Syria's first lady draws Marie Antoinette comparisons

Asma al-Assad
Asma al-AssadTODAY

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By Eun Kyung Kim

The wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been noted for her sense of style and charitable efforts. But as her husband continues to reject claims he gassed his countrymen with poison, Asma al-Assad has drawn controversy of her own. 

Syria’s British-born first lady is featured in a series of smiling snapshots posted recently on the Syrian presidency's Instagram account meeting children, the less fortunate and doing charity work, specifically with refugees arguably displaced by her husband’s political actions.

The photos are being viewed by skeptics as a charm offensive launched by the al-Assad regime as Syria spirals further into civil war and the United States and its allies weigh military action against Damascus for reportedly using chemical weapons against its civilians.

Investigators for the United Nations have been in Syria this week investigating the attacks.

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In nearly a dozen photos posted on Aug. 4 alone, Asma al-Assad is pictured with volunteers preparing and serving food to refugees. The Huffington Post noted that the first lady wears a $129 Jawbone UP on her wrist, a bracelet-like activity tracker that monitors her movement, calories burned and what meals she eats.

Another photograph posted a week later shows her outdoors, smiling and sitting cross-legged on the ground, among a group of somber children. Other pictures show her with families, meeting hospital patients and being warmly received by citizens.

While the photos have drawn positive comments from sympathizers, they also have attracted their share of critics who have described al-Assad as a “monster.”

“Seriously, u make Marie Antoinette look like an angel compared to you!” wrote one Instagram user.

Although largely silent since her husband has been accused of egregious war crimes, al-Assad already was under the public microscope after Vogue magazine published a glowing profile of her in February 2011. The article, “A Rose In the Desert,” portrayed al-Assad as “glamorous, young and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies."

But just weeks later, news broke of escalating violence in Syria and critics questioned the subjective tone of the article. The magazine has since pulled the article, which can no longer be found on its website.

Joan Juliet Buck, who wrote the piece, was not available for comment to NBC, but last year she expressed her regrets about the article in an interview with The Daily Beast.

“The message Asma al-Assad gave me everyday for a week was how much she cared about the children of Syria and how she wanted to empower them,” she said. “I had serious misgivings.”

Al-Assad, 38, was born in London to Syrian-born, Sunni Muslim parents, a cardiologist father and his diplomat wife. She grew up speaking Arabic and spending family holidays in Syria.

She graduated from King’s College in London with a computer science degree and went to work at J.P. Morgan. She met her husband while he was studying ophthalmology in England. The couple have three children.

Last year, al-Assad caught flak for taking a pricey online shopping spree. Emails published by the British newspaper the Guardian revealed she purchased thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, furniture and a vase from Harrods, all while using an alias, the paper reported.

Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said al-Assad was initially viewed as “the more reasonable, the kinder, gentler face of a brutal regime.”

“I think at first she was very well liked," he told TODAY's Erica Hill. "But over time as the regime's behavior got worse, she was seen as someone who had thrown her lot in with President Assad."