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Asma al-Assad’s Leukemia diagnosis met with mixed reactions

Asma al-Assad has shifted in the public eye from a glamorous icon to an active partner in the brutal putdown of peaceful protesters in Syria’s revolution.

The Syrian presidency announced on Tuesday that Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad was diagnosed with Leukemia, provoking sympathy among regime supporters and mixed reactions among opposition activists.

Al-Assad was diagnosed with aggressive bone marrow and blood cancer after “presenting with several symptoms and following a comprehensive series of medical tests and examinations.”

The diagnosis came after she was successfully treated for breast cancer five years earlier.

Regime supporters expressed their solidarity with the Syrian first lady, wishing her a speedy recovery.

Among the Syrian opposition, reactions ranged from muted to a lack of sympathy for al-Assad, widely viewed as an active participant in her husband’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protests, which started during Syria’s 2011 revolution.

“Ms. Asmaa, you and your family are just like [Leukemia]. Because of you, we were eaten alive, and we suffered, and we were in pain. We are burning with hatred against you, and we will remain as long as you are like a disease occupying the body of Syria,” Qadir, a young Syrian opposition activist, wrote on Twitter.

Other Syrians saw news of the diagnosis as part of a greater conspiracy, suggesting it could be part of a political strategy by the Syrian regime to cover stalled negotiations with the West.

“Why was Asma al-Assad’s illness announced after the killing of the Iranian president? Is it an excuse for Bashar not participating in the funeral in Tehran?” Faisal al-Kasem, a prominent Syrian newscaster with Al-Jazeera, said on Tuesday.

The Syrian presidency said on Tuesday that al-Assad will “adhere to a specialised treatment protocol that includes stringent infection prevention measures” as part of the treatment plan.

From the Rose of Damascus to war profiteer

Al-Assad, a British-born Syrian investment banker, has long been accused of providing a glossy veneer to her husband’s brutal crackdown, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

In 2011, just a month before Syria’s revolution began, Vogue magazine wrote a now-infamous article titled “A Rose in the Desert” profiling the Syrian first lady.

The magazine portrayed her as a glamorous intellectual and described the Assad family as “wildly democratic.” It portrayed the ruling couple as secular and invested in Syria’s religious pluralism, recounting their attendance at a Christmas celebration despite them being members of the Alawite sect.

Public perception of al-Assad has changed throughout the civil war as she has built what analysts have called a network of clientelism and a ring of war profiteers.

In 2020, the US imposed sanctions against her, claiming that she has helped perpetuate the Syrian conflict and personally profited from it.

“Asma al-Assad has spearheaded efforts on behalf of the regime to consolidate economic and political power, including by using her so-called charity and civil society organisation,” then-US Syria Envoy Joel Rayburn said.

Al-Assad founded the Syria Trust for Development (STD), an umbrella organisation identified as a key source of corruption and financial profit for the Assad family and its supporters.

“STD, like the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), has been a vital instrument in enabling the Syrian regime to control the humanitarian relief sector,” The Syrian Network for Human Rights said in a 2023 report.

The Syrian regime requires the UN and other donor agencies to channel money through either SARC or STD. Reporting has found that the regime has earned millions in aid money sent through these organisations.

Al-Assad’s organisation, STD, was set to put on its annual Damascene Rose Festival to celebrate the annual rose harvest season before the announcement of her diagnosis.

The Syrian presidency announced she would be “temporarily withdrawing from all direct engagements” due to her treatment plan.

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