How Asma Assad transformed from 'Desert Rose' into Syria's 'Iron Lady'

The first lady who used to feature on the cover of glamour magazines now makes headlines for pulling the strings in the war-torn nation

Doron Paskin 11:3116.05.20

Pulling her husband’s strings, stopping Iran from strengthening its foothold, conspiring against Russia, taking out the rich and powerful, handing out cushy jobs to relatives, milking charities, and secretly monitoring millions of citizens, it appears even cancer could not slow down Asma al-Assad, the silent tyrant that is remodeling Syria in her own image


Asma al-Assad became a superstar from the moment the spotlight first shined on her. When in 2000 she married Bashar al-Assad, who had shortly beforehand been appointed president of Syria, she quickly became an international sensation. Appearing on the covers of magazines the likes of Vogue, she was presented as a symbol of everything that is delicate and humane. Then came the civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011. Bashar’s international image changed overnight to that of a bloodthirsty tyrant slaughtering his own people and his wife was now seen as a disconnected socialite, busy spending money while her people were trampled.


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Asma al-Assad. Photo: AFP
Asma al-Assad. Photo: AFP צילום: איי אף פי



Now, nine years into a bloody war, Syria is in the midst of a decisive power struggle that will reshape its form of government for the next few years. We are not talking about another military operation here. It is a struggle that expands far beyond Syria’s borders and is focused on controlling the country’s economy, international relations, and centers of power. Over the past few weeks, the fighting seeped into social media offering a rare glimpse at the struggles at the top of the Syrian regime, that have so far been limited to rumors. Among the things revealed by the online squabbling, is that Asma al-Assad is among the leading figures in this ongoing power struggle.


The woman who, until a decade ago, was described as the ‘desert rose,’ al-Assad has been revealed as an aggressive, ruthless person who will not hesitate to eliminate anything and anyone that stands in the way of her efforts to reshape the Syrian elite. It also appears like she may succeed where Israel has previously failed, in reducing Iran’s influence on Syria.


To understand Asma al-Assad’s rise, one must be familiar with the behind the scenes details of the Syrian regime. For years, al-Assad’s reign— that of Bashar like that of his father Hafez before him—relied on creating balances: between Russia and Iran, the two international forces meddling in Syria’s affairs; between the Alawites, the minority Shia sect that ruled the country, and Sunni Muslims who comprise the majority of the population; and between the al-Assad family who rules Syria and the Makhlouf' family who finances the former. The unceasing chaos of civil war shuffled the cards in all of these fronts and Asma al-Assad’s transition from the president’s wife to the First Lady of Syria has a lot to do with that.


The shift started on February 6, 2016, when Bashar al-Assad’s mother, Anisa Makhlouf, died at the age of 86. Even though she seldom appeared in public, Makhlouf was considered the most powerful woman in Syria and the person with the most influence over the president. When the civil war broke it was Makhlouf who advised her son to oppress the resistance with relentless force. After all, Makhlouf had seen her late husband Hafez al-Assad successfully do the same when in 1982, an uprising against him in the city of Hama was violently crushed.


Anisa Makhlouf came from one of the most powerful and influential Alawite families in Syria. Her marriage to Hafez al-Assad gave birth to Syria’s current regime as the Makhloufs supplied the president with money and connections while he, in turn, repaid them with appointments as political, military, and intelligence officials. This alliance between the two families also paved the way for the Makloufs to take over the Syrian economy, of which they now hold some 60%. To put things in perspective, one of every two people employed in Syria gets their paycheck signed by one of the Mahloufs’ family businesses, that cover a wide range of sectors, including telecommunications, construction, finance, tourism, air travel, fashion, pharmaceuticals, and food.


The Makhloufs’ business empire was built by Mohammad, Anisa’s younger brother, who now, at 88, lives in Russia. His place as head of the family business in Syria was taken over by his eldest son Rami, Bashar’s cousin, whose personal fortune is estimated at some $6 billion. For years, Rami Makhlouf was Bashar al-Assad’s confidant and partner and was considered the “real finance minister” of Syria. Bashar al-Assad was a secret partner in Rami’s businesses and made a fortune through several front organizations associated with Rami.


