The European Union has sought to punish the family of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, blacklisting his wife, mother, sister, and sister-in-law and freezing their assets.
But it was unclear how the symbolic move aimed at curbing the luxury lifestyle of the Assad dynasty would affect Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife and until recently an international style icon.
The EU travel ban placed on the four women, to be made official on Saturday, means they cannot enter the EU. But Assad is partially exempted from that overall ban since she is a British national and may still travel to the UK, though not to the rest of the EU.
Under the EU visa regime, the overall travel ban does not stop the holder of a passport of an EU country from continuing to travel to that country.
British officials confirmed that Assad still has a valid UK passport and that she would be able to visit Britain, where she was born and grew up. Her parents live in London.
“She can still enter the UK. There’s nothing legal we can do about it without good reason,” said a British official.
Also, the curbs on her ability to shop in London for luxury and designer goods may be less comprehensive than previously thought.
The assets freeze means her bank accounts and credit cards should be frozen. But British officials said that under Home Office rules, those blacklisted would be barred from purchasing “basic goods” but would still be able to shop for “luxury items”. The criteria distinguishing basic from luxury goods was not clear.
The confusion surrounding the impact of the sanctions on the Assad family left open the possibility that blacklisting Asma al-Assad could turn out to be relatively toothless.
It appeared that there would no attempt to strip her of her British nationality.
“It is important to note that sanctions are imposed on individuals to encourage them to change their behaviour,” said a British government source. “The imposition of sanctions would not lead to automatic arrest or action to deprive someone of their nationality.”
Asma al-Assad’s assets held in the UK will, however, be frozen, the sources said, adding that she will be allowed to use her London home, but would not be able to sell it or have access to rental income.
“Any money or other asset that is held in the UK will be frozen and can only be unfrozen under a licence from the Treasury,” the sources said.
President Assad has been under EU sanctions for almost a year, with little appreciable effect on his policies and the bloody crackdown he has implemented against Syrian revolutionaries and civilians.
Ahmet Davutoğlu, the foreign minister of Turkey, which has a 900kmborder with Syria and home to 17,000 refugees with 1,000 more arriving daily, said Assad had to be stopped quickly, but that he constantly played for time in order to crack down ever more ruthlessly.
“I compare Homs with Sarajevo [in the 1990s],” Davutoğlu told the Guardian in Brussels. “No one can justify attacking urban areas indiscriminately. Now they are attacking urban areas with heavy weapons. We have to act quickly … This massacre must be stopped.”
In addition to the Assad family members, another eight figures in the regime and two oil companies were blacklisted and had their assets frozen.