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Syria: UK announces new sanctions on Assad officials

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reveals new targeted sanctions against six members of the Syrian government, including Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad
President Bashar al-Assad and wife Asma (R) look at apple-tree saplings in al-Drekish, western Syria, in a picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on 30 December 2020 (AFP)

The United Kingdom has announced the imposition of further sanctions on officials linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the new sanctions announced on Monday targeted six members of the Syrian government, including Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, for "repressing the Syrian people".

"Today, we are holding six more individuals from the regime to account for their wholesale assault on the very citizens they should be protecting," said Raab.

The measures, which comprise travel bans and asset freezes and come on the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising in Syria, also target an Assad adviser, two senior military commanders and two businessmen. 

'The Assad regime has subjected the Syrian people to a decade of brutality for the temerity of demanding peaceful reform'

- British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab

"The Assad regime has subjected the Syrian people to a decade of brutality for the temerity of demanding peaceful reform," added Raab.

The measures are the first enacted against Syria's leadership under Britain's post-Brexit independent sanctions policy, and follow 353 sanctions already being rolled over from the European Union sanctions listings.

Britain, which formally left the EU in January 2020, previously imposed sanctions through the bloc.

Brussels, which began putting sanctions on the Syrian authorities in 2011 over the brutal repression of anti-government protests, added Mekdad to its sanctions list in January. 

London said on Monday that it was also working through the UN Security Council to push Syria "to engage meaningfully" in a UN-led peace process and constitutional committee talks in Geneva.

It was also urging Damascus to release those held in arbitrary detention, and allow unhindered aid access throughout the country, the foreign ministry said.

Assad appointed Mekdad as Syria's foreign minister in November, following the death of his predecessor, Walid al-Muallem.

Mekdad started his career at the Syrian foreign ministry in 1994, and had been deputy foreign minister since 2006.

Others newly sanctioned include Luna Shibl, an Assad adviser and prominent member of his inner circle, as well as Malik Aliaa, commander of the Republican Guard since January, and Zaid Salah, commander of the Syrian army's 5th corps.

Wife's citizenship at risk

The sanctions announcement comes shortly after it was revealed that an investigation is underway by British police that could see Assad's wife Asma stripped of her British citizenship.

On Sunday, the Observer newspaper reported that London's Metropolitan Police opened a preliminary investigation into claims that the UK-born first lady had aided and encouraged war crimes committed by Syrian government forces.

Syria's first lady faces possible prosecution and loss of UK citizenship
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The Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers submitted filings citing public statements made by Asma al-Assad in which she lauded Syrian forces and supported her husband's position that his government was defending the country from terrorists.

“The evidence compiled, in our view, legally speaking, far exceeds what may be considered reasonable comment or mere propaganda and amount to the incitement, encouragement and/or the aiding and abetting of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Toby Cadman, the joint head of chambers at Guernica 37, in a statement.

“Due to the fact that the investigation is ongoing and not wishing to affect the integrity of the process and respecting the duty to afford the first lady a fair trial once charged, it would not be appropriate to comment on specific evidence save to confirm that it comes from a number of sources and in our view is sufficiently strong to justify the bringing of criminal charges.”

Asma is currently already subject to UK, US and EU financial sanctions and could face being stripped of her British citizenship and issued an international arrest warrant if the investigation proceeds.