So close was the pair, that Rami Makhlouf stood at the top of the list of individuals the U.S. government imposed sanctions on when the war in Syria started. The Makhloufs, who were the main financiers of al-Assad’s army greased Russia top brass with tens of millions of dollars in exchange for Russia stepping in on behalf of the Syrian president. Indeed in September 2015, Russia announced its military involvement in Syria, helping al-Assad gain the upper hand.


Increased Russian involvement in Syria, however, turned out to be a double-edged sword. Since its army entered the country, Russia has been acting on two fronts: undermining Bashar al-Assad, who is affiliated with Iran, and minimizing the Makhloufs’ hold on key positions. For example, Russia forced al-Assad to make structural changes to Syria’s army, adding to it the Makhloufs’ Tiger Forces militia. This was meant to neutralize Rami Makhlouf’s hold over a private military force that could fall into the hands of Iran and strengthen the Syrian army, where Russia pulls the strings. At the same time, sources in Russia claim President Vladimir Putin aims to dethrone al-Assad in order to stabilize Syria internally and minimize the Iranian army’s presence.


In September, Russia’s meddling in the two families’ affairs reached a boiling point. Russia then demanded al-Assad pay back past debts amounting to $3 billion, encouraging him to get the money from the Makhloufs. Rami refused and al-Assad’s response was to break all hell loose. Rami Makhlouf was prosecuted for avoiding taxes, most of his possessions were confiscated, his employees were arrested, and he himself was forced to go underground. But, the al-Assad behind this move was not the president but Asma al-Assad, who heads Syria’s anti-money laundering commission.

Asma Al-Assad. Photo: AFP Asma Al-Assad. Photo: AFP


Born and raised in London, 44-year-old Asma al-Assad, got her education from the U.K.’s top institutions. She first met her husband in the 1990s, when he was studying ophthalmology in London and she was finishing her B.s.C computer science and French literature at King's College.


Asma disliked her husband’s cousin Rami from the moment she set foot in the presidential palace. As a member of the established Akhras family, a Sunni family from the city of Homs in western Syria, Asma resented the Alawite Maklouf family, which managed to chase all other families away from powerful positions in the country. Asma’s resentment had to wait, however, as only under the fog of the civil war could she forcefully go up against Rami.


According to Syrian sources, Asma convinced her husband that the popular uprising that sparked the war was due to the extensive corruption with which his cousin’s extensive business was tainted. This drove Bashar to demand Rami to publicly announce he will donate some of his wealth to those in need. This promise was not kept and failed to bring back the peace. Instead, perhaps to appease the presidential couple, Rami turned more and more of his resources to fund the regime’s battle for survival.


To Asma al-Assad, Anisa Makhlouf’s death in 2016, was an opportunity to de-fang the Makhloufs’ and replace them with a new economical elite composed of members of her own family (Akhras) and her aunt’s family (Dabbagh). Asma’s closest consultants include her father Fawaz Akhras, her brother Firas, and her cousin Muhieddine Muhanad Dabbagh.


To change the power balance, Asma faces a difficult challenge of taking over all of Rami Makhlouf’s assets, including those he managed to smuggle out of the country during the past decade. Makhlouf’s mafia has reportedly smuggled assets amounting to an astronomical sum of $120 billion. These assets include ventures and companies in Dubai, Malaysia, South Africa, Lebanon, and Austria. Ironically, Makhlouf appears to believe dispersing his assets in this way, could serve as his insurance policy, preventing Asma from having him killed, as she is aware that only he, his father, and their closest lawyers know the whereabouts of all of the family’s assets.


Asma is also working to create alternatives to the Makhloufs’ business empire. Last year, for example, she ordered the establishment of a new telco, Ematel, which is already well on its way to become Syria’s third-largest cellular phone operator. Asma’s choice to focus on the telecommunications industry is no accident: the net profit from Makhlouf’s two cellular phone operators—Syriatel Mobile Telecom and MTN Group Ltd.—amounted to some $60 million in 2019. Furthermore, breaking Maklouf’s telecommunications monopoly in the country sends a signal to Iran that its influence on Syria is set to diminish. In 2017, Iranian telco MCI Group signed an agreement to enter the Syria market as a cellular phone operator. With the establishment of Ematel, however, the agreement was nulled, with the official excuse being international sanctions on Tehran. This was also an opportunity for Asma to appease Russia, which was wary of giving Iran a foothold in the Syrian telecommunications market.


