Last January, Asma al-Assad stood up in front of an audience in Damascus and called on the people of Syria to play a more active role in society.
Speaking at The First International Development Conference, Syria’s first lady said citizens needed to become more vocal about the country’s social and economic challenges and she pledged to give NGOs more freedom.
Eighteen months later, Syrians are more than heeding her calls as thousands of protesters take to the streets daily demanding civil liberties and freedom in the face of a brutal government crackdown that has seen more than 1,000 people killed in 12 weeks.
It is not the outcome Mrs Assad had hoped for when she married President Bashar al-Assad aged just 25 in 2001 with high hopes of empowering Syrians and helping rehabilitate the country after years of sanctions.
“Asma genuinely wanted to do good for her country, but she married into the mob,” one family friend says.
With a penchant for designer clothes, Mrs Assad seemed to represent the epitome of secular western-Arab fusion, leading many Syrians to believe she and her husband would be more tolerant than her late father-in-law’s totalitarian regime.
Soon after her marriage, Mrs Assad set up the country’s first ever rural development NGO and another body aimed at enhancing youth employability and entrepreneurial spirit.
Aided by the connections of her London-based father, Dr Fawaz Akhras, she also tried to internationalise these efforts, but they have suffered in recent weeks.
Dr Akhras, a founder and co-chairman of the British Syrian Society, helped her establish the Syrian Heritage Foundation, a British-registered charity set up last year to promote and advance education in the arts, culture and heritage of Syria and the Levant.
Trustees include Wafic Said, the Syrian-born financier, who has also been a donor to several of Mrs Assad’s projects, and Lord Powell of Bayswater, a foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
But the trust’s activities have recently been suspended against the backdrop of anti-government protests, while Mrs Assad’s attempt to convene the cream of the international art scene by sponsoring the first “Cultural Landscapes Forum” in Damascus together with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been cancelled.
People close to the trust defend its role in promoting heritage and culture at a time when hundreds of anti-government protesters are being killed.
But despite Mrs Assad’s persuasive rhetoric and pledges for reform, not a single human rights or civil society group in Syria has been licensed.
“The lack of NGOs is a key problem in Syria and has prevented the emergence of an independent, civil society,” Nadim Houry, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says.
Others contend that Mrs Assad has been unable to fight the entrenched government resistance to promoting civil society.
“The key building block of Bashar’s government was that he was a reformer and Asma was meant to represent the progressive face of the new regime,” says Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who used to work for two of the charities under her patronage.
“The problem was that, despite her initial good intentions, she had to work with the system, which is rotten and rife with corruption.”
But the unrest has not prevented Mrs Assad from continuing to push her message for civic engagement. In March, addressing the Arab World Conference of Harvard Arab Alumni Association, she said: “We are an inherently open society, and no more than in Syria.”
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