Syrians have called for the British citizenship of Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to be revoked, after Shamima Begum, a British teenager who joined the Islamic State (ISIS), was stripped of her citizenship on Tuesday.
Many believe the only difference between Assad and ISIS leaders is that he wears a Western suit and tie.
“If the British government has a law to revoke women’s citizenship for being married to a terrorist, then Asma must not be an exception,” Abdulaziz al-Mashi of the Syria Solidarity Campaign told The New Arab.
“She is not only married to the most brutal terrorist that Syria has ever known, but also to a mass murderer and a war criminal. Asma al-Assad is not just a normal house wife in Syria, but also a propaganda machine who has been publicly supporting and advocating for her husband’s actions.”
Asma Assad, née al-Akhras, still retains full citizenship of the country where she was born and raised.
Assad, who has been personally sanctioned by the European Union, has used social media and interviews to defend the regime’s actions, and has taken on the role of a community service-minded philanthropist during the war.
Alongside Bashar al-Assad, Syrian journalist Zouhir al-Shimale said, Asma, “looted the country’s resources, destroyed the country and displaced millions.”
“[Revoking] Asma’s nationality would be a great idea, that will humiliate Assad’s presidency, and would… freeze the family’s fortune hidden in UK banks, which should be sent back to the Syrian people,” he explained.
However, Shimale said that Assad should not be compared Begum, who ran away from home to join ISIS at 15, and was likely subject to online grooming and radicalisation.
Most Syrians who oppose the regime believe that Asma al-Assad holds at least some responsibility for its crimes. Although she may not have personally orchestrated any atrocities, many believe she has chosen to remain in Syria and support the regime, and thus carries some responsibility for the actions of her husband and relatives.
“You cannot be blind from the news,” Omar, a Syrian refugee in the Netherlands said. “I’m sure she has ways of communication and sees how her husband and his brothers and their cousins are controlling the country.”
Some believe, though, that it is reprehensible to strip anyone of their citizenship – no matter the extent of their crimes.
“It’s illegal under international law and sets a precedent of stripping people’s citizenships politically and without due process,” said Osamah, a British-Syrian graduate.
Despite the UK increasingly stripping the citizenship of suspected ISIS members, it is unlikely that the UK will revoke Asma al-Assad’s British passport. The UK granted indefinite leave to remain to one of Bashar al-Assad’s aunts, it was reported in January.
Syrians in opposition to the regime are in agreement that Asma al-Assad holds criminal responsibility, but disagree over a proposed trial.
While Syrians like Mashi have requested Assad and her father Fawaz Akhras, who he described as “another propaganda machine for Assad”, have their citizenships revoked and later be tried in a Syrian court, others like Shimale believe the Assads should face justice in an international court. Others yet think she should be tried in the UK.
“Asma al-Assad represents the hypocrisy of the UK’s attitude toward terrorism and war crimes. Asma continues to be complicit in white washing the Assad regime’s crimes and continues to benefit from British citizenship. If the British government wishes to bring to court, then I would welcome that, and I would rather support that than have her stripped of her citizenship,” said Osamah.
At a time when international powers claim the Syrian war is coming to an end, with the Assad regime and its Russian backers the victors, the prospects of the prosecution of any of the Assad family – whether in Syria, Britain or the Hague – feel distant.
Around 500,000 people have been killed over the past eight years of war in Syria – the majority of whom were killed by the forces of a regime, which has been accused of over a hundred chemical attacks, torture, and other war crimes. Many Syrians are hungry for justice despite the odds.
This desire for accountability has been satiated by some criminal proceedings in Europe. Germany arrested two members of Syria’s secret police last week, on allegations of carrying out crimes against humanity. One of them is the highest level official to be prosecuted to date.
However, the courts of individual countries are highly restricted in who they are able to try and it is unlikely that high-level figures could be tried outside of international or Syrian courts, unless they are nationals of those countries.
“It is vital that all those who have committed war crimes in Syria are held accountable for what they have done,” said Ruairi Nolan of the Syria Campaign.
“We hope ultimately this accountability will reach the very top of the regime itself. A just peace in Syria is dependent on this accountability.”