Syrian first lady's photo ops belie butchery of husband's regime

While her dictator husband engages in a bloody crackdown that has seen at least 100,000 civilians killed, Syria's first lady is keeping her schedule of photo ops designed to portray her as a humanitarian.

Photos of Asma al-Assad feeding the poor and comforting children appear on the Syrian first family's Instagram account, with some having been posted as recently as Sept. 4. The pictures bear a sharp contrast to the images of dead children wrapped in white clothes — killed by sarin nerve gas allegedly at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad, according to U.S. officials.

Many of the photographs of Asma al Assad are dated August 2013, but it is not known when or where the pictures were taken. Some unconfirmed reports say the 38-year-old British-born Asma is holed up in a bomb-proof bunker, while other media accounts claim the mother of three is ordering lavish jewelry and clothing.

One photo, dated Aug. 4, shows Asma joining a "Damascus-based youth volunteer group in preparing food to be distributed to needy families during the Holy month of Ramadan." A second image, dated July 2013, pictures Asma embracing the "mother of martyr Maymoud Zuhair Abdul Latif," while another, said to be photographed in 2012, shows the first lady wiping away a Syrian boy's tear.

Asma's photos on the "SyrianPresidency" Instagram account seek to portray a woman who is compassionate and dedicated to helping those less fortunate — a portrait that may or may not match up with her real-life persona. The Daily Mail, for instance, reported that the wife of the embattled Syrian president spent $450,000 on a chandelier last year, while hundreds of thousands of people were dying in a bloody civil war. Leaked emails between Asma and her husband show the first lady had purchased online expensive furniture, art, and jewelry, according to multiple media accounts.

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    Asma al-Assad was born in England to a doctor of Syrian descent. She met her husband in the 1990s while she was majoring in computer science and French literature at King's College London. Assad was in London at the time studying to become an eye doctor.

    After the death of Assad's father, Syrian President Hafez Assad, the young ophthalmologist became president in June 2000. Later that year, he and Asma married. The first couple are said to have at least three children.

    Since Assad's rise to power, Asma has cultivated an image of a chic, modern woman living in an Arab world. Asma, who worked as an investment banker for JP Morgan before marrying Assad, was profiled in a 2011 Vogue article as "a rose in the desert" — a story that was later pulled from the magazine's website without explanation. Critics traced the article to the hand of a Washington lobbyist the Assad family hired to help bolster her image in the West.

    "She's a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement," the article read. "Paris Match calls her 'the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.'"