Arab media has been rife with speculation over the past week regarding the health of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, who is reportedly suffering from severe psychological strain after more than five years of civil war resulting from a bloody crackdown he ordered against his own people.
According to many reports, the Syrian despot has now reportedly suffered from a stroke, and his fitness to rule is being brought into doubt, forcing the Assad regime's Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic to release a statement yesterday claiming that Al-Assad is in "excellent health".
The rumour mill began last week, when the Saudi Arabia-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a column by Amir Taheri, claiming that sources from Assad regime ally Russia had indicated that Al-Assad was "exhausted" due to "psychological pressures" arising from the civil war, now almost in its sixth year.
According to Taheri, "Russian officials…now drop hints that Assad is 'exhausted by five years of war and tension' and may be is even [sic] developing a nervous tick in his left eye as a result of 'psychological pressures'."
Assad 'breathing his last'
These comments led to a deluge of articles in the Arab world, stating that Al-Assad was on his last legs and that he was physically on the verge of collapse. Further adding fuel to the fire was the fact that he had not been sighted in public for weeks.
Though the media frenzy appeared to die down due to a lack of fresh information, it picked up again yesterday morning, when a newspaper linked to Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Al-Hariri called Al-Mostaqbal Al-Lubnani reported that Al-Assad had suffered a stroke.
Citing sources in the Syrian opposition who claimed to have access to documents that the newspaper had seen, Al-Mostaqbal said that the Syrian president had suffered a stroke and was rushed to the Al-Shami hospital in Damascus under heavy guard.
Another Arab news outlet, Moheet, said yesterday that an Iranian assigned to be the personal bodyguard of Al-Assad attempted to kill him at an unspecified point last week.
The outlet gave the would-be alleged assassin's name as Mehdi Al-Yaqoubi, stating that the bodyguard opened fire at the Syrian dictator for unstated reasons in a failed assassination attempt, that pushed Al-Assad to the psychological brink and caused him to "maybe be breathing his last."
Whatever the truth of the unverified assassination attempt reported by Moheet, the story regarding Al-Assad's stroke began to circulate in the Arab press once more, being picked up by several outlets with large circulation, including London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi also cited Lebanese media sources as confirming that Al-Assad was in extremely poor health.
The presidency, and not the president, denies
In an attempt to counter the growing media furore over his health, the Assad regime was compelled to release a statement on social media network Facebook.
The statement criticised the media reporting on Al-Assad's health whose "allegiances, funding and agendas are known," adding that the "analyses [regarding Al-Assad's health] had more in common with hopes that exist in the imaginations of those who issued them only".
Showing an old photograph of a beaming Syrian dictator, the statement from the president's office continued: "The Presidency of the Republic denies all of these reports…and guarantees that they have no basis in fact, and that President Al-Assad is in excellent health and is executing his duties in a completely normal fashion."
The statement was also carried by regime-backed SANA news agency, to try and get as much circulation as possible. However, President Bashar Al-Assad has yet to emerge on television screens despite having a previous penchant for public media appearances.
In a previous interview with The Sunday Times last year, Al-Assad laughed off the deaths of children in Aleppo, and said: "I sleep regular, I sleep and work and eat normal and do sports."
If the latest reports about his health prove true, it would appear that the strain of carrying what is largely recognised as his responsibility for the deaths of almost half a million Syrians since the outbreak of war in 2011 is having a toll on the overall health and wellbeing of the dictator, who inherited his father's grip on power in 2000.