Mr. Samer Foz is Bashier al Assad’s favorite guy. Foz is a financial opportunist and is quite good at it. He launched a private airline, manufactures commercial vehicles and now has control of the steel and metal in war torn Syria.

Foz has avoided sanctions so far except for a few applied by the European Union. Remember the Panama Papers? He is listed there too. Foz is a share holder of Alaman for Jets Limited and has a registered address in Frigate Bay, St. Kitts.

Samer Foz is known for his purchase of Saudi prince Al-Walid bin Talal’s stake in the Four Seasons hotel in the capital Damascus, which was revealed by the Financial Times newspaper. Foz is connected to the head of the regime, Bashar al-Assad.

The American political newspaper The Hill recently published an article from the political analyst and director of the research division at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, David Adesnik, in which he called on his country’s government to renew and expand the scope of economic sanctions on the Syrian regime, which would push Iran to bear a heavier economic burden for supporting Damascus.

Adesnik said that “Assad has found new men to oversee conglomerates that help finance the cash-strapped regime; two of them stand out as key targets for the Treasury Department. The first is Samer Foz.”

Foz, 44, is a lawyer and grain merchant. He was born in the coastal city of Latakia and is married with four children. Since the start of the war, he has built an empire of companies that have expanded around the world. His purchase of the share of the Four Seasons from the aforementioned famous Saudi prince, means that he has a controlling share equal to the Syrian Tourism Ministry, whose minister, Bishr Yaziji, is under European Union sanctions.

Foz is also heads a number of positions in companies and institutions that are under his authority, such as chairman of the Foz Holding Group, which was established in 1988, and executive president of the Aman Holding Group, which is split into the companies, Foz for Trading, Foz Commercial, Al-Mehemein for Transport and Construction, and Sarouh Construction. This is in addition to the Foz Holding Group, which split into diverse investments in the fields of importing and exporting of foodstuff, before entering into real estate investments with projects in Syria, Lebanon, Russia and elsewhere, as well as being ready to launch a TV channel called “Lena”.

The second prominent person for Treasury Department sanctions, according to Adesnik, is the Syrian Member of Parliament, Husam Katerji. Katerji commands one of the regime’s armed militias in Aleppo, and founded the Arvada Petroleum Company with capital of up to one billion Syrian pounds. A Reuters investigation documented his role in transporting wheat from areas that were under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS) to areas under regime control. A number of reports have talked about his role in concluding oil transport contracts from areas under the control of Kurdish groups to regime areas.

Katerji, born in Raqqa in 1982, was not known within the list of names in the Assad family’s economic system, and was just a trader in Aleppo and head of the Katerji International Group, which includes a number of companies such as the Katerji for Real Estate Development and Investment and the Golden Gate for Tourism and Transport, and White Gold Manufacturing, however, his prominence rose during 2017 when he undertook secret dealings with ISIS and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) for the Syrian regime’s benefit.

The two Syrian businessmen (Katerji and Foz) are considered two of the major figures of the group that emerged after 2011, but Foz is still the more prominent and more mysterious, from his formation of armed groups to fight alongside regime forces, one in Latakia called the Military Security Shield, to an assault where he once struck a Lebanese woman known as Qamr, who was in a relationship with his brother Amar, after she revealed her was dealing drugs. He has even been dogged by the murder case of Egyptian-Ukrainian businessman Ramzi Matta in Turkey since 2013, with its final ruling to be issued in August.

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Hold on, there is more.

How do you kill a man in Turkey and get out of prison? Do business with both Islamic State jihadists and the Kurds? Assist Iranian projects in the heart of Damascus, and get defended by pro-Saudi media figures? Openly help the Assad regime evade international sanctions, without those sanctions touching you in turn? Be the man of both Iran and Russia, and the face of either Bashar or Maher al-Assad, or both? Replace the sanctioned businessman and regime crony Muhammad Hamsho, take over the assets of fellow oligarchs Imad Ghreiwati and Imad Hamisho, buy out Walid bin Talal’s majority stake in the Damascus Four Seasons hotel, and monopolize industries from sugar to steel to television dramas?

Answer: you have to be Samer Foz, the 45-year-old tycoon from Latakia who has emerged from obscurity during Syria’s war to become one of the country’s richest businessmen.

There may appear to be simple explanations for the very rapid rise of what has been called Foz’s business “empire,” but these often conceal as much as they explain. His public visibility—atypical for a businessman in Syria—and the conspicuous support he enjoys from official regime media, which celebrated (for instance) his major role in the Damascus International Fair held in September: these suggest something beyond commerce.

In recent weeks, the Aman Damascus company, owned by the Aman Holding group headed by Foz, announced the start of its real estate project comprising seven residential towers within a development the regime calls “Marota City.” This project has become known as a starting point for what might be termed the Assad regime’s reconstruction philosophy, involving the takeover of plots of land and their distribution among investors in exchange for a portion of the returns, thus enabling the regime to create construction projects without direct funding. Even though this “philosophy” will not reconstruct anything in reality, other than redrawing the administrative maps of the major cities such as Damascus, it may nonetheless have other objectives in mind.

One cannot look at the widespread support for Samer Foz’s emergence, and his dominance over key economic sectors, merely in terms of sanctions avoidance or an economic façade. The role he’s played so far goes beyond that of the usual front-men for Bashar or his brother Maher, such as Muhammad Hamsho. Similarly, Foz has started overstepping the bounds permitted even the Assads’ most famous business crony, Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, with television channels and media websites owned by Foz continuously publicizing his meetings and airing marketing announcements for the projects of his Aman Holding company.

Foz owns, for example, the “Lana” (“For Us”) satellite channel, which violates some of the prohibitions imposed on official channels, such as by airing drama shows featuring actors banned from appearing on state channels, and by showing the “al-Arrab” (“The Godfather”) series directed by Hatem Ali. This is not a traditional strategy for the regime, though it may be justified by the need for shows focused on “restoring life” in regime areas, as an attempt to attract an audience wider than the exclusive followers of official channels or the “Sama” (“Sky”) satellite channel.

Foz is not an independent businessman. His case is like that of his friend Laith Hijo, the exclusive director of the production company he owns, and an old friend of Maher al-Assad’s. Foz, like Hijo, tries to give the impression of being his own man, no matter the clear untruth of this. The attempts to put Foz forward as an “independent, successful Sunni” entrepreneur fly in the face of his deep ties to the regime, but suggest there may be plans for him to play an even larger role than he yet has.

The world of economics aside, there’s a place for Foz in the world of politics too, indicated by his closeness to Russia, his warm relations with the United Arab Emirates, and his major investments in Turkey. These may make him a “Sunni” figure acceptable to the Gulf Arab states, who have lately begun tying their position on the Syrian regime solely to the latter’s relationship with Iran and its sectarian project in the region. In such a scenario, it may please the Gulf states to find a person close to them, representing a mid-point with respect to their political positions, which are sectarian in turn. Such a role could also encourage Syrian economic elites to return to play roles they’ve relinquished in recent years, taking advantage of nominal changes, such as—for example—Samer Foz becoming the prime minister of Syria.

Denise Simon