Assad’s British wife targeted by EU as Annan pursues talks on ceasefire

Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma
Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma
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EUROPEan Union foreign ministers yesterday imposed sanctions on Asma al-Assad, the British wife of the Syrian president, banning her from travelling to EU countries and freezing any assets she has there.

They also introduced the same sanctions for Bashar al- Assad’s mother, sister and sister-in-law, and eight of his ministers, in a continuing attempt to stop the brutal crackdown on popular opposition.

In addition, the assets of two Syrian companies have been frozen. Mr Assad himself has been the subject of EU sanctions since May.

The Home Office said any British citizen subject to a EU travel ban could still enter Britain but Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “Given we are imposing an asset freeze on all of these individuals and a travel ban on other members of the same family and the regime, we are not expecting Mrs Assad to try to travel to the UK at the moment.”

Yesterday, the United Nations announced that joint UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, would travel to Russia and China for talks aimed at resolving the crisis peacefully.

The EU has imposed 12 previous rounds of sanctions against the Syrian regime, yet the crackdown has only intensified.

French foreign minister Alain Juppe said he believed the regime was weakening.

He said: “Their economic situation becomes ever more difficult. Syria has few reserves. We think its economic situation will become untenable.” Mrs Assad, 36, was born in London, spent much of her life there, and retains British citizenship. She has been seen as the softer face of the ruling Alawite dynastry – an attractive and refined woman who is media friendly.

Mrs Assad, who is of Syrian descent, moved to Damascus in 2000 to marry the president, who had previously been an ophthalmologist in England.

In thousands of personal e-mails apparently intercepted by the Syrian opposition and published online, Mrs Assad demonstrated a love of expensive furniture, fine jewellery and Christian Louboutin shoes. In one e-mail, she was reported to have ordered £30,000 of furniture and candlesticks from a Paris boutique.

“We had a certain number of indications – I am sure it has not escaped you – how the wife of president Assad uses her money. It is perhaps this that pushed us to toughen the sanctions,” Mr Juppe said.

Mr Annan and two aides will go to Moscow and Beijing to press the case for his six-point plan, his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said. Western countries have pushed for UN Security Council action, but Russia and China have twice vetoed this.

“Negotiations are at a very delicate stage. He’s not going to mediate through the media,” Mr Fawzi said. “The crisis on the ground is severe. We have to make progress on the ground soon. Every minute counts.”

Mr Fawzi confirmed “negotiations with Damascus continue.”

Mr Hague, speaking in Brussels, said it was very important to increase pressure on Syria.

“Their behaviour continues to be totally unacceptable in the eyes of the world,” he said.

In Geneva, on Friday, the 47-member UN Human Rights Council voted 41 to three in favour of an EU-sponsored resolution backed by Arab nations and the US. China, Russia and Cuba voted against. Two nations abstained and one didn’t vote.

The resolution condemned “widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms perpetrated by the Syrian authorities” including summary executions, torture and abuse of detainees.

It also condemned “the deliberate destruction of hospitals and clinics, the obstruction and denial of medical assistance to the injured and sick, and the raids and killing of wounded protesters in both public and private hospitals.”