On 10 May 2011, the British Daily Mail newspaper published a report claiming that Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, had secretly fled Syria to the UK with her children, where she was living off a “£40 billion ($62 billion) fortune” that the president had “smuggled abroad.”
Within a few days, Asma hired a renowned British law firm, Carter-Ruck, to take action against the Mail’s owner, Associated Newspapers Ltd. (now known as dmg media), according to documents seen by NOW, including correspondence between the two parties. Carter-Ruck is a leading specialist in libel and media-related disputes, whose controversial practices have been accused of impeding press freedom and, in the words of one BBC producer, “bombarding journalists and suppressing information that is in the public interest.”
Letters seen by NOW, and published below, are evidently only a portion of the complete correspondence, yet they suffice to establish that Carter-Ruck, on behalf of Asma, succeeded in compelling the Mail to delete the article from its website and issue a denial. The law firm then went further, demanding that payment of £5,000 ($7,750) on top of legal fees, as well as a full apology, be made by Associated Newspapers to Assad, or else the matter would be taken to court. It appears Associated Newspaper accepted those, or similar, terms.
The documents indicate the Syrian reaction to the Mail article began on the day of publication, when an email of complaint was sent by Jihad Makdissi, then-head of the media department at the Syrian Embassy in London (and later spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Damascus before his resignation and relocation to Dubai, where he now runs a consulting firm).
Four days later, on 14 May, Carter-Ruck sent a letter to Associated Newspapers which described the Mail article as “defamatory” and made a number of “demands,” according to a subsequent letter sent by Associated Newspapers’ legal adviser to Carter-Ruck on 6 June.
Associated Newspapers’ reply of that date informs Carter-Ruck that it has “noted your client’s assertion that she remains in Syria” and thus removed the article from its website and published a denial, though it denies the report was defamatory and “reject[s]” the unspecified demands made in the 14 May letter.
In its subsequent reply, seen in undated and draft form by NOW, Carter-Ruck retorts that the denial published by the Mail was “inadequate” because “(1) it does nothing to withdraw the defamatory allegations of financial irregularities against our client and (2) it includes no apology to her.” The letter concludes that if the complaint made on 14 May is not “fully and properly” addressed within seven days Assad would “take such action as she considers appropriate.”
A second draft message from Carter-Ruck to Associated News, also undated, offers a settlement under which the latter would publish “the enclosed apology to our client” (see below); agree not to publish “the same or any similar allegations against our client;” and pay Assad £5,000 ($7,750) on top of her legal fees. Should the offer be rejected, the letter goes on to say, Carter-Ruck would take the dispute to court.
Beyond the content of these letters, further details of the dispute proved difficult to unearth. Neither Carter-Ruck nor dmg media responded to multiple requests for comment. Jihad Makdissi confirmed to NOW his initial involvement in the case in line with his diplomatic role at the time, which he said was prompted by Damascus directly as per standard embassy procedure regarding the first family. However, he said he did not recall it going to court—which suggests Associated News agreed to settle.
A text document in Arabic accompanying the above letters, seemingly written by the opposition sources who first obtained them, purports to summarize the case, albeit with some factual errors (e.g. describing Makdissi as the foreign ministry spokesman, a post Makdissi told NOW he didn’t take up until some months later).
Significantly, the Arabic document claims Asma did indeed travel to the UK with her children, as reported by the Mail, but then returned to Syria after the news broke in order to repudiate it. In support of the claim, the authors of the document point to two emails from the time; one from Asma to Bashar on 26 May saying, “MISSING YOU;” the other from Qatari Princess Al-Mayassa Al-Thani to Asma on 25 May saying, “i was at a function and some of my syrian friends mentioned you were now in london with the kids.”
Beyond that, NOW could find no concrete evidence Asma had in fact entered the UK at the time. For his part, Makdissi, who now describes himself as politically “independent, but working with the Syrian opposition,” told NOW the Mail report was “inaccurate according to my knowledge,” claiming he and his colleagues at the embassy were never tasked with providing the assistance that would have been required.
“I can confirm to you that the embassy, us, all diplomats, and the ambassador, we were never notified officially of her coming to London,” Makdissi told NOW. “Nobody approached us or asked us for any logistics then […] I can tell you there are no secrets [within the embassy], they would at least tell the ambassador.”
Asked whether Asma could have entered in complete secrecy, without the knowledge even of the ambassador, Makdissi said he saw no reason why she would have, given the security situation in Damascus was not then perceived as imminently threatening, and moreover she would have faced no legal obstacles to entering the UK by normal means. “At that time the relationship wasn’t yet at the point of no return with the Brits,” he said.
NOW also contacted the British Home Office, asking for clarification as to whether Assad entered the UK at any time in 2011. After initially agreeing to check; asking for her date of birth and full name; a Home Office spokesperson eventually said simply:
“We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”