This was not enough for Asma and in August 2019 she confiscated all of the assets of the Makhlouf owned Al-Bustan Charity Foundation on suspicion of corruption and terrorism funding. Al-Bustan was founded in the early 2000s to finance medical procedures for those in need, hand out food baskets to the poor, and offer financial support to students. Since 2011, however, it has also funded militias charged with defending al-Assad’s regime. The charity’s headquarters in the Damascus area also served as a recruitment center for thug squads operating on the state’s behalf. The hit on Al-Bustan was another offense on Iran’s efforts to establish its grip on Syria, as its activity also included promoting Shiazation.


About a month later, came the Russian’s demands for cash and once Makhlouf claimed he could not raise the required sum, local social media feeds started to fill up with videos of his offspring showing off their fancy cars and Dubai mansions. The public outcry that followed allowed Asma to investigate Makhlouf’s companies and demand to see their books, claiming they had falsified their financial reports.


The final blow came about a month ago when Syria’s Ministry of Communications and Technology ordered Makhlouf to pay $185 million due to irregularities in the renewed licenses of his two telcos and their failure to pay the state royalties. The move came with a wave of arrests of executives in both companies. Makhlouf himself managed to avoid capture and presumably found refuge at his family’s stronghold in the Syrian coastal area. From that location Rami posted two videos to Facebook that have since gone viral in which he accused the Syrian president of being misled by his close associates and insinuated it was not a monetary dispute but sect-related persecution, hinting to Asma’s Sunni origins.


"There is a group at the top that always sees me as a suspect, as someone who isn’t right, as the bad guy,” Rami said in the first video, posted April 30. Describing himself a mere cog in the dispute, Makhlouf addressed President al-Assad, imploring his cousin to believe him. In the next video, Rami decided to take the tone up a notch. “Mister President,” he said, “the security forces have begun an attack on human liberties.” This situation is dangerous, he added, and should it continue the state of the whole nation will become dire.


To win the battle to control Syria, Asma had to, above anything else, repair her public image. In February 2011, right after the Arab Spring first made headlines, American fashion magazine Vogue published a flattering profile of Asma.  The story, published after it became known that al-Assad's army was slaughtering rebels, caused a wave of criticism and only deepened Asma’s alienating image. Later it was revealed, by the reporter who wrote the profile and was fired soon after, that is was initiated through a commercial collaboration between the magazine and public relations firm Brown Lloyd James. The latter was hired by the al-Assads to improve their global public image, a service for which they paid $5,000 a month.


A year later came less flattering publications with reports claiming Asma was busy online shopping from her bunker while Syrian citizens were being slaughtered and suffering from extreme poverty. 


Following these PR failures, Asma chose to keep a low profile and disappear from the public eye, so long as the fighting continued. In the past few years, however, as her husband’s armed forces attained an advantage over the rebels, Asma reemerged with a new strategy: supporting al-Assad’s troops is ‘out’ while supporting the sick and injured is ‘in.’


As the First Lady, Asma heads several charities, which gives her plenty of opportunities to be in the spotlight. In the past four years, she attended dozens of events meant to bring out her soft humane sides, such as visiting people injured in the war, hosting the relatives of Syrian soldiers killed in action, meeting with people who have special needs, and sponsoring activities related to women and children.


Asma’s rebranding efforts got a surprising boost in August 2018 when, counter to the norm in anti-democratic regimes, Syria officially announced, on Twitter, that the First Lady has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting treatment at one of Damascus’ military hospitals. Two months later, the state released pictures of Asma, thin and pale from chemotherapy and wearing a headscarf to hide her hair loss.


Throughout her long months of treatment, Asma continued her charity activity and was documented visiting child cancer patients and people injured in the war. A year after the first announcement, Asma revealed, in an interview with local television, that she has completely recuperated and is now cancer-free. For thirty minutes she talked about coping with the disease, her husband’s support, and caring for her children, sending out a message of overcoming hardship and resisting self-pity. “My suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of those who have been through the war, my pain is nothing compared to the pain and suffering of the children,” she said in the interview, perhaps bracing herself for a possible backlash, like the ones she experienced after previous public appearances.


