Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s British wife and dozens of members of his inner circle were on Wednesday hit with US sanctions, as the Trump administration heaped pressure on the beleaguered regime.
Asma al-Assad, who was born and grew up in the UK, was designated for the first time by the US government, which described her as “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers.”
The sanctions came into force on Wednesday under the Caesar Act – legislation which has been years in the making and named after a Syrian defector who documented horrific human rights abuses carried out by the regime.
The first batch of designations target 39 people or entities with ties to the government, including Assad’s sister Bushra, brother and military commander Maher, as well as other members of the extended family, senior military leaders and business executives.
Many of them were already subject to US sanctions, but the new penalties also target non-Syrians who do business with them in an attempt to discourage foreign investment in the country.
Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, said the designations represent “the beginning of what will be a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime revenue and support it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.”
Mrs Assad, who had worked in London as an investment banker until her marriage to Assad in 2000, has styled herself as a progressive reformer and modern face of the ruling family.
She was described by Vogue magazine in early 2011 as Syria’s “Rose in the Desert”, a month before her husband began violently cracking down on peaceful protesters.
She is known to have a penchant for luxury British and European designer brands, continue to shop online even as the country burned.
The 44-year-old first lady, who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer, had never before been subject to sanctions and managed to get around restrictions on the Assad family by shipping goods through friendly countries, such as the UAE.
Her father, Fawaz Akhras, is a Harley Street surgeon and director of the British-Syrian Society, which has pushed for normalised relations between the countries.
Omar al-Shogre from the US-based NGO Syrian Emergency Task Force, which pushed for the Caesar bill, called June 17 a “big day”.
“June 17 is just the start. It opens the door for more and more sanctions. For the next 10 years, those involved with the regime will be punished,” said Mr Shogre, who was tortured in one of the government’s most infamous prisons before he was freed in 2015.
“The law is there to protect the rights of Syrians, so there is no reconstruction, no normalisation with the regime,” he said. “It will block the regime from buying what it needs to construct bombs which kill civilians.”
Caesar, whose identity is protected for his safety, is a former military police photographer who smuggled out of Syria tens of thousands of photographs which documented systematic torture and extrajudicial killings carried out by the government inside its prison.
His testimony before the US Congress in 2014 spurred lawmakers – unable to hold Assad and his government to account in a court of law – to set about trying to bring about punitive measures against the leader and his cohort.
“What we have seen is we sanction an individual for his/her actions and they simply move their assets to family members, so we are targeting their families,” James Jeffrey, US envoy to Syria, told The National.
“We want to make clear they have no ability to act in the international financial system for their ill thought gains, that they are not gonna be able to go shopping at Harrods in London, they will not be able to do anything with their money,” he said.
The sanctions come as the country, nine years into its devastating civil war, is grappling with a worsening economic crisis.
Its currency has plummeted in value on the black market, sending prices of food and medicine soaring and prompting rare protests against the Assad regime.
In another blow to the Assad family’s fortunes, the president’s uncle Rifaat was on Wednesday sentenced to four years in prison by a Paris court for embezzling Syrian state funds to buy homes and offices worth €90m (£80m) to build a French property portfolio.
Rifaat al-Assad, who had denied the charges, fled Syria in 1984 after mounting a failed coup against his elder brother, the late president Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar.
It is believed Rifaat was given hundreds of millions of dollars from the regime’s coffers by Hafez in return for leaving Syria and agreeing not to threaten his rule.
He is dubbed the “butcher of Hama” for his alleged role in the bloody suppression of an uprising in the central city in 1982, which saw between 10,000-20,000 killed.
He has since divided his time between France, Britain and Spain, and now describes himself as an opponent of his nephew’s regime.