Officials in Damascus have denied a flurry of regional news reports suggesting that dictator Bashar Assad is in serious condition, with some reports claiming he suffered a stroke while others suggesting an assassination attempt occurred.
Assad, the office of the presidency claimed, was “carrying on his duties quite normally.” The full statement, posted on Facebook in Arabic, stated that all reports claiming Assad was somehow incapacitated were false. “The presidency denies all these reports. President Assad is in excellent health,” the statement read, according to Reuters, suggesting that “changing circumstances in the field and politically” were behind the claims that Assad was ill.
“The Syrian people had become immune to such lies,” the statement concluded.
The state media outlet SANA did not report on the rumors, instead publishing an article on Monday stating that Assad had spoken to Venezuelan dictator and longtime ally Nicolás Maduro. Maduro reportedly “congratulated President al-Assad and Syrian people on the important achievements in the war against terrorist organizations which are backed by counties hostile to Syria.”
Maduro was famously among the last world leaders to see Cuban dictator and late Assad ally Fidel Castro alive, attending 90th birthday celebrations in Havana last year. Castro had stepped down from the dictator role in 2008 after widespread rumors of his death or severe incapacitation and was rarely seen in public for the next eight years.
Rumors began to circulate on social media that Assad had suffered a significant health event over the weekend. According to the Turkish state-friend outlet Sabah, the rumor took off when an Al Jazeera journalist, Faisal al-Qassim, said on Twitter that Assad was “bedridden” and used the news to demand Assad cease the Syrian government’s military activities. The UK Independent, meanwhile, traces the story back to Lebanese newspaper al-Mustaqbal, which reported that Assad had a stroke and is recovering in a Syrian hospital.
Saudi news outlet al-Arabiya reports that another publication, the Saudi newspaper Okaz, published a variation on the al-Mustaqbal report: that Assad had been hiding a brain tumor and received medical care during his last visit to Moscow. And yet another newspaper, Le Point of France, claimed that Assad “might have been assassinated by his personal Iranian Bodyguard Mehdi al-Yaacoubi.”
While the rumors of assassination appear not to have precedent, reports suggesting that Assad may be suffering from a neurological ailment did not begin to surface this weekend. As the Independent notes, a Saudi publication ran a story before the stroke rumors surfaced stating that Assad’s “mental health was suffering,” due in part to the stress of his position in Syria.