UK’s firm policy questioned after removal of Syrian businessmen from sanctions lists

Syrian businessman Nizar al-Asad and the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

Syrian businessman Nizar al-Asad and the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

After the United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union (EU) early this year, the UK government affirmed its support for the means and tools that would hold the Syrian regime accountable for war crimes against its people and the displacement of nearly half of the Syrians.

On 1 January, the UK government announced that it would move the EU sanctions against the Syrian regime and its partners to the UK sanctions regime.

The UK viewed the sanctions as a means to end the regime’s brutal repression of civilians and to increase pressure towards a political solution that the regime will handle more seriously to get rid of the sanctions.

Recently, the UK lifted sanctions against prominent Syrian figures known to be close to the regime, such as Tarif al-Akhras (Asma al-Assad’s uncle) and businessman Nizar Jamil al-Asad.

In a statement released on 30 September, the UK Foreign Office said it had removed Nizar al-Asad, Ahmad al-Qadri, Mohammad Maen Zein al-Abadin Jazba, Ali Habib, and Salam Tohme from the sanctions lists.

Except for Nizar al-Asad, the Syrian regime’s linked figures removed from the UK sanctions lists have all passed away during the last months.    

On 17 August, The Telegraph, a British newspaper, published an article saying that the UK Treasury removed Tarif al-Akhras from the sanctions list without providing any explanation as to why.

Al-Akhras’ removal from the list of sanctions against prominent figures and businessmen who assist or have close ties with the regime, was the first such occurrence, following the UK’s exit from the EU.

The sanctions removal has raised questions about the reasons and circumstances behind such a decision and whether it would be followed by a shifting policy towards the Syrian file. It also brought light to the impact of this decision on investors and businessmen who have dealings with the Syrian regime.

A new sanctions regime

An informed legal source told Enab Baladi on the condition of anonymity that the UK’s sanctions regime is still interested in pressuring the Syrian regime. The UK’s leave from the EU has caused some laws to change, including those on sanctions, imposed on individuals or specific networks. 

The UK has adopted its own sanctions law against the Syrian regime before leaving the EU, indicating its interest in punishing the regime and those linked to it, the source said.

According to the source, who is linked to the UK Foreign Office, those named in the UK sanctions lists can resort to British courts to lift the sanctions, after it was only possible in the EU’s courts.

British state lawyers realize the enormous costs arising from the trials of sanctioned businessmen such as Tarif al-Akhras, who paid millions to EU courts to lift sanctions against himself, the source said.

He added that not all sanctioned people by the UK government can be removed from the sanctions lists by a court ruling, as there are terms governing the procedure and there should be a solid legal argument and documents proving the sanctioned person’s involvement or non-involvement with the Syrian regime. 

After Brexit (the portmanteau of British exit from the EU), the UK government moved over 200 names from the EU’s sanctions lists to its lists.  

According to the source, al-Akhras was lifted from the UK sanctions list for procedural reasons rather than political ones. In addition, the amount of public information proving al-Akhras’ support to the regime was not enough to keep him sanctioned.

As for al-Asad, the source said that the businessman is not as close to the regime as he used to be before, and his companies in Syria are no longer active; as a result, he was lifted from the sanctions list of the UK government. 

The source also mentioned that Syria is not a priority for the UK at the time being, similar to the United States’ (US) stand on the Syrian file. The UK’s interest is currently focused on other countries like China and Afghanistan.

The UK’s initial position towards the Syrian regime has not changed, the legal source said, adding that the UK has established a new sanctions law against the Syrian regime, in a similar move to the US’ Caesar Act. 

The door is open to changes within the UK sanctions regime

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU had left the UK with a new set of standards and regulations regarding certain issues, different from those of the EU, the head of the Syrian Christians for Peace Association, Ayman Abdul Nour, told Enab Baladi

On 26 April, the former British Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, asked for tightening controls or standards to enable the UK government to place corrupt persons on the sanctions list. When provisions were tightened, individuals like Tarif al-Akhras and Nizar al-Asad were lifted from the sanctions lists, Abdul Nour said.

On 30 September, the new sanctions list for persons, entities, and ships was established in accordance with the regulations of the UK Penal Code and the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA).

On 15 September, Elizabeth Truss was appointed Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Affairs, with Dominic Raab becoming the new Justice Minister.

According to Abdul Nour, Truss could amend the regulations of the UK sanctions regime, which have changed not only towards Syrian-regime linked businessmen, but to all business people in the world.

“No fundamental changes”

The Executive Manager of the Syrian British Council, Mazen Gharibah, told Enab Baladi that the UK government’s decision to lift sanctions against five individuals linked to the regime resulted from a routine review by the UK Treasury and Foreign Office on the sanctions lists.

Gharibah added that four individuals linked to the Syrian regime were removed from the UK’s sanctions lists because of their death. As for Nizar al-Asad, the UK government released no justification for removing him from the British sanctions lists.

According to Gharibah, the Syrian British Council believes that these routine reviews do not reflect a fundamental change in the British government’s policy towards Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his supporting figures, particularly with regard to sanctions and accountability. 

On 5 October, the British Ambassador to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Joanna Roper, called for an unconditional entry for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into Syria. She also demanded firm measures against the Syrian regime for violating the UNSC Resolution 2118 requiring the regime to destroy all of its chemical weapons stockpiles. 

The UK’s decision will encourage others to support the regime

Karam Shaar, a Syrian Ph.D. holder in Economics and researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told Enab Baladi that even though the UK sanctions are less effective than US or European sanctions, the UK government’s lifting of sanctions from pro-regime Syrian businessmen encourages other businessmen to continue supporting the regime.

When asked about Nizar al-Asad, Shaar said that al-Asad has been on the EU sanctions list since 2011 for his association and involvement with the Syrian regime. 

One of al-Asad’s ties to the regime is the LEAD Contracting and Trading Ltd, which was in partnership with Mohammed Makhlouf, the maternal uncle of Bashar al-Assad. However, there is no information on al-Asad’s involvement during the Syrian revolution and the regime’s repression of protesters.

Still, al-Asad’s non-involvement in repressing the Syrian people is not a reason to lift him from the sanctions list unless he denies his support to the regime in public, Shaar said.

The purpose of sanctions

According to the British Foreign Office, the UK sanctions regime aims to induce the Syrian regime government to refrain from actions, policies, or activities suppressing civilians in Syria and requires it to participate in negotiations in good faith to reach a political settlement.

The sanctions stipulate the freezing of bank assets for those identified as responsible for the violent repression of civilians in Syria, supporting, or profiting from the regime.

The asset freeze includes any sale and purchase of bonds issued or guaranteed by the Syrian regime or establishing banking and correspondent relations with certain persons involved with the regime.

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