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Profile: Asma al-Assad

Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of Syria's president, entered the public consciousness following a series of interventions in support of her husband, amid accusations that his regime has killed thousands of protesters over the past year of unrest.

Mrs Assad, who is of Syrian descent but has spent much of her life in west London, has generally played a low-key role in the regime.

Amidst the backdrop of a sustained government crackdown in which forces loyal to the president have bombarded her family's home city of Homs, she has stood by her husband.

EU foreign ministers have now imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on her.

It is a long way from Acton, west London, where she grew up as Asma Akhras.

The daughter of a Harley Street cardiologist, she attended an independent school, where friends called her Emma.

A degree in computer science at King's College, London, was followed by a career as an investment banker in the City of London.

Public relations asset

The 36-year-old, who is a Sunni Muslim, is believed to have met her husband, a qualified eye surgeon, while he studied in London for about 18 months.

The couple have three children.

For years there had been a perception that Mrs Assad's Western upbringing could encourage reform in Syria.

British public relations company Bell Pottinger helped to make her the face of Syria's international image.

A source told the BBC that Mr Assad married Asma knowing she would be an assetin presenting a fresh face for Syria.

But the source also suggested Mrs Assad's approach to her role as first lady caused tension within the Assad family, particularly with the president's sister, Boushra, and his mother, Anisseh, who cared little about public relations.

'Comforting' victims

The approach yielded some success, to the extent that US Vogue magazine ran a spread on her in February 2011 under the headline, "a rose in the desert" in which she was described as being a young and glamorous figure.

But a year of unrest has led to a more forensic examination of the former investment banker.

The UN says at least 8,000 people have died since the uprising against Mr Assad's regime began in March 2011.

Activists report dozens of deaths and more protests on a daily basis.

The president and his allies say terrorists and armed gangs are behind the violence, and say hundreds of security personnel have been killed fighting them.

Image caption Asma al-Assad and her husband, the Syrian president, have three children

The perceived disconnect between Mrs Assad and her husband's regime has begun to fade, as she has expressed opinions on the situation in Syria and the British press has focused more intently on her.

Her first public intervention came in February when she sent an email from her office to Britain's Times newspaper.

In it she expressed her support for her husband, the president, while stating that she "comforts" the "victims of the violence".

EU foreign ministers imposed the travel ban and asset freeze on her in March 2012.

However, British officials say the ban cannot stop her from travelling to the UK because she was born there.

providing what appeared to be a glimpse into their lives.

The messages, which have not been independently verified, suggest Mrs Assad continued to shop online for luxury goods even after the uprising was in full swing.

By early February, when opposition fighters in Homs were under siege from government forces, she was reported to browsing the internet for luxury shoes, and writing to her friends about 16cm high heels that cost more than $5,000 (£3,200).

Britain's Guardian newspaper, which published the emails,admitted it had not been possible to verify every one. It said access to the emails was allegedly provided by a mole in the president's office.

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