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Syrian conflict

Syria’s British-born first lady, Asma al-Assad, has breast cancer

The announcement is a rare disclosure of a serious health matter in the top echelons of an Arab state

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 2:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 10:29pm

Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the president’s office has announced via its social media accounts.

The postings included a photograph of the first lady with an IV line in her arm and smiling at her husband, who is sitting next to her, while apparently undergoing treatment in a hospital.

“With strength and confidence and faith, Mrs Asma al-Assad begins the preliminary stage of treatment for a malignant tumour in the breast that was discovered early,” the statement said. “From its heart, the presidency and all those who work in it wish Mrs Asma a speedy recovery.”

Later Wednesday, the presidency posted another photo of the first lady walking, carrying a laptop in one hand and a cup in the other. Her left wrist was bandaged.

“I belong to the [Syrian] people who taught the world steadfastness, strength and how to face difficulties,” read the caption in Arabic. “My determination comes from your determination and strength in the past years.”

The public acknowledgement is a rare disclosure of a serious health matter in the top echelons of an Arab state. Ailing autocrats in the region usually treat such issues as grave national security secrets. The long illness of the president’s father, Hafez, who ruled Syria for decades, was a closely guarded secret even as he appeared frailer in public in the last months of his life.

A controversial figure, Asma al-Assad has rarely spoken publicly about the civil war in Syria, which has raged for more than seven years during which has claimed half a million lives. The former banker, who has dual nationality, has instead appeared at public events with her husband and focused on humanitarian initiatives in government-controlled parts of Syria, as well as in images comforting government soldiers.

She was once dubbed by Vogue as a “rose in the desert” championing democratic reforms in Syria. In 2009, Britain’s top-selling tabloid The Sun introduced its readers to the “sexy Brit” who was “bringing Syria in from the cold”.

But since the war began in March 2011, she has been personally sanctioned by the European Union and has faced calls to strip her of British citizenship since the start of the conflict. In a rare interview in 2016 with the Kremlin-backed TV station RT, she acknowledged the suffering on both sides of the war and said she had rejected offers of asylum outside the country during the crisis.

She married the Syrian president in 2000, and they have three children.

The 42-year-old’s family is originally from the central province of Homs. She was born and raised in Britain before moving back to Syria after meeting the president.

Additional reporting by Associated Press