Pro-democracy protests against President Bashar al-Assad that began eight years ago turned into a devastating civil war that has caused the deaths of more than 36,000 people and the displacement of almost 12 million others internally and abroad. While the mainstream media has focused on the atrocities of the civil war, there have been many Syrian businessmen who have turned the war into a source of profit.=

Samer Foz is one of them. He has built an empire on the people’s misery. In less than a decade, he has emerged as a mogul during a civil war that has destroyed much of his country. Although his success has largely gone unnoticed, the tide appears to be turning. 

The European Union (EU) sanctioned Foz, along with ten other businessmen and five entities, on January 21 for providing financial support to Assad’s regime. The EU claimed they have been exploiting properties belonging to Syrians who fled their homes during the conflict with the support of the Syrian government’s legal framework for expropriations. The Syrian authorities’ “legal seizure” of these properties has sparked domestic and international outrage. 

The U.S. Treasury Department followed suit on June 11 by imposing sanctions on Foz. Many of his real estate companies, including the Four Seasons Damascus hotel, were cut off from the U.S. financial system for assisting the Assad regime. 

Bashar al-Assad

The Expropriation of Property Belonging to Displaced Syrians

The Syrian government issued a new property law, known as Law No.10, in early April 2018 that prevents internally-displaced populations and refugees from claiming ownership of properties that were once theirs.  

Damascus allegedly introduced the law as part of a larger legal framework to establish redevelopment and reconstruction zones across Syria. However, the law does not specify which criteria determine the areas that will be designated as redevelopment zones, nor does it specify a timeline for the process.

Owners of properties in redevelopment zones have only 30 days to provide local authorities with proof of ownership. If they fail to do so, the government can confiscate their property. If, however, they can provide documents that prove their ownership, they become shareholders in the future real estate project—but not owners. 

The substantial population of Syrian refugees abroad is unlikely to return to Syria within the specified 30-day period to file such an application. In any case, this is almost an impossible task since the buildings where most of the ownership records were kept have been destroyed.  

Between July 2012 and November 2013, the Syrian government conducted seven large-scale evacuations and demolitions in Damascus and Hama under the pretext of “urban planning,” according to Human Rights Watch. The international organization has considered these actions a violation of the laws of war, “as they served no necessary military purpose and appeared intended to punish the civilian population, or because they caused disproportionate harm to civilians.”

In effect, the Syrian government has been able to “legally” re-appropriate large areas of land and redistribute them to pro-Assad businessmen. Thanks to their strong alliance with the regime in Damascus, Foz and other investors are making a fortune through joint governmental projects to build luxury properties during Syria’s upcoming reconstruction phase.

Assad Refinances his Tyrannical Regime

The relationship between prominent entrepreneurs and the government began to deteriorate following the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011. The Syrian regime imposed additional taxes on businessmen who remained neutral in the conflict to finance Assad’s militias.

Eventually, these “neutral” businessmen refused to pay the taxes. Soon thereafter, Washington imposed sanctions on 196 businessmen who were financing Assad’s government, leaving the regime in dire need of finding other financial supporters. 

Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. imposed sanctions on members of Assad’s “entrepreneurial entourage” because his regime was supplying Lebanon’s Hezbollah with sophisticated weapons, such as Scud missiles. Washington also held Syrian intelligence responsible for forming jihadist groups and facilitating their movement during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  

The most convenient way for Assad to circumvent the U.S. sanctions was to seek the support of a new generation of entrepreneurs who were unknown internationally. But first, Damascus needed to clean house by cracking down on the country’s wealthiest and most established businessmen, forcing most of them to transfer their investments abroad and, ultimately, leave the country. The government then ordered their properties to be auctioned off, and Foz was ready and eager to seize the available real estate.

The Tycoon’s Rapid Rise

Samer Foz Cover

Recently, Foz made international headlines when the U.S. added him to the list of Syrian businessmen sanctioned for backing Assad, but not before he was able to buy Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s stake in Damascus’s Four Seasons Hotel. It is believed that Foz’s share in the largest and finest hotel in the capital is equivalent to that of the Syrian Ministry of Tourism.

The married 45-year-old Syrian investor and father of four is also a Turkish citizen, who was born in the city of Latakia. In 1988, Foz established Foz Trading Company—now a regional and international holding group. The Foz Holding Group currently operates in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Russia in various fields such as trade, industry, transport, and real estate. 

Foz, considered the richest Syrian-Turkish businessman, has a dark history. In addition to forming armed groups, such as the Military Security Shield, to fight alongside Assad forces in 2011, Foz was implicated in criminal activity in Istanbul, Turkey, in June 2013. 

Some Turkish media outlets reported then that authorities had arrested Foz after he admitted to ordering the murder of Ukrainian-Egyptian businessman Ramzi Matta over a $15 million grain deal dispute in Ukraine. Despite the gravity of the crime, Foz only spent six months in prison and was released after paying bail of 3 million Turkish Lira (over $500,000).

Over the years, Damascus has been able to circumvent the international community’s economic sanctions, raising many questions about their effectiveness. Nonetheless, they have forced Assad’s regime to seek alternative financial sources to remain in power. His alliance with dubious actors, such as Samer Foz, shows just how far Assad is willing to go to save his regime. 

Foz has become the most prominent entrepreneur in Syria and is likely to gain more power and influence off the backs of the Syrian people—especially during the country’s upcoming reconstruction phase. Given his close affiliation with Assad, it is also very likely that he will enter the world of politics and be met with open arms.