London-born Asma al-Assad , the first lady of Syria, was once a sign of peace and hope for the region, but now is continuing to follow a lavish lifestyle within a country that is crumbling around her. TODAY's Erica Hill reports.
Meet the Assads, the family that has controlled Syria for decades — and is the source of enough palace intrigue that they’ve been compared to the Sopranos.
Bashar Assad, the 47-year-old president, went to school to be an eye doctor and was not thought to have political aspirations. But he became heir apparent after the early death of his brother, and now he runs a country of 21 million people that is in the crosshairs of the West.
SANA via Reuters
Former Syrian President Hafez Assad and his wife Aniseh sit in front of their sons (left to right) Maher, Bashar, Bassel and Majd, and daughter Bushra.
Assad has fought an uprising for more than two years, and his forces are accused by the United States of using chemical weapons on hundreds of people last week in a suburb of the capital.
As the world waits for a potential Western strike on Assad, here’s a look at the family tree.
Hafez Assad ruled Syria for three decades and built it into a regional power — an autocrat in the time of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. He died of a heart attack in 2000.
He was credited with bringing stability and modern improvements to the country, and Jimmy Carter once observed that he had a deep sense of history and managed a “wry humor” about Israel despite their unresolved conflict.
Henry Kissinger once wrote that Assad’s negotiating style was to go one-on-one, take the most extreme position possible, give ground — and then call in his generals and repeat the whole thing for show. Kissinger called it “nerve-racking and bizarre.”
Aniseh Makhlouf, daughter of a prominent Syrian family, married Hafez Assad when he was still an air force lieutenant. She kept a low profile but exerted such influence that she was still considered Syria’s first lady years after her husband’s death.
She reportedly pushed Bashar Assad to crack down harder on rebels before she fled earlier this year to the United Arab Emirates, joining her only daughter, Bushra, who had defected there months earlier.
Asma Assad, in an undated image released in July through the official Facebook page of the Syrian presidency.
Asma Assad, British-born, King’s College-educated and refined in style, married Bashar shortly after he assumed power in 2000. Before she married, she worked for a time as an investment banker.
Mrs. Assad has a keen sense of P.R. and was the subject of a flattering profile in Vogue in 2011. She has been photographed in extravagant fur in Moscow and, in official Instagram shots, fashionably casual while working in a soup kitchen in Syria.
Bassel Assad, an officer in the Syrian army, was the eldest son of Hafez and considered a possible successor before he was killed in 1994, at age 33, in a car crash while speeding down a highway on the way to the Damascus airport.
Bassel Assad led the guards who provided security at the presidential palace, and was an engineer and parachutist. Just before he died, he represented Syria in front of President Bill Clinton, who was trying to get Syria and Israel to restart peace talks.
Maher Assad, youngest brother of Bashar, commands an elite division of the Syrian army. He is widely believed to be a hard-liner upon whom Bashar relied in the earliest days of the crackdown on the rebels, in 2011.
He is such a feared figure in the Syrian regime that an opposition leader suggested an American liaison earlier this week that Maher’s compound be on a target list in the event of a U.S. attack, Reuters reported.
Bushra Assad, the only sister of Bashar, is a pharmacist who had the ear of her father, particularly after brother Basil was killed. She reportedly fled to the United Arab Emirates last year, after her husband, a Syrian defense official, was killed by the rebels.
Bushra Assad reportedly has a frosty relationship with Asma, Bashar’s wife, because she disapproves of Asma’s decision to cultivate such a public profile.
Comparatively little is known about Majd Assad, a younger brother of Bashar. He died in a car accident in 2009 and is believed to have suffered from mental illness.
Rami Makhlouf, nephew of Aniseh, is one of the most powerful businessmen in Syria. He owned the phone company Syriatel but resigned two years ago after protesters seized on him as a symbol of the regime. The protesters burned Syriatel’s offices.
This story was originally published on Thu Aug 29, 2013 11:44 PM EDT