Portraits of Syrian first lady spark speculation about political role

Moscow, observers say, may try to keep the Syrian regime afloat through the first lady, in case of an international veto against the continued rule of Bashar Assad.
Saturday 16/01/2021
A file picture shows Syrian First Lady Asma Assad visiting a school for the children of fallen soldiers. (AFP)
A file picture shows Syrian First Lady Asma Assad visiting a school for the children of fallen soldiers. (AFP)

DAMASCUS – Experts have recently been arguing that the frequent appearance of Syrian First Lady Asma Assad’s potraits in government offices has political significance, especially with presidential elections scheduled for April and May.

Asma’s pictures have raised questions about whether she intends to play an active political role in the coming period.

Syrian website “We are all partners” recently posted a picture of a meeting between Syrian Education Minister Darem Tabaa and a UN delegation on its Facebook page.

Behind Tabaa’s desk loomed a large picture of President Bashar Assad and a smaller portrait of his wife next to it.

In recent years, Asma’s presence has become difficult to miss in the Syrian landscape, as she has begun to spearhead efforts on behalf of the regime to consolidate economic power. She has been accused of being behind a security and tax campaign against the empire of the power Makhlouf family, which is related to the Assads.

Observers say the display of the first lady’s pictures is not typical in Syria.

Such displays have become more common as Asma engages in a flurry of activities and attends many social events, where she has been warmly received by organisers who have hung welcome banners and displayed large posters of her on building walls.

Observers do not rule out that there is a push by Russia to promote the first lady as a political alternative to her husband, especially as she has played a key decision-making role in the country’s crisis.

Asma succeeded in gaining a large popular base among regime loyalists due to the social and humanitarian role she has played throughout the war.

The first lady is also from a Sunni family, which improves her chances of playing a leading political role.

In Syria, where power has been held for decades by the Shia Alawite minority, the regime has been accused of marginalising Sunnis, who form a majority in the country.

Moscow, observers say, may keep the Syrian regime afloat through the first lady, in case of an international veto against Assad’s continued rule.

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaking next to his wife Asma in the capital Damascus on March 21, 2016. (AFP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaking next to his wife Asma in the capital Damascus on March 21, 2016. (AFP)

They argue that this could be the reason the US has recently focused on Asma.

US Special Envoy to Syria Joel Rayburn likened Asma to a “mafia” leader and said that the regime has already begun to deal with Bashar Assad’s son as a successor.

Asma, Rayburn said, evolved from a fashion icon to something like “the leader of an organised crime syndicate,” seizing other Syrians’ assets.

Rayburn stressed that the Assad family’s future must be decided by the Syrian people. He said he expected Syrians to oust the Assads from power.

He noted that the regime has lost some of its strength and that it would not be surprising if it soon collapses.

The US official suggested that sanctions will continue to be enforced by the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden, especially in light of bipartisan consensus on the Caesar Act, indicating that the sanctions already imposed have reduced the regime’s ability to continue the war.

Last December, the US imposed a new batch of sanctions on the Syrian regime in line with the so-called Caesar Act. The sanctions specifically targeted Asma Assad and a number of her family members.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time that the sanctions target the Syrian first lady and members of her family, namely Fawaz al-Akhras, Sahar Atari al-Akhras, Firas al-Akhras, Iyad al-Akhras and Kifah Milhem, head of Syrian military intelligence, according to Law No. 13894, due to their accumulation of illicit wealth at the Syria people’s expense.

This accumulation of illicit wealth was possible through an extensive and illegal network that boasts a web of links in Europe, the Gulf region and elsewhere.

Pompeo added in a statement that “the  United States will  continue to seek accountability for those prolonging this conflict,” stressing that the Syrian people will decide the future of their country.

Damascus is preparing to hold presidential elections next spring, and so far no one has announced his or her candidacy, including President Bashar Assad himself, who said in an interview with the Russian Novosti agency that he might make his decision early this year.

Russia had criticised calls by some countries not to recognise the results of the elections, saying such a move could undermine Syria’s official institutions.

Assad’s failure to announce his candidacy, however, raises questions about whether Russia intends to search for alternatives.