European Union enacts sanctions against Assad's wife, 11 others

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Bashar and Asma al-Assad are among the 12 Syrian's sanctioned by the European Union Friday morning. (Photo from Flickr user Ammar Abd Rabbo.)

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his wife are among 12 people sanctioned by the European Union who will now face a travel ban and have their assets frozen.

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The sanctions are the latest efforts to target the Syrian government's inner circle, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. They will be in addition to sanctions that are already in place.

"Most of their habits and their longings and their contacts are in the European direction," Bildt said. "So I wouldn't say that this is necessarily going to change the Syrian situation immediately, but it is part of the package that we have of further strengthening the actions of the sanctions against the regime in order to facilitate further change."

The bans appear to focus particularly on Assad's British-born wife, Asma al-Assad, but it is unclear if the sanctions will prevent her from traveling to the United Kingdom. According to British officials, the EU cannot stop her from traveling to the U.K., where she has citizenship. However, Nigel Kusher, a British lawyer and expert on sanctions, told The New York Times that the sanctions will, effectively, restrict her from traveling to and residing anywhere in Europe because EU companies and organizations, including banks, cannot make any funds or assets available to her.

The decision by the European Union to impose sanctions on Assad's wife, as well as 11 others, seems to be a response to the leaked e-mails believed to be from Syria's first family, which reveal their extravagant living during a time of political uprising in Syria. According to e-mails, the president's wife spent thousands of dollars on online shopping.

"If these e-mails are to be believed, and The Guardian was certainly convinced they were genuine, they were swapping YouTube videos. She was doing her luxury shopping online in stores in London and Paris, and she was surfing for an incredibly expensive pair of shoes while government forces were battering that district in Homs a few weeks ago," said Chris Morris, a European correspondent for the BBC. "And it did paint this picture of almost classic dictatorship. The fiddling while Rome burned image."

Morris said the sanctions won't end Assad's regime, but they may send a message to Syria.

"It's about a little bit of humiliation, a little bit more isolation. The 12 people named today are four members of the family and eight government ministers. Now, let's say, in theory, one of those government ministers was beginning to have second thoughts (about)  what's going on, this could just add to that sense of discomfort. No one is suggesting it's the be-all and end-all, (that) it's the thing that's going to end this," Morris said.

Morris said ending the regime will require cooperation from China and Russia, who have supported Syria's right to suppress the revolt, before the United Nations. He also said Russia, which has had a historically strong relationship with Syria, may provide support to Syria's inner circle in some way. Morris said former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will travel to Moscow and Beijing to try to persuade Russia and China to change their stance.

"It's not just the Europeans and Americans. It is most of the Arab world now that is saying, 'Look we have got to take tougher action. What is happening inside Syria is unacceptable.' But if the international community remains split as it is, then, yeah, there is always that danger. They have other ways to channel their shopping needs, their military bills, all sorts of things. Those avenues can still be open," Morris said.