A British-Syrian dual national, Asma al Assad has played an active role in the devastating Syrian war, and a growing political role in the regime’s government. She also risks losing her British citizenship.

The United Kingdom Metropolitan Police has opened preliminary investigations into Asma al Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad for allegations of crimes against humanity and incitement and encouragement to commit acts of terrorism in Syria. 

Human rights law firm Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers submitted two confidential filings to the Metropolitan Police Service Counter-Terrorism Command to open investigations into her roles in the Syrian war. The Metropolitan police confirmed that they received a referral in July 2020 that is being assessed by the War Crimes Unit, which looks at actions that happen outside Britain.

“It’s a very crucial role that [Asma al Assad] has taken [in the war], enabling and supporting, if anything, the tremendous propaganda machine that has resulted in empowering the regime to conduct atrocious human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and war crimes,” explains Yaser Tabbara, Legal and Strategy Advisor and co-founder of the Syrian Forum.

“In addition to that, she’s someone that seems to have risen to prominence in terms of decision-making within the presidential palace...There are tremendous amounts of evidentiary documents that link those people committing the acts on the ground to the highest levels of command within the Syrian regime, namely Bashar al Assad. As Asma al Assad takes prominence in terms of decision-making within the Syrian regime, she then becomes culpable within that chain of command as well,” he tells TRT World

“We are hopeful that this will proceed to bring charges, and potentially seeking to summon the first lady for questioning, or potentially, if they refuse to cooperate, seeking her extradition,” Toby Cadman, co-founder and head of Guernica 37 told TRT World

45 year-old Assad, born Asma Akhras, is a British-Syrian dual national who was born, raised and educated in Britain before moving to Damascus in 2000 after her marriage to Bashar al Assad. She has taken on an increasingly central role in the regime. 

“Her role has been more than just being the first lady, as we have seen,” continues Cadman. Assad has given speeches to groups of the Syrian regime armed forces, encouraged them, and taken pictures with them, just to give a few examples. 

The Syrian war entered its grim 10-year anniversary on Monday, with over half a million killed, including thousands of children and nearly 14,000 tortured to death in prisons. The war has displaced over 12 million people, both within and outside the country.

International investigations have found the Syrian regime and its allies to have tortured and deliberately bombed civilians, schools, and hospitals, and used chemical weapons on several occasions. 

If the police find there is sufficient evidence to charge her, then the case will be given to the Crown Prosecution Service, who will take the next steps.

“Although we are still far from the stage [of formal accusation], it is an extremely important step to have taken, because the whole question of accountability in the Syrian conflict has not been prioritised properly,” says Tabbara.

We are seeking to ensure that the process of truth and justice is meted out equally to all persons irrespective of status and standing. This is an important step in holding senior political officials accountable for their acts and ensuring that a State, through an independent and impartial legal process, takes responsibility for the acts of its own nationals.

Guernica 37 Press Statement

Guernica 37 added in a written statement that it is important that Assad should face trial before any stripping of citizenship in the “interests of the hundreds of thousands of civilian victims to the ten-year conflict.”

This filing also isn’t the first time Asma al Assad’s citizenship has been called into question. 

In 2017, a group of Liberal Democratic legislators wrote to then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd saying that she should not be able to retain British citizenship while using her position to defend the Syrian regime. 

“The first lady of Syria has acted not as a private citizen but as a spokesperson for the Syrian presidency," Tom Brake, former foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said at the time. 

“This is a barbarous regime, yet Asma Assad has continued to use her international profile to defend it, even after the chemical weapons atrocity...the British government could say to Asma Assad, either stop using your position to defend barbaric acts, or be stripped of your citizenship.”

British citizenship can be annulled if the government deems it “conducive” to the public good, which is defined as “depriving in the public interest on the grounds of involvement in terrorism, espionage, serious organised crime, war crimes or unacceptable behaviours.”

Until 2003, only naturalised citizens could have their nationality revoked, but this changed to those with citizenship from birth so long as they had additional citizenship or the government believes that the individual could get citizenship from another country. 

One-half of the “Assad mafia power couple”

In December, the US slapped a new set of sanctions targeting the Syrian Central Bank as well as Asma al Assad and some of her immediate relatives, including her father, mother, and brothers,  all of whom are based in the UK. 

“Asma al Assad has spearheaded efforts on behalf of the regime to consolidate economic and political power, including by using her so-called charities and civil society organizations,” said Joel Rayburn, US Special Envoy to Syria, referring several times to the Assads as a “mafia power couple”. “Her and her family’s corruption is one of the many reasons that this conflict lingers on.”

The UK also announced on Monday a new round of targeted sanctions on the Syrian regime, including travel bans and asset freezes on six members of the regime, including the Foreign Minister, adding to the 353 sanctions already implemented and carried over from the EU. The list did not include members of the Akhras family. 

Asma al Assad has also taken on an increasingly public role in recent years, including playing a more active role politically. The growth of the so-called charity, Syria Trust for Development, founded by Assad in 2001, has played an important role in the regime’s survival strategy, and has coincided with her political rise.

“Syria’s Trust aims to attract foreign finance, monopolize civil society’s representation, and bolster the Syrian regime’s image before Western countries by implementing a public relations campaign on multiple levels,” said Ayman Al Dassouky of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies.

Her official portraits have also started appearing alongside her husband’s in offices and governmental agencies, which has led some to speculate whether she would be taking on a larger, or even official political role. 

“She’s...appearing publicly more and more often, and making more and more public statements, which are all feeding into this rumour that she is being looked upon as the successor to Bashar Assad,” says Tabbara. 

“Whether this is substantiated is anyone’s guess, but one thing that is for certain is that she has grown to become more influential than she has ever been over the past 10 years, and as such, her culpability and her direct legal responsibility to the atrocities by the Syrian regime against the Syrian people...is cemented."

Source: TRT World