A Look Into The World Of Syria's First Lady

A video appeal to the wife of Syrian President Bashar Assad asks her to persuade her husband to stop the killing. The campaign for Asma Assad to "stand up for peace" was started by the wives of British and German ambassadors to the United Nations. Melissa Block talks with Joan Juliet Buck, the last American journalist to spend time with the Assad family before the latest civil strife began in Syria.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Syrian president's wife has been in the spotlight this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is a letter to Asma al-Assad, signed by women all over the world.

BLOCK: This video, released by the wives of the British and German ambassadors to the U.N., calls on Asma al-Assad to use her influence with her husband, Bashar al-Assad, to end the violence in Syria. It intersperses pictures of the stylish Syrian first lady with images of bloodied and dead children.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Stop your husband and his supporters. Stop being a bystander.

BLOCK: A little more than a year ago, a far more flattering light shone on Asma al-Assad. She was featured in a rare profile in Vogue magazine titled "A Rose in the Desert." It depicted her as a beautiful, wealthy, intelligent woman who cared deeply about her family - and about all children in Syria. Last year's Vogue article was written by Joan Juliet Buck, and she joins me now. Joan, welcome to the program.

JOAN JULIET BUCK: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Your article was terribly timed. It ended coming out in March of 2011, just as the crackdown in Syria was beginning. And it was roundly criticized as putting a really shiny gloss on a very unsavory regime. Vogue ended up scrubbing the article from its website. What was the intention of this assignment, going in?

BUCK: I think that Vogue is always on the lookout for good-looking first ladies because they're a combination of power and beauty and elegance. That's what Vogue is about. And here was this woman who had never given an interview, who was extremely thin and very well-dressed and therefore, qualified to be in Vogue. And they had - Vogue had been trying to get her for quite a long time.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about the impressions you got during your time that you spent with Asma al-Assad. She was born and raised in Britain, was an investment banker in London before she became first lady. What was she like?

BUCK: What's most interesting about the video that the U.N. wives have put out is, the voice on the video is exactly her voice. Asma al-Assad, born in England, university in England, banker in England - she is a very specific type of English woman; intelligent, career-minded, watches her weight. She never ate - that I saw her - and as a banker, completely on message with everything she did.

BLOCK: Do you imagine that this open letter - this video that's been released by the ambassadors' wives, targeting her specifically - do you think she would even have any idea that it exists? And, if she does, would it affect her in any way?

BUCK: I'm sure - she, obviously, surfs the Web. Of course, she's seen it and of course, it's not going to have any effect. One of the most affecting things in the last couple of months is the communications that she got from the young woman from the ruling family in Qatar who said: For the sake of your children, leave now. And she refused to even answer the woman.

You know, they are pretending that nothing is happening there. It's disgusting. Is a little video going to make a difference? No.

BLOCK: When you think now about what has happened in Syria since you've left - 9,000 people killed by this regime.

BUCK: Yes. Yes.

BLOCK: What do you think? And do you regret the story that you ended up writing?

BUCK: I regret that they titled it "A Rose in the Desert."

BLOCK: That was not your title?

BUCK: Of course not. No. There are odd things. The children that I met - there were three children. The little girl had curly hair; the two little boys had blonde hair. The photographer went after me. In the photos that came out in the magazine, you only see two children, and they both have black hair. I'm sure that if I were the president of Syria, I wouldn't want photos of my real children to appear in a magazine. But everything was like that.

I don't think I should have gone near the Assads. Asma Assad called the ancient culture of the country its hardware. She speaks like a banker with a degree in computer science. She said what interested her were the people. They were the software. The software has been getting killed every day for 13 months by her husband's forces, and they're pretending nothing is happening.

It is horrifying to have been near people like that.

BLOCK: Joan Juliet Buck, thanks for talking with us.

BUCK: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Joan Juliet Buck - she was sent by Vogue to profile the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the uprisings in the Middle East had begun. Vogue removed the story from its website last spring, after Syrian forces began cracking down on civilians, including children.

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