As Syria's crackdown continues--with Syrian security forces releasing 300 people detained in the coastal city of Banias today even as army tanks shelled the central city of Homs--the British press is tackling an interesting question: Where is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's wife, Asma?
On Tuesday, The Telegraph quoted a "high-ranking Arab diplomatic source" as saying Syria's British-born first lady had fled, "under conditions of immense secrecy," to London and was now living with her three children in a "safe house" surrounded by security guards. The source said Mrs. Assad's location hadn't been released because it would be a "huge embarrassment to the British." The paper noted that Mrs. Assad hasn't been seen in public since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
The thin reports have sent reporters scrambling to the large "pebble-dash terraced house" in North Acton, West London where Mrs. Assad grew up. The Telegraph reported no sign of the family on Monday, with "three day-old post stacked against the front door." Neighbors told the paper that they hadn't seen Mrs. Assad's parents--a cardiologist and diplomat--for several days. The Daily Mail found no answer at the door on Monday night but did spot a Mercedes with diplomatic plates parked outside the home. The First Post didn't venture out to Acton but did indulge in speculation, wondering whether Mrs. Assad "walked out in disgust or whether she is holing up here until the storm passes." Mrs. Assad married Bashar al-Assad, an eye doctor by training, in 2000, the same year he succeeded his father as Syria's president.
Whether or not Mrs. Assad has fled Syria, she does appear to have disappeared from another place: Vogue's website. The magazine took a lot of heat in Februrary, as pro-democracy uprisings swept the Arab world, when it published a flattering profile of Mrs. Assad, describing her as "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" and a "rose in the desert" who ran her household on "wildly democratic principles." At the time, Vogue senior editor Chris Knutsen defended the profile in an interview with The Atlantic, noting that "the piece was not meant in any way to be a referendum on the al-Assad regime" and that, given media restrictions in Syria, "we strived within those limitations to provide a balanced view of the first lady and her self-defined role as Syria's cultural ambassador."
But now the much-maligned profile has been replaced with a 404 page, the words, "OOPS: The page you're looking for cannot be found," and a woman who is decidedly not Asma al-Assad. ProPublica's Eric Umansky first noticed that Vogue had removed its "puff piece" on May 1, writing, "apparently [Vogue] doesn't understand how web works." Gawker learned that the piece was no longer available yesterday and noted that while the development might simply be part of the site's "normal turnover of old content," other stories from the February issue are still online. We've reached out to Vogue for comment and we'll update if we hear back.