Syria still faces uphill struggle to return to international fold

Preventing the Syrian regime from profiteering off the lives of those it has slain is a worthwhile pursuit but history has shown that sanctions alone rarely dissuade the victors of war.
Sunday 23/06/2019
Still out. President Bashar al-Assad heading a cabinet meeting in the Syrian capital Damascus.AFP
Still out. President Bashar al-Assad heading a cabinet meeting in the Syrian capital Damascus.AFP

Despite Syrian government efforts to return to the international fold, new sanctions against leading pro-Assad figures show that it faces a bigger fight to do so than it expected.

With the Assad regime in control of the vast majority of Syria, it’s been putting out feelers to diplomats in Jordan, Bahrain and elsewhere in a subtle push to force the international community to re-engage with it. Its goals are to have itself viewed as a crucial international player in the region and to secure investments to help rebuild the war-torn country.

However, when the US Treasury Department blacklisted businessmen and regime apparatchik Samer Foz for amassing huge sums of money through war profiteering, that plan suffered a significant setback.

Sigal Mandelker of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced on June 11 that “Samer Foz, his relatives and his business empire have leveraged the atrocities of the Syrian conflict into a profit-generating enterprise. This Syrian oligarch is directly supporting the murderous Assad regime and building luxury developments on land stolen from those fleeing his brutality.”

This serves as a major blow to the regime because using loyalist businessmen to launder and move money overseas is a central tactic to pay off international groups and individuals that the regime hopes will invest in the reconstruction process.

Foz, 46, who owns on behalf of the regime the Four Seasons Hotel and Orient Club in Damascus as well as a multitude of other businesses and holding companies, finds himself cut off completely from the US financial system, which follows a similar move by the European Union in January.

Everything from broken concrete and steel debris from damaged and destroyed properties to contracts for futuristic residential developments are up for grabs for regime loyalists such as Foz. From Latakia and educated in Paris, Foz runs the country’s only steel smelting factory in Homs, a facility that’s been working overtime to melt down and reuse metal from destroyed neighbourhoods once held by opposition forces.

The reconstruction process is where the big money is. The building of Marota City in the Mezzah suburb of Damascus has involved the eviction of thousands of residents from land where hundreds of millions of dollars is to be invested. People such as Foz have the money to make a start but the major problem for the Assad regime and Foz and its other go-between businessmen is that much of its wealth was either funnelled out of Syria as a precautionary move years ago or that the sums required necessitate funding from foreign partners.

Many countries with the financial means to get involved in the reconstruction of Syria and that have ties with Washington will now be scared away from doing so. The regime’s primary international backers — Iran and Russia — are done investing in Syria, having spent untold billions of dollars propping up Assad.

The extent of the investigation by the Treasury Department is instructive. It outlined links between Foz, his family based in the United Arab Emirates and companies in Lebanon. Oil and television businesses based out of Lebanon were also named in the investigation.

It’s been well documented how UN officials and staff members used the Four Seasons in Damascus as both an accommodation and operational base during the war, sending millions of dollars directly into the regime’s coffers.

Another of Foz’s assets, Aman Holding, is a web of trading companies and one of the largest conglomerates in Syria. It is involved in importing oil and exporting foodstuffs, automotive assembly, agriculture, broadcast production, pharmaceuticals and transport.

What exactly does the sanctions regime against Syrian government figures and their business enablers look like? It means frozen assets, banning exports — including of petrochemical products — sales and investments in Syria by US “persons” and bans individuals and companies from facilitating or financing transactions.

US sanctions have significant scope. The ban applies to US persons whether based in the United States or overseas and it goes further than that: individuals or companies that are not American in any way but interact with US persons may not facilitate those under sanctions.

The troubling aspect of this or any sanctions regime is that the civilians dependent on the medicine, food and jobs provided by Foz’s business operations will be hit hardest. Though blacklisting regime-linked businesses cuts the regime’s tactics off at the knees, it almost guarantees further suffering for the people of Syria.

Preventing the Syrian regime from profiting off the lives of those it has slain is a worthwhile pursuit but history has shown that sanctions alone rarely dissuade the victors of war.