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Syria today and Russia in 1917: two teetering dictatorships

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma.


Only a year ago, Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was described in Vogue magazine as "a rose in the desert." Now, as the native Londoner watches her husband brutally suppress a Syrian uprising, she has become a thorny question.

This week – while many Western countries removed their envoys from Syria and U.S. President Barack Obama called for her husband to leave office to avoid further bloodshed – Ms. al-Assad broke a nearly year-long silence in an e-mail to The Times of London.

"The President is the President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role," it said. "The First Lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with. … These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence." The next day, Unicef reported that children were being tortured, murdered and sexually abused by Syrian security forces.

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Compare Ms. al-Assad's e-mail to another letter from a wife eager to mop up her husband's bloody trail: "Nicky's cross is a heavy one to bear. … Don't believe all the horrors the foreign papers say. They make one's hair half stand on end – foul exaggeration."

In truth, this wife wrote, the murdered were insurrectionists, a rabble-rousing minority. Her husband had the undying loyalty of his true subjects: "The Russian people are deeply and truly devoted to their Sovereign. …"

That sovereign was Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, and the letter was written by his wife, Empress Alexandra, after the Russian army had massacred hundreds of people during a workers' march in St. Petersburg in 1905.

Alexandra would be his fiercest defender (as well as one of the causes of the family's downfall) until the couple and their five children met their gruesome end at Ekaterinburg 13 years later.

The parallels between these two teetering dictators, and between their wives, make for interesting reading.

Separated by little more than a century, two men – unprepossessing, even shy, and raised in the shadow of strong-arm fathers – married foreign women against family wishes and brought them home, first to warm wishes, but then to increasing mistrust from their own people.

Nicholas, the reluctant autocrat, failed to gauge the temper of the times, leading to a fall that changed world history. Now Bashar al-Assad, the erstwhile would-be reformer, faces a showdown that could determine the future of the Arab Spring and stability in the Middle East.

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Perhaps Asma al-Assad is sitting in the family's apartment in Damascus, reading Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra and pondering the place in history of the German princess who became the last Russian empress.

The al-Assad apartment, where the presidential couple live with their three children, is governed by "wildly democratic principles," according to Vogue. If true, that sets it apart from the rest of the country.

The apartment is far from where Ms. al-Assad, who was called Emma as a child, spent her teenage years at Queen's College girls school in the upscale London neighbourhood of Marylebone. The daughter of a cardiologist, Fawaz Akhras, and his wife, Sahar, a former worker in the Syrian embassy in London, Ms. al-Assad, now 36, was raised in a modest house in West London. After studying computer science and French at King's College in London, she worked in banking, first for Deutsche Bank and then J.P. Morgan.

She met Bashar – the second son of Hafez al-Assad, the dictator who seized power in 1970 – on childhood trips to Syria; while the al-Assads belong to the minority Alawi sect, her family is Sunni, coming from Homs (the rebel centre her husband's forces are currently shelling to rubble).

Bashar moved to London in the 1990s to study ophthalmology – he seemed to have few political ambitions, and was described as shy and self-effacing. But he was called back to Syria to join the army after his more flamboyant older brother, Basil, who had been his father's presumed heir, was killed in a car accident.

Bashar and Asma married on New Year's Day, 2001, several months after his father's death brought Bashar to power.

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Two families displeased by their sons' chosen brides

The union of the glamorous banker and the ophthalmologist-turned-autocrat was greeted with little fanfare in Syria: "No photographs of the wedding appeared in local papers," American journalist Andrew Tabler says in his new book, In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle With Syria, "which some Syrians told me was a sign of the Assad family's displeasure with the President's choice."

Little more than 100 years earlier, the gruff, domineering Alexander III had no desire for his heir, the future ruler of all the Russias, to marry the gauche-but-pretty Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt. Alix may have been a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, but, coming from a small German duchy, she was a paltry prize in the princess stakes.

Alexander III was "vigorously anti-German," Robert Massie says in Nicholas and Alexandra, and "angling for a bigger catch for his son."

