Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad has started treatment for early stage breast cancer.

An official photo posted to Facebook today showed President Bashar Assad smiling next to his British-born wife in hospital as she sat with an IV in her left arm.

A short statement posted with the photo said a 'malignant tumor' was discovered in its early stages. The presidency wished her a speedy recovery in the post.

This photo posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad sitting next to his wife Asma Assad with an IV in her left arm. Photo / Supplied
This photo posted on the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad sitting next to his wife Asma Assad with an IV in her left arm. Photo / Supplied

Later, the presidency posted another photo of the first lady waking, carrying a laptop in one hand and a cup in the other. Her left wrist was bandaged.

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"I belong to the (Syrian) people who taught the world steadfastness, strength and how to face difficulties," read the caption in Arabic. "My determination comes from your determination and strength in the past years."

It was not specified where the first lady was being treated, but the word 'military' was printed on a blanket visible in the picture. State news agency SANA said later the first lady is undergoing treatment at a military hospital in the Syrian capital of Damascus. It gave no further details.

Such public health announcements are uncommon in the Arab world, where cancer is considered a taboo.

Asma Assad's parents, a cardiologist and a diplomat, are from the central province of Homs but she was born and raised in London before moving back to Syria after meeting the president.

The two have been married for 18 years and have three children, Hafez, Zein and Karim.

The couple's marriage was announced by state media six months after he assumed the presidency in July 2000 following the death of his father Hafez.

The former investment banker styled herself as a progressive rights advocate and was seen as the modern side of the Assad dynasty.

Since Syria's civil war broke out in 2011, Mrs Assad has mostly been seen in public receiving families of fallen soldiers, or hosting people wounded in the conflict, now in its eighth year, which has killed more than 400,000 people.

Before the crisis began in March 2011, she was the subject of flattering profiles in Vogue and other fashion magazines.

As Syria's conflict worsened, the first lady became a target of contempt for many opposition supporters who saw her as whitewashing atrocities carried out by the government.

When her husband faced calls to be tried as a war criminal, Mrs Assad was widely criticised for saying accusations against him were 'propaganda' against the regime.

She even used her Instagram account, where she regularly posts propaganda images of her husband with government forces, to accuse the west of lying over his use of Sarin gas on his own people.

On her Instagram account, she wrote in Arabic: "The presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic affirms that what America has done is an irresponsible act that only reflects a short-sightedness, a narrow horizon, a political and military blindness to reality, and a naive pursuit of a frenzied false propaganda campaign that fueled the regime's arrogance."

Queen Elizabeth II greeting Asma Al-Assad and the President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad, at Buckingham Palace in 2002. Photo / Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II greeting Asma Al-Assad and the President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad, at Buckingham Palace in 2002. Photo / Getty Images

Mrs Assad's parents, both Sunni Muslims, moved from Syria to London in the Fifties so that her father, who is now based at the Cromwell Hospital and in Harley Street, could get the best possible education and medical training.

Though a Muslim, she was educated at a Church of England school in Ealing before attending a private girls' day school — Queen's College, Harley Street.

After studying computer science and French literature at King's College London, Mrs Assad worked as a banker at JP Morgan in the Nineties when she met her future husband.

At the time, Assad was training at a hospital in London to become an eye surgeon.

Those who knew her said that, given that she spent the first 25 years of her life in London, Mrs Assad had liberal western values.

In 2012, she was banned from travelling to Europe and last year MPs called for her British citizenship to be revoked.

Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative MP on the Commons foreign affairs committee, said: "The time has come where we go after [President] Assad in every which way, including people like Mrs Assad, who is very much part of the propaganda machine that is committing war crimes."

The Syrian Civil War

The war is an ongoing multi-sided armed conflict in Syria between the Syrian Arab Republic led by President Bashar al-Assad and various forces opposing both the government and each other in varying combinations.

It started when Assad harshly clamped down on 2011 Arab Spring protests.

Estimates put to the total death toll so far at around 500,000 people.

Assad, supported by Russian and Iran and opposed by a US-led coalition, has been accused by the west of bombing hospitals and using illegal Sarin gas on his own people, which he denies.

Assad said in an interview in June with Russia's state-controlled NTV television channel that his government got rid of all its chemical weapons in 2013 and that allegations of their use were a pretext for invasion by other countries.

A U.N. investigative body determined the government used the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others.

The U.S. and its allies also blamed government forces for a sarin gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus in 2013 that killed around 1,000 people.