However, some flattering pictures and inspiring quotes are hardly enough to get an entire nation, still entrenched in a bloody civil war, on your side. It most certainly is not enough when you had previously opened a front against the country’s most powerful billionaire. Rami Makhlouf, it recently became apparent, had gathered over the years a trove of embarrassing information on the First Lady and when she started to come after him, he decided to publish it to prove to fellow Syrians that Asma is not a gentle lady attentive to their distress but an aggressive, indulgent, and corrupt woman driven only by her own interests.


About a month ago, Maklouf leaked to the press that while 83% of Syrians were living in poverty, their president spent some $30 million on a David Hockney painting he bought as a gift for his wife. Several days later, Makhlouf made sure the Syrian press reported on how a company owned by Asma’s associates is cashing in on the country’s poorest citizens. The said company, Takamol, is responsible for issuing smart cards used to buy basic products at a subsidized price. The company is headed by Asma’s cousin and its board is composed of additional associates of hers.


According to the reports, Talamol rakes in tens of millions of dollars a year from the needy who use its cards to buy rice, sugar, and fuel, yet provides bad service and is also allegedly used by the regime to collect intelligence on Syrian civilians. According to Makhlouf, Takamol has a database containing sensitive personal information on millions of Syrians who are forced to use its services.


These two leaks were meant to undermine support for Bashar al-Assad among his most important base, the Alawites. When Makhlouf refers to the poor, he is talking about the poor Alawites, those who the president “sold out” to his wife’s Sunni family. When he criticizes the president for letting his wife lead him by the nose, he is signaling out to sect members that Bashar has betrayed the very people who brought his father to power. Without these people keeping him in office and without their ties to the Russian top brass, Bashar would not have survived the rebellion.


Rami Makhlouf would not have been able to leak the information he has from his hideout without help from the Russian media and intelligence services. Russian aid is not to be taken lightly and it is a clear indication that the Kremlin is displeased with Bashar al-Assad’s close circle.


For the Russians, the timing in which the conflict between Syria’s leading families became public could not be better. Both Russia and Iran suffered a serious blow from the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, but the Russians estimate Iran will have more trouble rising up from it and will have to focus on its internal affairs, investing fewer resources in Syria. At the same time, the complete dependence of both the Makhloufs and the al-Assads on Russia will allow it to redesign the local regime any way the Kremlin sees fit, according to its own interests.


It is worth noting, however, that al-Assad’s rule has long known turmoil and threats both internal and external. Most famously, in 1984, Rifaat al-Assad tried to use his brother Hafez’s heart attack as an opportunity to overthrow him. At the time, as head of paramilitary organization the Defense Companies, Rifaat had some 50,000 troops under his command.


While this attempt failed and Hafez remained in office for many more years before being replaced by his son, it is another example of the significant role women play in the rule of the al-Assad dynasty. Hafez and Rifaat’s mother, Na'sa al-Assad was the one who convinced the two to resolve the matter peacefully. Hafez’s wife, Anisa, on the other hand, helped secure her husband’s rule by strengthening her own family’s status, which in turn paved Bashar’s way to the throne.


Now, Asma al-Assad is the one working to strengthen her husband's status and creating a long term strategy. A hint to what that strategy might be can be found in an interview she gave last year in which she mentioned that her oldest son, 19-year-old Hafez, is very interested in politics. This, of course, can be interpreted as a clear statement that she intends Hafez to take his father’s place when the time comes.


For that to happen, Asma must put her family in powerful positions. Even if the raging war was to eliminate Syria’s old brass, a ceasefire could grow a new one. Asma knows that the global efforts to put Syria’s economy back on its feet after the war are going to bring in hundreds of billions of dollars in international aid, and she is doing everything she can to make sure her associates are in a position to grab as much of it as possible. As far as she is concerned, the money can come from Russia, Iran, or anywhere else, just as long as it does not fall into the hands of the Makhloufs.