As speculation goes into overdrive about whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will fall, it’s still unclear where his posh British-born wife is. Is she in England? in Syria? Is she with their three young children somewhere?
Asma al-Assad may be MIA but that didn’t stop her from inspiring, in a way, a taunting Twitter hashtag overnight.
#countriesbyvoguewriters took off after a former Vogue writer, Joan Juliet Buck, published an explainer piece in Newsweek on Monday. Buck is the author of a March 2011 piece about Asma al-Assad titled “A Rose in the Desert.” Many people attacked Buck for glamorizing the Syrian first couple and completely ignoring Syria’s history of human rights abuses.
The profile appeared in the print March 2011 version. Vogue apparently removed the story from its website later though it remains available on a pro-Assad site.
In June, Vogue's editor in chief Anna Wintour released a brief statement saying that the Syrian regime’s “priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue.
Buck, for the most part, didn’t address her critics. The magazine, she said, asked her not to. But, as her Newsweek article explained, Vogue did not renew her contract at the end of 2012 and she is now free to talk.
So she begins her explanation this way, saying she just shouldn’t have gone to a country whose name gave her the willies.
"Syria. The name itself sounded sinister, like syringe, or hiss," Buck wrote.
Cue the Twitter taunts at #countriesbyvoguewriters:
The Atlantic jumped into the fun by publishing a mock profile of North Korea’s new first lady, “A Rose in the Baekdu.”
Rather than helping Buck, some critics say she’s used the shovel Vogue gave her to bury herself deeper. The New Republic said Buck's way of doing journalism is an insult to other journalists. Jezebel suggests Buck is lying to make it seem like, as she claims, the Assads "duped" her. New York magazine linked out to the hashtag. .
Despite criticism of Buck, her Newsweek story does reveal a few new and interesting tidbits about the Assads - admittedly facts that would have been interesting to include in her Vogue story.
* Asma al-Assad made children cry by lying to them that a youth center was going to close. Buck said Asma told her it was intended to get the kids “out of their comfort zone."
* The Assads enjoy family fondue. Buck joined them one evening at their glass-walled home, and asked Bashar al-Assad why he chose to study ophthalmology. He said he liked it because “it’s very precise, and there is very little blood.”
* Minders assigned to Buck by the Assads gave the journalist a cell phone when she arrived in Syria. They explained to her that her American cell phone wouldn’t work in Syria. She believed them. It never occurred to her that the phone might be used to eavesdrop on her conversations.
* Buck claims that workers at the London PR agency Brown Lloyd James worked with the Assads and prevented the journalist from reporting on the ruling family.
If those details are accurate, they add to the profile of a couple whose fate is a big question right now. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that it wasn’t a question of whether al-Assad could fall from power, but when.
Some legal scholars have said it’s possible that Bashar al-Assad could face charges of crimes against humanity in an international courtroom. So what could happen to his wife? Could Asma al-Assad face a similar judgment day?
International law experts say that’s highly unlikely. A prosecutor would have to prove the Syrian first lady was involved in a decision-making process in her husband’s government. So far, there’s no known evidence of that.
“There’s a difference between moral responsibility and legal culpability,” said M. Cherif Bassiouni, an international war crimes expert who has worked for decades in international law and serves as a professor emeritus at DePaul University.
“She is a little like the wife of a Mafia don,” he said. “She may be with the man who kills, she can even brag about his crimes, but she won’t be punished for them.”