The Trump administration announced new sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday. The Caesar Act, named after a Syrian military war photographer who smuggled out thousands of photos documenting the victims of the Assad government’s torture and butchery, requires sanctions on several top Syrian figures to send a “severe chilling effect on any outside investors who would be contemplating doing business with the Assad regime,” a senior administration official said referring to Russia.
Many of the Syrian officials and elites targeted Wednesday were already under U.S. sanctions, including Assad himself and businessman Mohammed Hamsho, who has reportedly earned a fortune using his close ties to the regime to win reconstruction contracts.But prominent among the names of those newly sanctioned is Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, the British-born first lady of Syria once deemed the “Rose in the Desert” by Vogue magazine.
Assad graduated from King’s College London in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and French literature.
She had a career in investment banking and was set to begin an MBA at Harvard University when she married Bashar al-Assad in December 2000. She resigned from her investment banking job following the wedding and remained in Syria, where their three children were born. According to several reports, as First Lady she played a major role in implementing governmental organisations involved with social and economic development throughout the country as part of a reform initiative which was halted due to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.
The marriage surprised many since there had been no media reports of their dating and courtship prior to the wedding. Many interpreted the union as a reconciliation and sign of progression towards a reformative government as Asma grew up in the United Kingdom and represents the Sunni majority, unlike the Alawite Bashar.After the wedding, Asma travelled throughout Syria to 100 villages in 13 of the 14 Syrian governorates to speak with Syrians and learn where she should direct her future policies.
She went on to create a collection of organisations that functioned under the charity sector of the government, referred to as the Syria Trust for Development; the organisations include FIRDOS for rural micro-credit, SHABAB business skills for youth, BASMA helping children with cancer, RAWAFED for cultural development, the Syrian Organisation for the Disabled, and the Syrian Development Research Centre, aimed to target rural communities, economic development, disabled citizens, cultural development, and children’s and women’s development, respectively. Most well-known were the MASSAR centers she created, locations that functioned as community centers for children to learn active citizenship. Due to this work, she earned a spot as one of the Middle East 411 Magazine’s “World’s Most Influential Arabs”.
US sanctions, in general, target family members because they are often used to move financial and other resources of sanctioned individuals.“But I have to say that Asma al-Assad contributes personally in enough ways to the horrors that are today’s Syria to merit being sanctioned in her own right, not just as the wife of President Assad,” US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said in a phone briefing.In a statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alsodescribed her as “one of Syria’s most notorious war profiteers”.
The war in Syria, which began as a democratic uprising against Assad’s oppressive rule in 2011, spiralled into a bloody civil war after Assad’s forces brutally cracked down on dissenters. Soon, jihadist groups and foreign powers took advantage of the chaos, fomenting even greater violence — with 11 million people now displaced and at least 500,000 killed.
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