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How Syrian Conflict May Have Strengthened The Influence Of The Country's First Lady

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At least 400,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict that is now 10 years old. More than 5.6 million have fled the country, with millions more displaced internally. The violence has been bloody, brutal and unrelenting. Much of the world has looked on but turned away. President Bashar al-Assad is still in power, and as Nicolas Pelham reports in The Economist this week, the war and human losses may have strengthened the influence of Asma al-Assad, his wife. Nicolas Pelham joins us now from Erbil in northern Iraq. Thanks so much for being with us.

NICOLAS PELHAM: It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Tell us about Asma al-Assad - grew up in London, worked in the corporate world, was once certainly regarded in the Western press as a sign that Syria was going to transform itself.

PELHAM: Yeah. I mean, the story begins in the London suburb of Acton. This is a young girl who calls herself Emma, who doesn't really seem to have any association with Syria at all. She goes on. She goes to a church school. She works in banks. And then, all of a sudden, she's sort of plucked out of this kind of very Western world by the man who turns out to be Syria's next president. And she wants to be a first lady of the Middle East - the first lady of the Middle East. She sees herself as kind of an equal, perhaps, of Princess Diana. She sees herself as kind of a modernizing force who's going to transform what has really been a pretty isolated country, at that point, of 30 years.

SIMON: Did many people in the West misjudge her or think if she pulled on a French-made blouse conspicuously and wore jeans and went to a refugee camp, there must be something transformative about her?

PELHAM: I think they probably saw her as the person who can save Bashar al-Assad from himself. And so, you know, very much she plays into that. You know, when they go touring in Western capitals, you know, she is very much at his side but also as his equal. She's the one who does much of the public speaking. She speaks without notes. She's much more fluent than he is. She has a PR firm. And, yeah, as you said, she wears these kind of eye-catching stilettos. And Vogue calls her the rose of the desert. And for a time, the family fought her, and then they just realized that, actually, she becomes a necessity in this attempt by Syria to escape its isolation.

SIMON: How has she and her family been able to enrich themselves in the - in all the suffering and chaos of the past decade in Syria?

PELHAM: I think to understand that, you need to go back to the Arab Spring of a decade ago, where you have protests spreading and, for a time, that - kind of that lease, the old order resurrecting itself, and Asma is again sidelined.

And then sort of a series of flights of good fortune take hold. And slowly, you start to see how it kind of, you know, filled the space which had previously been dominated by the Assad family and their circle of tycoons. And she appoints her own in humanitarian aid, which is a major money-spender given the amount of foreign aid that is coming into Syria during the war. Or whether it's one company after another, one state enterprise, you know, she uses the influence that she has. She uses her position. She's much more astute economically. She has this background as a banker. And she asserts herself over pretty much every facet of economic life in Syria.

SIMON: Has Asma al-Assad been able to enrich herself with U.N. aid that's meant to assist the humanitarian interests of the people of Syria?

PELHAM: I mean, there's no doubt when you have a totalitarian regime that the lines that are drawn between the public and private purse are pretty much invisible. If the U.N. wants to keep operating in Syria, they need to ensure that she is on-site. They've been paying her foundation, the Syria Trust, increasing sums of money year after year to retain their position. There are those who argue that this is kind of par for the course, that, you know, if you want to do business in a totalitarian regime, you have to do it with the people who hold absolute power.

SIMON: And all the international sanctions that are supposed to make a difference - do they?

PELHAM: They certainly make a difference for Syrians. Life has become ever more expensive in Syria. I suppose the tragedy of Syria is that the weaker the population becomes, the easier they become to dominate. And, yes, she has kind of personally (inaudible) sanctioned. Her brothers have also been sanctioned. So has her mother. So has her father. But that hasn't stopped them becoming what I think many Syrians see as a Mafia dominating Syria.

SIMON: And you suggest she has ambitions.

PELHAM: And for the first time, quite remarkably in Syria, you're now starting to see Asma al-Assad's portrait sort of across the front of buildings in her parents' hometown of Homs. You've got presidential elections coming up sometime in the first half of this year. And as yet, Bashar al-Assad hasn't announced his candidacy. She might have greater success in trying to win international appeal. And certainly, I think she sees her path to the top still has some way to go.

SIMON: Nicolas Pelham is Middle East correspondent for The Economist. Thanks so much for being with us.

PELHAM: Thank you, Scott. It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.