BEIRUT (AP) — The wife of Syria’s president said she is “completely” free of breast cancer a year after her diagnosis, in an interview with state TV.
The half-hour interview, aired late Saturday, was Asma Assad’s first since she was diagnosed — a rare declaration in the Arab world, where prominent figures often conceal their ailments. It was also designed to portray a modern attitude in a region where cancer remains a taboo, and many view it as an affliction.
Assad, who is under western sanctions and has been a highly controversial figure in the course of the Syrian conflict, sat for the interview in a lush green garden, wearing a white dress with embroidered flowers. She described cancer as a “test” for her and her family and said she wanted to be a role model for Syrians in dealing with adversities.
They idyllic images stand in sharp contrast to the death and devastation that has hit Syria on a massive scale since 2011, following a brutal government crackdown on largely peaceful protesters that gave way to an armed uprising and eventually a full-blown civil war.
Assad, born in the United Kingdom in 1975, sported a short blond bob and flashed wide smiles, speaking softly but assuredly.
It is an air of confidence and poise that the government of her husband, President Bashar Assad, has also maintained throughout the war. The Assads have continued to present themselves as modern, forward-looking leaders even as Syria has been convulsed by conflict, ignited by the rebellion against the family’s decades-long rule.
In parts of the interview, Bashar Assad is filmed holding his wife from behind as they stroll down a military hospital’s corridors — rare images of intimacy between the first couple. Other clips showed her carrying out public activities over the last year while wearing stylish head scarves.
In the early days of the war, Asma Assad was heavily criticized for perceived excesses, with some accusing her of using her British education and Western style to try and mask the brutality of her husband’s crackdown.
She was sanctioned by the European Union in 2012, banning her from traveling to member states and freezing any assets she may have there. In 2013, leaked emails revealed Asma Assad had been shopping for luxury items and designer goods online as violence swept the country, including the purchase of Bohemian crystal chandeliers, expensive jewelry and Christian Louboutin stiletto shoes.
Despite the criticism, she has been unwavering in her support for her husband, who is accused of using chemical weapons against civilians. Bashar Assad denies this charge, saying he is battling terrorists.
Asma Assad maintains an impeccable online presence, often posting photos of herself in elegant clothes and shoes as well as carefully choreographed videos showing her doing charity work, serving meals to the elderly, meeting with Syrian mothers and children and consoling families of those killed in the war. The handout photo released Sunday appeared to be heavily photoshopped.
More than once in the interview, she compared her struggle with cancer to the government’s handling of the civil war. When asked why she decided to go public, she said that the Syrians have shared a lot in this war.
“This has really brought Syrians closer together,” she said, repeating a line her husband also touts, despite the country’s fracturing into rebel-held areas, others controlled by foreign powers and the displacement of half of the population. It was natural to share news of her disease, she said.