Events in Syria tend to revolve around the crimes committed by President Bashar Al-Assad and his regime. He has been in the news more than usual recently due to the severe economic downturn his country has faced over the past few months; it’s hardly surprising after years of corruption by him and his cronies. Interestingly, far less attention is paid to his British-born wife Asma Al-Assad, née Akhras, who in the past has been described as glamourous and responsible for bringing a level of modernity to the Assad regime. The famous piece in Vogue describing her as a “rose in the desert” weeks before the start of the 2011 uprising came back to haunt the magazine as she witnessed arguably the most brutal response to protesters the Arab Spring had experienced.
The spotlight has recently been focused more closely on Asma Al-Assad due to her inclusion on the Caesar Act’s sanction list. This is a significant development; various high ranking regime figures have been included on EU and US sanction lists throughout the Syrian conflict, but this is the first time that the King’s College, London graduate has been included. It is well documented that she has been pushing to include herself amongst the regime’s decision makers and finally to be seen as more than just the president’s wife. The death of Bashar Al-Assad’s mother and de facto family matriarch Aniseh Makhlouf in 2016 opened the door for Asma to take on a bigger role.
Her late mother-in-law was also the aunt of Assad’s under-pressure money man Rami Makhlouf. The Syria Trust for Development, an NGO set up by Asma back in 2001, has been in conflict with Al-Bustan Association, another NGO, founded by Makhlouf. This is not however a wholesome competition to see which charity can do the most for the wellbeing of Syrian citizens. Charities in Syria operate less like their namesakes abroad which help the needy, and more as vehicles of control for those directing them. In Syria, charities are essentially fronts for a variety of nefarious activities; the fact that both aforementioned organisations have been recipients of aid via UN bodies (UNICEF, UNHCR and UNDP respectively) is extremely concerning.
How can a person remain a British citizen after many crimes have been committed in the cause of protecting her family? Even if Asma Al-Assad isn’t directly culpable for war crimes and crimes against humanity as her husband is, she is on the Caesar sanctions list for a reason. The Syria Trust for Development is a husk; the money it raises is funneled through the regime and supports the deadly crimes it has committed.A little over a year ago, public opinion in Britain was split over the issue of Shamima Begum and the question of her return from Syria, having left London willingly back in 2015 to live in Daesh-held territory along with two other girls; she was 15 at the time. Politicians and commentators debated the issue fiercely of whether or not she deserved to return to the UK. Whether she should or should not be able to return was ultimately neither here nor there; Begum was rendered stateless by the decision to strip her of British citizenship which meant that the government’s move was subsequently illegal. It is currently under appeal. Moreover, the example of Tauqir Sharif, an aid worker who had his British citizenship revoked in 2017 due to his travels to Syria, indicates that the government is not shy about revoking citizenship when it suits. This humanitarian was recently kidnapped by an extremist group in Syria having publicly denounced any links with such organisations. Sharif continues to protest that he was not given a fair hearing by the British government, being unable to counter the “secret evidence” that was relied upon by the Home Office.
Asma Al-Assad is not in the same position. She is also a Syrian national, so depriving her of her British citizenship would not be illegal as it would not render her stateless. British citizenship is a privilege, and one that she has surely relinquished by her complicity in such heinous crimes. It is clearly “conducive to the public good” to jettison a British citizen who is not only on the US sanctions list, but also a cheerleader of one of the most murderous regimes of the 21st century. Following her inclusion in the Caesar Act – passed by both legislative chambers in the US – and being sanctioned by it as well as facing an EU travel ban and asset freeze, the British government should act quickly to revoke her citizenship. What is the Home Secretary waiting for?