But Nicholas, so much gentler than his tyrannical father, was adamant in this one area: If he couldn't have Alix, his heart's desire, then he would take up monk's robes.

It was, of course, a match that would have disastrous consequences, partly because Alexandra was a come-from-away: As the pincers of history closed on the family, with war pressing on one side and revolution on the other, the empress was increasingly reviled and accused of being an agent of German aggression.

As the end game nears in Syria, the once-popular Asma al-Assad may find herself in similar straits. "She was never really at ease with, or accepted by, the ruling cabal in Damascus," Martin Fletcher wrote in The Times this month. "She was too Westernized, too liberal, too independent."

It was precisely these qualities that made Ms. al-Assad such a star in the Western media, much as queens Noor and Rania of Jordan had been feted before. The March, 2011, profile in Vogue gives the first lady of Syria the rock-star treatment.

She is a "thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement." She is on joking terms with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. She arranges for cultural exchanges between the Louvre and Syria.

Her main goal is to foster what she calls "active citizenship" in the country's young people: "It's about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society."

The profile, which did not refer to Syria's human-rights record apart from a veiled reference to its "shadow zones," proved so contentious that the magazine removed it online.

And as the al-Assad regime's crackdown intensified, Ms. al-Assad's reputation began to dim: "What if it were her children out on the street?" one poster wrote on Twitter. "Hypocrite!" The house in Marylebone where Asma grew up has become the site of protests, its walls splattered with red paint.

When they took power, it had been hoped that the al-Assads would be a liberalizing force, and early signs looked promising: Some political prisoners were released and Mr. al-Assad made some overtures to the West. But when pressure increased on the regime's corrupt inner circle, he resumed his father's pattern of persecuting political opponents.

A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described him as "neither as shrewd nor as long-winded as his father," and commented on his vanity and "intellectual pretensions."

The reluctant heir who is neither as strong as nor as wily as his authoritarian father, and who has to maintain an iron grip in tumultuous times: That also describes Nicholas II. Or, as Mr. Massie wrote in his biography, the popular perception is that the last czar was "shallow, weak, stupid – a one-dimensional figure presiding feebly over the last days of a crumbling and corrupt system."

It was certainly a system that Nicholas did not expect to be ruling at the age of 26: "I am not prepared to be a czar," he said to his brother-in-law. "I never wanted to become one."

Similar figures, but on very different grounds

Of course, Nicholas was the last of a 300-year-old dynasty, the ruler of an empire of 130 million, from the Pacific to the Baltic. In contrast, Mr. al-Assad, grandson of impoverished villagers, rules a small but strategically important country in the Middle East.

It's unlikely that anyone will weep for the al-Assads' downfall the way the family of the fictional Earl of Grantham mourned the fall of the czar on the popular BBC series Downton Abbey: In reality, they were grieving for the twilight of the aristocracy, since Nicholas and Alexandra were at the centre of a pan-European family of nobles.

(One of those, Nicholas's cousin, King George V, ultimately refused the family safe harbour in Britain.)

In 1917, with the Imperial government collapsing and revolution in the air, the czar was counselled by foreign envoys: "Is it not my duty to warn Your Majesty of the abyss that lies ahead of you?" asked Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador.

But Nicholas was deaf to pleas that he must implement fundamental political changes. As Mr. Massie wrote, "He had pledged to preserve the autocracy, and hand it on to his son."

Western diplomats aren't so tactful when talking to Mr. al-Assad. "Your days are numbered," the U.S. United Nations ambassador, Susan Rice, told the Syrian President through the non-diplomatic channel of CNN. "It is time and past time for you to transfer power peacefully and responsibly. The longer you hang on, the more damage you do to yourself, your family, your interests and, indeed, your country."

So far, however, Mr. al-Assad clings to power, and the bombardment of Homs continues. And Asma, who shares that Damascus apartment where democratic principles hold sway and a chalkboard registers each family member's levels of politeness, has not abandoned him to history yet.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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