US sanctions Syria’s first lady and her UK-based family in latest push

Intensified pressure could push Damascus to accept UN plans to end Syria’s civil war

This handout picture released by the Syrian Presidency Facebook page on August 8, 2018, shows the Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad carrying papers as she begins treatment for early-stage breast cancer at a hospital in the capital Damascus. (Photo by Handout / Syrian Presidency Facebook page / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Syrian Presidency Facebook page " - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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The US slapped new sanctions on Syria’s First Lady, Asma Al Assad, her UK-based parents and others on Tuesday, saying she used her charities to consolidate power and block efforts to end her country’s brutal civil war.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said asset freezes and travel bans on the British-born wife of President Bashar Al Assad and 17 other people and entities would intensify pressure on the embattled regime and its foreign backers.

The sanctions, under the so-called Caesar Act, cover Ms Al Assad, her relatives, the commander of Syria’s Military Intelligence General Kifah Moulhem, and the country’s central bank, as well as Syrian shipping, construction, plastic and freight companies.

“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 organisations,” Mr Pompeo said.

The members of the First Lady’s family to be blacklisted all live in the UK, said US officials. They include her parents Fawaz Akhras and Sahar Otri Akhras, as well as Firas Al Akhras, Eyad Akhras and others.

“The Assad and Akhras families have accumulated their ill-gotten riches at the expense of the Syrian people through their control over an extensive, illicit network with links in Europe, the Gulf and elsewhere,” Mr Pompeo said.

“Meanwhile, the Syrian people continue to wait in long lines for bread, fuel and medicine as the Assad regime chooses to cut subsidies for these basic essentials that Syrians need.”

Joel Rayburn, the Trump administration’s Special Envoy for Syria, said sanctions on intelligence chief Gen Moulhem would send a message to the man behind the “arbitrary detention, torture and killing of countless Syrians”.

“The greatest obstacle to a stable and secure outcome in Syria has been the Assad regime’s unwillingness even in the face of disaster to deviate from its futile goal of military victory,” Mr Rayburn told reporters.

US politicians passed the Caesar Act in 2019 to choke revenue for Mr Al Assad’s government in a bid to force it back to UN-led negotiations and broker an end to the country’s nearly decade-long war.

Caesar Act travel restrictions and asset freezes can be used against anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality. The law also targets those dealing with entities from Iran and Russia, Mr Al Assad’s key foreign backers.

Millions of people have left Syria and millions more have fled their homes since a crackdown by the Assad regime on protesters in 2011 led to a multi-front civil war that has dragged in Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US and others.