She was once described as ‘a rose in the desert’, a long-limbed, London beauty who used her elegance and Western style to mask the increasing brutality of her husband’s murderous regime.
But as Asma Assad shelters in a bomb-proof bunker to avoid the horrors erupting within Syria – and to escape the US missiles expected soon to rain down on the country – she has become more of a Marie Antoinette figure, shopping for extravagant designer goods, food and health products online as the country collapses around her.
While more than 100,000 men, women and children have been killed and nearly two million Syrians have fled the country since March 2011, Asma, 38, recently splashed out on some Bohemian crystal chandeliers from Prague.
She also regularly orders Western food in bulk for her three children as she doesn’t want them to eat only Syrian food, according to an insider.
And in photographs posted on her Instagram account only last week, she is shown wearing a new blue £80 Jawbone UP on her right wrist – a device designed to help wearers keep track of how many steps they take and calories they burn.
The spending seems to have accelerated along with the killing in Syria. Last year, leaked emails showed she had ordered furniture – including five chandeliers – worth £270,000 from a shop on London’s King Road as her husband’s brutal quelling of the Syrian rebellion intensified.
Because of sanctions, the goods are imported to Syria through Lebanon.
But until very recently, Asma travelled to Lebanon herself to meet up with her London-based parents Fawaz Akhras, a consultant cardiologist, and mother Sahar, a retired Syrian diplomat.
They still spend part of the year living in the pebble-dashed West London semi-detached house where their only daughter and her two brothers grew up.
Mrs Assad studied at King’s College London, then worked as a banker at JP Morgan when she met her future husband who was training in London to become an eye surgeon.
They married in 2000. Mrs Assad’s parents are now spending more time in Lebanon.
‘It’s a short drive from Damascus and the parents are spending most of their time there so they can stay in touch with their daughter,’ said Ayman Abdel Nour, a former adviser to Asma’s husband.
Mr Nour told The Mail on Sunday that Asma had lived a remarkably sheltered life in Damascus since she married Assad in a secret ceremony on New Year’s Day 2001.
‘She is at the centre of a fool’s court,’ he said. Bashar has been branded ‘a thug and a murderer’ by US Secretary of State John Kerry, but Asma ‘continues to view herself as the respectable wife of a president’ according to Mr Nour.
He added: ‘She is convinced her family will rule Syria for years to come. And she is particularly interested in growing the family wealth and making sure they keep it.
‘She wants to be certain her son, Hafez, will take over as president one day, even if this means hiding him in a school or college in Switzerland or Britain for a time.’
Of her recent purchases, Mr Nour said: ‘Asma Assad has no heart. She is obsessed by how chic and beautiful she looks. She continues to lead a life of utter luxury. That’s all that matters to her.’
Other insiders, who do not want to be named, claim that Asma now travels with at least three Republican bodyguards whenever she goes out and is prevented from seeing any Western news, or from surfing the internet, in case she finds coverage of the Syrian crisis ‘depressing.’
Another critic of the regime, who cannot be named for political reasons, said: ‘Asma still loves her shopping and buys as much as she can to keep her mind off the chaos around her. The idea that she is under Assad’s control and can’t leave is nonsense, but her ability to watch Western media is strictly controlled.’
It is a far cry from March, 2011, when Vogue magazine published a fawning piece in which the Assads were portrayed as a ‘wildly democratic’ couple who had made Syria ‘the safest country in the Middle East’.
The article, arranged and managed by an American PR company, paid for by the Syrian government, revealed Asma’s love of crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin shoes and Chanel dresses and painted her as a fragrant, caring first lady, in the style of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
It claimed she cared about art, children, and ‘women’s issues’, and implied she was breathing new life into the region.
Yet at the time of the interview, Syrian police had just fired live rounds and tear gas at up to 4,000 demonstrators in the southern city of Deraa.
Local reports claimed hundreds of protesters were killed. The piece was pilloried and withdrawn from Vogue’s website.
The author, Joan Juliet Buck, later wrote a more critical review of her visit to Damascus in Newsweek.
She never once saw her eat, she said, and told how on one occasion, when opening a youth centre, Asma had told the assembled children it was to close for lack of funding. When the children cried in disappointment, Asma laughed.
She was just testing them, she said, to see whether they ‘cared enough’ about the project she was setting up.
Andrew Tabler, an American scholar who worked with Asma on the government-funded magazine Syria Today believes she is in fierce denial.
‘There are two sides to Asma Assad,’ he said. ‘She is a modern woman, definitely apart from other wives of Arab leaders.
‘But she also wants to be a princess. She’s standing by her man.’