first ladies were expected to be neither seen nor heard. 

A demure role was certainly the one played by Bashar’s mother, Anisah, during her three decades as Syria’s first lady. Almost never traveling with her husband, and rarely showing her face in public, she personified a position that was similar to what many Syrian males expected their wives to fill—supportive, entirely family-oriented and uninvolved in their spouse’s business. Interestingly, Anisah was reportedly opposed to Hafez al-Assad’s decision to groom Bashar for the presidency, after their older son and the heir apparent, Basil, was killed in a motorcar accident in 1994. Albawaba sources say that she would have much preferred to have seen her younger son building a career as a successful physician. 

But while Hafez al-Assad’s marriage to Anisah did little to change the public face of the Syrian presidency, it certainly was politically expedient. Anisah is a member of the Alawite Makhlouf family. Hafez would later appoint Anisah’s brother, Adnan, to head the Presidential Guard—a military unit whose primary task is to protect the physical security of the country’s ruler. In contrast, Bashar’s new wife is from outside the circle of the Alawite elite. Time will tell if Bashar will be prepared to take the politically courageous step of bringing members of his newly extended family into his political inner circle. 

A political role for women is rare but not unheard of in Syria. Indeed, Hafez Al Assad appointed the first women cabinet member in 1987, when he named Najah Al Attar as minister of culture. When Bashar delivered his inaugural address on July 17, 2000, he stressed women’s role in the building of the nation. He, too, has a woman minister in his cabinet and he has been actively promoting women to senior position in the country’s judicial system. 

Interestingly, with Bashar today investing the bulk of his energy in promoting economic reform, his new wife will be able to offer him expertise in an area with which he had very little prior experience. Originally destined to pursue a medical career, when his brother Basil died Bashar was recalled to Damascus, where he received a crash-course in military training. In many respects, Asma has the formal economic education and apprenticeship Bashar lacks, and as an advisor she is likely to earn his attention. And, unlike some of the other specialists in the Syrian government, she will have no trouble in gaining access to the president. 

How the Syrian public and the country’s leadership will react to a more publicly prominent first lady is not certain. For while more conservative elements may be made uncomfortable by the physical presence of a thoroughly Westernized first lady, there are many younger citizens—particularly women—who will seize on her example as to what life should provide in the new, 21st century Syria. Whether the ruling elite regards her on obstacle or an ally remains to be seen. 

What is certain is that the new Ms. al-Assad will have to be politically adept, despite her never having received any formal training for her new role. Asma would be wise to consider the experience of the most prominent Westerner who married an Arab country’s head of state. In 1978, the American Lisa Halaby was wed to Jordan’s King Hussein, after which she assumed the name Queen Noor. With a mother of Swedish background and her father, Najeeb Halaby, of Syrian-Lebanese descent, Noor was a Princeton University graduate and had worked as an advertising executive before getting married.  

But it took Queen Noor years to gain the affection of the Jordanian public. With her blond hair, poor Arabic and Western manner, many in the conservative country considered her a foreigner. Ironically, she sometimes found herself at odds with the society in which she was raised, such as in late 1990, when she publicly explained her husband’s decision to adopt a pro-Iraqi position in the buildup to the Gulf War. 

Asma, like Queen Noor, could prove effective in presenting her husband and her new country of residence to the often-skeptical Western world. This, of course, would only be possible if she assumes a role as first lady, which is vastly different to that once filled by her husband’s mother. But the signs are there that Asma will do just that. – 

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