Beirut: As Syria courts investors to rebuild its war-shattered cities, it may find a fresh round of European sanctions standing in its way.
The European Union said earlier this week that it was adding 11 business executives, as well as five entities, to a growing list of Syrians whose material support for President Bashar Al Assad’s war effort has now resulted in travel bans, asset freezes, and an end to business activities in Europe.
The types of penalties may not be new, but the logic is, and European diplomats said this week that they hoped the sanctions would send a chilling effect through a business community that the Syrian government is now relying on to redevelop the country.
The men targeted are magnates.
As investors and developers, their collective business interests span industries ranging from soap operas to sugar and steel. But for the most part, they are linked through their involvement in a new economic frontier with significant implications for Syria’s future: luxury real estate on expropriated land.
Insecurities relating to housing, land and property rights were key among the concerns that spurred Syria’s 2011 uprising.
Eight years on, World Bank estimates suggest that 33 per cent of the country’s housing stock has been destroyed, leaving many refugees without homes to return to.
It also estimates it will cost around $200 billion to rebuild Syria.
“These business figures are making lucrative profits through their ties with the regime and are helping finance the regime in return,” said one European diplomat Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the media.
“The hope is that this will send a message to people who might consider getting involved in the future,” added the diplomat.
The sanctions land as Syria declares itself open for business.
State media regularly heralds the arrival of foreign commercial delegations.
Gulf states which once backed Al Assad’s rebel opposition are restoring relations so as not to lose footing to regional rivals Iran and Turkey.
Although Western countries, including the United States, say they will not fund reconstruction without progress on a political settlement, Syrian officials are encouraging the return of European diplomatic missions nonetheless.
Syrian officials are even trying to engineer the return of the European states which cut relations in response to the repression of mass protests in 2011.
Three European diplomats, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said that colleagues traveling regularly between Syria and neighbouring Lebanon had found their visas canceled at the start of the year.
“You [should] come back, war is over,” was how one described the message behind the decision.
Eight individuals and five entities on the new EU sanctions list have links to a flagship project that could form the blueprint for Syria’s ambitions to reconstruct.
Marota City, built upon the razed land of a southwest Damascus suburb known as Basateen Al Razi, comes in at a price tag of $170 million of private investment.
Most prominent is Samer Foz, 45, a businessman whose meteoric rise through Syria’s war years has allowed him to cast himself as an intermediary for foreign investors. Business partners Anas Talas and Mazin Al Tarazi are also named, alongside two men working on a high-end tourist development in Damascus.
Government supporters describe the projects as part of a long term vision to develop areas where urban migration had caused illegal construction to mushroom, and unsafe structures to flourish.
But critics see a different story, describing the redevelopments as a new - and intentional - obstacle to the returns of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
Areas slated for rezoning, both now and in planned future developments, are almost exclusively those where anti-government protesters turned out in droves.
Residents were displaced in the vicious battles that followed, and many now find themselves without homes to return to.
Senior Syrian officials have suggested that those critical of the government should stay away.
“We lost the best of our youth, infrastructure, but we did win a more healthy and harmonious society,” said Al Assad in an August 2017 speech describing the toll of the war.
The following year, Jamil Hassan, head of Air Force Intelligence, was reported to have told a closed-door meeting that Syria’s government would prefer ten million compliant citizens to the return of all the refugees.
Basateen Al Razi was a lower income area before Syria’s uprising, and a hotbed of resistance after.
It was one of the first to be designated for redevelopment.
YouTube videos now show an artist’s impression of the verdant trees and wide sidewalks that could one day line the new homes.
Old tenants say the units are prohibitively expensive.
“In the next phase of the conflict, recent laws passed by Syrian government are going to have a huge effect,” said Sara Kayyali, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division.
“These laws are being used to formalise the ways in which civilians’ rights have been abused through the war. These sanctions send the message that we are onto them.”