US imposes sanctions on Syrian mogul for aiding Assad

©Agence France-Presse

The United States has imposed sanctions on an industrialist tied to President Bashar al-Assad, seen here leading a cabinet meeting in May 2019

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on one of Syria's most prominent industrialists, Samer Foz, known for high-end holdings including the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, for allegedly enriching President Bashar al-Assad.

"This Syrian oligarch is directly supporting the murderous Assad regime and building luxury developments on land stolen from those fleeing his brutality," Sigal Mandelker, the undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in an announcement. 

The US Treasury Department also blacklisted properties of Foz and his Aman Holding Company including the Four Seasons, the plush hotel that has stayed operational during the war.

The hotel has become a base for United Nations employees in Syria, a point of controversy for Assad opponents who question where the money paid by international staff goes.

Under the sanctions, any of Foz's US assets will be frozen and any US transactions with him or his properties forbidden.

The Treasury Department said Foz had shipped into Syria oil from its ally Iran, despite unilateral US sanctions on all exports out of the Islamic republic.

In the notice, the Treasury Department also said that Foz had taken advantage of an order issued by Assad in 2012 to expel residents of poorer areas to make way for luxury construction.

"This tactic -- taking over property owned by Syrian citizens and handing the land to wealthy regime insiders to develop in exchange for revenue sharing -- has emerged as Assad's go-to strategy for high-end reconstruction in war-torn Syria," the Treasury Department said.

Foz's major holdings include MENA Crystal Sugar, one of the largest sugar refineries in the Middle East, which was also slapped with sanctions under the order.

Wealthy amid war

Born to a Sunni family in the port city of Latakia, Foz was relatively unknown until the outbreak of Syria's civil war when his connections to Assad -- and ability to navigate territory controlled by other forces -- proved lucrative.

As Assad crushed an uprising against him, Foz relocated his family to Turkey where he was granted citizenship on the basis of his investments.

But he ran afoul of Turkish authorities in late 2013 when the body of an Egyptian-origin businessman was found on the streets of Istanbul, his body reportedly torn apart by street dogs.

Turkish press reports say that the businessman, Ramzi Matta, had reneged on promises to send a major shipment of wheat from Ukraine to Syria. Foz was arrested but denied responsibility and was released.

His Aman Group has diversified into everything from car assembly to real estate to pharmaceuticals. He bought a 55 percent stake in the Four Seasons Damascus last year from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, with estimates saying he paid more than $100 million.

In a rare interview, Foz last year told The Wall Street Journal that he was motivated by creating jobs in Syria as the country recovers from war.

"If I don't think about reconstructing my country, who will?" he was quoted as telling the newspaper at a Beirut restaurant.