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October 22, 2017
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Syrian First Lady, Asma al-Assad, who was once espoused by the Western fashion press as a stylish, elegant political consort, a “Rose in the Desert.” Source: Foreignpolicy.com.

With seemingly reckless editorial confidence, the glossy pages of American Vogue's March 2011 issue contained a profile on Syrian First Lady, Asma al-Assad. The glowing ode to the political consort whom the magazine termed as "A Rose in the Desert" was not the first article ever to have been written espousing the endeavours of Mrs Assad, nor was it singularly adulatory among its fashionable peers in noting the First Lady's charitable and cultural efforts. French Elle and the Huffington Post had previously recognised her perceived sartorial sophistication, while Paris Match went as far as calling Mrs Assad "the element of light in a country full of shadow zones."

However, these previous compliments, dictated largely by fashion trends, seem relatively peripheral when compared with the international spotlight illuminated upon the First Lady thanks to the rapturous profile given by the former Vogue Paris editor, Joan Juliet Buck.

Asma al-Assad and Basha al-Assad cultivated a refined public image to appear more progressive and glamorous to the Western fashion media
Bashar and Asma al-Assad cultivated a
refined public image to appear more progressive
and glamorous to the Western fashion media.
Source: Nytimes.com.

Derived from Buck's two-month expedition to Damascus, the widely proliferated, recently censored and inexorably condemned observations are deeply unsettling. Perhaps the most disturbing element in this whole ignoble affair is the apparent ease with which Syria's authoritarian regime proliferated - until recently - a portrait of its First Lady championing the cultural heritage and ambitions of a nation by paying Brown Lloyd James, a global strategic communications firm, US$5,000 per month to organise and manage the article, according to the New York Times.

When reflecting upon the human rights atrocities that have scarred the Syrian landscape over the last 18 months, it is hard to fathom how such underhanded negotiations were made possible under the roof of Condé Nast, home to some of the world's best-recognised publications.

Dr Benjamin MacQueen, lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, explained to me that such a concentrated media campaign was "a deliberate tactic." MacQueen notes, "They wanted to sort of rehabilitate the image of the Syrian government... the high ranking members of the regime decided on Bashar [al-Assad] because he was quite palatable, he was educated in England, he was a very personable individual and so this PR campaign was a very conscious effort to sort of package all this up and represent Syria to the world and re-engage Syria with the world."

However, there can be no doubt that such efforts have clearly transpired to hold little value in the wake of subsequent events. As Dr MacQueen explains, "The downside of that is when actions like this happen... it appears pretty confrontational, you know, pretty shocking when we... thought Syria was changing and they turn around and do this." 

However, the unethical decision to publish such an article under the umbrella of Condé Nast was not the work of a few inexperienced journalists who didn't recognise how far the ramifications of such an article would inevitably spread. As Chris Knutsen, Vogue senior editor, told The Atlantic, the story was "more than a year" in the making. Speaking around the time of the article's first controversial appearance, Knutsen claimed, "We thought we could open up that very closed world a very little bit." He further claimed that Vogue intended to work within the complex media restrictions practiced by Syria "to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria's cultural ambassador."

In a naïve burst of colonial optimism, Vogue put forward a prophesy in which Asma al-Assad was able to inject the Syrian political discourse with her democratic, western-inspired values that were fostered through her British upbringing, extensive education and independent career. 

Yet the justifications given by Vogue seem, at best, to be largely discordant and entirely incongruous with the deeply troubling political posture held by the Syrian regime since Bashar al-Assad first came to power in July 2000, aged just 34.

Dr Matthew Gray, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at Australian National University, notes that in Syria, "people are frustrated with corruption, which they see as a real, real problem." As Dr Gray explained, the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad, "uses force and repression to control political behaviour and political discourse. And it controls very tightly the room that people have got to move politically, either through legal means or through intelligence services and scaring people." The government's operating power structures are defined by entrenched "neopatrimonialism" in which, Dr Gray explains, "the president has an inner circle and then that inner circle basically is the trusted elite in the system."

Syria's firmly authoritarian infrastructure, which saw power pass from Hafez al-Assad to his son Bashar upon his death in June 2010, has long been the subject of international concern. Syria's pivotal role in the Arab region has been closely monitored for the geopolitical implications that may be encouraged by its frequently unpredictable relations with neighbouring nations. Although the state of civil turmoil that currently pervades Syria was stimulated by events that, with tragic irony, coincided with the wide release of Buck's article, the country's acceleration towards its own Arab Spring uprising has, by many accounts, been long overdue. 

In a naïve burst of colonial optimism, Vogue put forward a prophesy in which Asma al-Assad was able to inject Syrian political discourse with her democratic, Western-inspired values that were fostered through her British upbringing, extensive education and independent career. As Sana Saeed points out in her article for The Guardian, Mrs Assad was "as both the title and feature announced, a sight of beauty in a barren, deadly land. She was not a rarity in the desert, but an edaphological miracle."

Yet this warped ideal of Mrs Assad rings a cacophonous tune against the painful and brutal reality faced by the majority of Syria's population. Not only did the Vogue article provide startlingly little context on the political situation in Syria, but it also didn't mention the antithetical attitude held by the Syrian people towards the two most dominant figures of the Assad family. However, was this a decision made on the Vogue editorial table or simply the undisguised consequence of a PR payout? 

Earlier this month the New York Times published an exploration of the various and considerable public relation campaigns embarked upon by the regime in an attempt to show the reigning family as "accessible, progressive and even glamorous." By all accounts, the First Lady was specifically depicted as a veritable model of the social and cultural advances the country has claimed to have made towards a more open and secular political ethos, in an attempt to reform the presentation of the Syrian regime in the Western press. Through various fashion platforms, Mrs Assad was portrayed as a study of refined elegance and commanding presence, held aloft as a cultural preservation warrior and - in what now seems a ludicrously overzealous comparison - was reportedly described as "the eastern Diana" by Paris Match.

In December 2010, the former French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, hosted the Assads at the Elysée Palace. Source: Ft.com

In December 2010, the former French president,
Nicholas Sarkozy, and his wife, Carla Bruni- 
Sarkozy, hosted the Assads at the Elysée Palace.
Source: Ft.com. 

Into this culture of complimentary commentary entered the respected Vogue journalist Joan Juliet Buck, who no doubt regrets the unlikely image of Asma al-Assad she helped perpetuate. As she told Piers Morgan in an interview in February 2012, "I told Vogue they should send a political journalist; they wanted a cultural piece." She went on to exhibit a sense of disconnection between what she said in her polished presentation of the Assad regime and the reality behind the smoke and curtains, telling Morgan that Asma al-Assad "was an English woman I was talking to who happened to be married to the President of Syria."

For those who publicly espoused the two key figures of the Syrian first family within their fashion media offerings, the haunting shadow of their reporting solecism will, in the eyes of some, play eternal torment to their reputation. Similarly tarnished (in varying degrees) are the publications that risked the consequences of PR collusion and questionable editorial criteria in order to perpetuate the glorified image of Mrs Assad; a Louboutin-clad rose that burst from the ashes of the arid desert terrain in a phantasmagoria of exquisiteness and splendor. 

Yet perhaps all the controversy garnered by Vogue's indelicate foray into Syrian territory should serve to inoculate readers against editorials to come, for as Dr MacQueen posits, "This is really sort of, a new media phenomenon, so we're likely to see more of it I think, particularly from countries like Iran and from Turkey."  

In the meantime, the fashionable set would do best to appeal to Mrs Assad not for sartorial suggestions, but rather, for an immediate end to the violence against her people. 

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