March 23, 2012 -- On a brisk January day in Damascus, Asma al-Assad stood at the front of the crowd, smiling widely with two of her children as her husband, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, addressed a rally of thousands of flag-waving supporters.
It was one of very few glimpses of Syria's glamorous British-born first lady the world had seen since the uprising against the Assad regime began last March. Her absence from the public eye left many wondering whether the liberal, London-educated Asma -- known as "Emma" growing up -- was against the president's bloody crackdown that has left more than 8,000 Syrians dead, according to the United Nations. Was she even in the country or had she fled back to England, the tabloids speculated.
Then a month after the rally, dressed in elegant black, Asma al-Assad was again seen smiling by her husband's side at a polling station for the country's February constitutional referendum, the embodiment of a faithful wife by her man in these difficult times.
Until this week, those were the only public displays of support from the first lady, aside from a brief and bland statement from her office in February.
On Wednesday, Mother's Day in the Arab world, she spoke with a small group of families of "martyrs," as the fallen are known in Syria.
"The mother is the one who gives and sacrifices and she is the most important in the family," Assad said in a soft Arabic that was fluent but clearly not her mother tongue. "For us the mother is like the homeland and Syria the mother of all Syrians"
No mention of the president or the "crisis," as it's known in Syrian officialdom. But today, Mrs. Assad is set to join her husband on the long list of Syrian officials and institutions on the European Union's sanctions list. That will mean an asset freeze on the British national and she will not be allowed to travel or shop in the EU (though it's unclear if she'll be allowed to travel to the United Kingdom).
It is her shopping habits that highlight this latest round of sanctions. Last week, The Guardian and other news organizations published a trove of e-mails allegedly between the president, first lady, family and top aides. They paint Asma al-Assad as an adoring wife who despite the violence ravaging her country, continued to shop for luxury items abroad.
She spent tens of thousands of dollars on chandeliers, candlesticks and necklaces, among many other items. She sent a friend photos of Christian Louboutin jewel-encrusted high heels "not made for the general public," to which the friend responded "Haha?I actually LOVE them!!!?But I don't think they're not going 2 b useful any time soon unfortunately.."
She had an eye for deals, writing to an assistant in London about a $4,000 vase, "Pls can abdulla see if this available at Harrods to order ? they have a sale at the moment." To which the assistant replied, "He bought it. Got 15% discount."
The Syrian first lady signed the emails "aaa," presumably for Asma al-Assad, or used the name of a secretary, Alia Kayali.
The Guardian said the 3,000 e-mails had been obtained from a mole in the regime via opposition sources. If genuine, they show no evidence of a president and first lady ready to throw in the towel.
On the contrary, Mrs. Assad wrote to the address The Guardian says is the president's, saying, "If we are strong together, we will overcome this together...I love you."
He, in turn, emailed her the lyrics of country musician Blake Shelton's song "God Gave Me You" which goes, "The person that I've been lately, ain't who I want to be. But you stay here right beside me, and watch as the storm blows through."
In an e-mail The Telegraph obtained, she joked to a friend about their relationship: "As for listening, I am the REAL dictator, he has no choice."
Syrian First Lady Target of New Sanctions
The e-mails do not reveal her true feelings about the violence in any depth, the worst of which has been in her family's ancestral city of Homs. In a January e-mail to a friend following a speech by the president, she writes, "very strong, no more messing around," according to The Telegraph.
She also makes a personal appeal for a 60 year-old communist with medical conditions who she feels was wrongfully arrested. "Kindly transfer him to court, particularly as his hands are not tainted with blood," she writes.
It's not the general light-heartedness or confidence of the e-mails that has infuriated Syrians in the opposition, but rather the gall of the lavish spending sprees.
"She is one of the robbers. The price of her shoes is enough to feed three families in Syria for one year," activist Omar al-Muqdad, now in Turkey, told ABC News. "She is an important part of our pain."
Asma al-Assad was born to a Syrian cardiologist in London. After high school she studied computer science at King's College London before going into investment banking. She met the future president while on holiday in Syria and started dating him while he was studying in London to be an opthamologist in London, before his brother died and he had been named heir. They married in 2000 after once became president and have had three children together.
The first lady with the perfect English who did charity work instantly put a warmer face on the closed and despotic Assad regime that has ruled Syria since 1970. In a now infamous glowing profile in Vogue magazine published last year as the uprising started, she was described as a "a rose in the desert."
"I found her intelligent and warm," says ABC's Barbara Walters who has met Asma al-Assad on three occasions, most recently in December, adding they did not discuss politics.
Now in its second year, analysts say the uprising has no end in sight. The armed opposition is growing, but their numbers and weapons pale in comparison to the Assad forces and they are routinely routed. The regime has held together as the death toll climbs and international sanctions make life and trade increasingly difficult.
One of the e-mails The Guardian published reveals that at the end of January, the daughter of the emir of Qatar, a strong supporter of the Syrian uprising, wrote to Syria' first lady to say that, "i only pray that you will convince the president to take this as an opportunity to exit without having to face charges?i am sure you have many places to turn to, including doha."
Regardless of how long the conflict drags on and how it ends, Asma al-Assad's silent support of her husband has ensured that the bloom is undoubtedly off the "desert rose."