Over the past five years, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his glamorous (and infamous shopaholic) wife Asma have put a lot of time and money into portraying themselves as sexy, sophisticated progressives. Obvious appeal aside — both members of the English-speaking couple are undeniably attractive and more accessible to Westerners on a superficial level — you'd think that would be a difficult feat, given that Syria is one of the worst places in the Middle East right now, not only for dissidents but for the reporters struggling to cover their strife. Yet, multiple incidents indicate that hot people speaking our language are verrrry good at distracting us from bloody massacres of thousands of people.
British-born Asma started working with a London PR firm in 2006, which advised her on how to set up a communications office and shape her image. In the years to come, she was called an "element of light in a country full of shadow zones" by Paris Match (gah, let's hope that sounded less schlocky in French), an "All-Natural Beauty" by the Huffington Post, and — most notoriously — "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" in a 3,200-word March 2011 Vogue profile. The Assad family paid a Washington-based PR firm $5,000 a month to set the piece up.
Vogue took the article off its website last summer, but only apologized for its existence in the first place yesterday, when Anna Wintour said in a statement:
"Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue. The escalating atrocities in Syria are unconscionable and we deplore the actions of the Assad regime in the strongest possible terms."
It took the magazine over a year to realize that its "priorities and values" (exorbitantly-priced fashion/socialites) were completely at odds with those of the Assad regime (suppression/censorship/violence)? Come on, Vogue: we know you're working on a magazine schedule, but that's definitely too little, too late. At least Joan Juliet Buck, the author of the piece, spoke the truth: she recently said that Asma was "extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue."
Hold on, let's rewind and read that one more time: Asma was "extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue." We all knew the rationale, but it's still shocking to hear a writer actually admit it out loud. Hey, it doesn't matter if your government is massacring thousands of people! If you're skinny and fashionable, you're qualified to be exalted in a magazine that reaches millions. If you were still wondering why the Assads have managed to represent themselves so well for so long, Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert with the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies in Washington, put it well: "He speaks English, and his wife is hot." And folks, it's as simple as that.
Then there's also the weird Barbara Walters drama: Walters interviewed Assad in December — an interview she said took her six years to get, and which she called "tough and strong" and not to Assad's liking. But at some point during the process, she bonded with Sheherazad Jaafari, the president's press aide and the daughter of the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, recommending her for a job at CNN and helping her get into Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
Like Vogue, Walters apologized — her actions were "a conflict," she said in a statement — but she only apologized because she was caught. Would Vogue have apologized at all if outlets like the Atlantic hadn't been so persistent in their outrage? Hopefully, no PR firm in the world will be able to help the Assads now.