Here's why I can't sympathise with Asma al-Assad's cancer stunts

I'm a Syrian woman. Here's why I can't sympathise with Asma al-Assad's cancer stunts
5 min read

Loubna Mrie

24 June, 2024
Bashar al-Assad has finally opened up about his wife Asma's leukaemia, but few Syrian women show sympathy, and even fewer believe her, writes Loubna Mrie.
Asmaa al-Assad not only dominates critical sectors of Syria's shattered economy but has also emerged as a ruthless figure, writes Loubna Mrie [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

In an official statement in late May, the Syrian regime announced that Asma al-Assad had been diagnosed with leukaemia, approximately five years after she declared a full recovery from breast cancer.

During his latest appearance at the Eid al-Adha prayer, Bashar al-Assad was asked about her condition. With a confident voice, he told the reporter that her illness would only make her more empathetic to what many Syrian families have endured.

While the cameraman expressed awe and admiration for the president, this wasn’t the overall reaction to her illness.

Unlike in 2016, many people in Syria — both opposition members and government supporters — see the state-sponsored hysteria as yet another ploy to elicit public sympathy.

It is evident that Asma al-Assad’s influence and her carefully curated image as the nurturing mother of all Syrians and the elegant "jasmine lady" are failing to deceive anyone any longer.

I first felt the impact of Asma al-Assad in 2003 when she demanded a change in our long-time school uniforms from military khaki to bright blue, grey, and pink.

The story goes that she had seen young girls leaving a high school in Damascus and was horrified that they looked like soldiers, not students. And Asma was right. Those uniforms made us look like soldiers because we were considered soldiers.

From middle school through high school, our shoes and sweaters had to be black and plain, with absolutely no light colours. Military training classes, the Fotowa, were mandatory.

Outside of school, Asma was portrayed in the media as a “desert rose” with a soft voice, an English upbringing, and a princess-like demeanour.

Alongside her husband, Bashar, who promised reformation, computers in schools, and the Damascus Spring, it seemed like Syria was blessed by her presence. We were getting some of that blessing as she brought colour to our school uniforms after decades of repressive, military-like attire.

How Asma al-Assad sugarcoats her husband's war crimes

Perhaps that is why, when the uprising started in 2011, we were hopeful that the modernised, King's College-educated Asma was, as the rumours claimed, forced to stay in the presidential palace because she opposed her husband's actions.

Her well-crafted image over the years made it hard to believe that the woman who brought colour to our school uniforms was complicit in the regime's darkest crackdown.

Over the decade that followed the Syrian uprising, Asma al-Assad played the role of a compassionate figure. Her image was meticulously designed to emphasise her solidarity with the people, her understanding of their suffering and economic hardships.

On Mother’s Day, she posed for group photos with mothers of martyrs, visited wounded soldiers in their living rooms, and was often photographed kneeling to meet their eye gaze in their wheelchairs.

In 2016, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she posed for photos while receiving treatment in a military hospital in Damascus. This was intended to indicate that despite having the resources to seek treatment anywhere, she was putting her trust in the Syrian medical system.

During that period, almost daily photos of her with her head wrapped in satin emerged, presenting her not just as the first lady, but as an advocate for breast cancer, a strong woman who was still fierce and fulfilling her duties despite her illness.

However, this image also served a more strategic purpose, as it was later leveraged to exert control over Syria’s humanitarian sector, an area that has become crucial given the ongoing conflict and its devastating effects on the population.

Later, this soft façade cracked when people realised that Asmaa, was not just the soft first lady, she was monopolising large swaths of the Syrian economy.

Now, she not only dominates critical sectors of Syria's shattered economy but has also emerged as a ruthless figure. In a country where family control of the economy is not the exception, what shattered her image for government supporters is how she marginalised key economic players and drove them out of the country.

Rami Makhlouf, the president's cousin who had long supported injured soldiers and militiamen on his payroll through the Al Bustan Foundation, was asked to pay close to $230 million in what was called back taxes.

Appearing in a series of live Facebook videos, he denounced these charges as “unjust”. As I scrolled through the comments, it became clear that many blamed Asma for this turn of events.

They believed she was trying to steal Alawite's wealth and push aside Alawite figures who had been loyal to their sect. Although Rami Makhlouf was the most visible case, he was far from an exception. In April 2023, dozens of Syrian businessmen were reportedly held hostage at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, where they were coerced into paying similar "taxes."

The amount extorted from them was close to $200 million. In the aftermath, even among the government's most ardent supporters, voices emerged expressing anger over the exclusion of businessmen who, in the early years of the uprising, were the financial backbone of the Syrian war effort. Some of these dissenting voices, even Alawites who had been very vocal in their support of the Syrian government, were detained and silenced.  

Kenan Wakkaf, a journalist loyalist for the Syrian government and was long a writer at Al Wahda state-sponsored newspaper, was one of those who got detained and later fled the country, from his exile, he posted a video, asking Alawites to wake up and realise that this government isn’t serving them anymore.

Today, many argue that any official statement from the Syrian government is questionable, leading some to even believe that Asma al-Assad's cancer diagnosis is merely intended to elicit public sympathy. 

However, for many Syrians, especially those who once believed Asma could bring colour to the country as she did to our school uniforms two decades ago, the truth of her diagnosis is less significant.

What matters now is that her once-soft, Western-educated, feminist image has been exposed as yet another façade manufactured by her husband's brutal regime. The "desert rose" was nothing but a mirage.

Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who covered Syria as a photojournalist for Reuters. Her writing has been published in Time, The Nation, Foreign affairs among others.

Follow her on Twitter: @loubnamrie


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