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Syria is ready to court investors, but Europe wants to prevent that

Syrian businessman and lawmaker Mohammed Hamsho, second from left, attends a trade forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Sunday. (Emirates News Agency WAM/AP)

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 Monday 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 resulted in travel bans, asset freezes and an end of business activities in Europe. 

The types of penalties may not be new, but the logic is, and European diplomats said this week that they hope the sanctions will send a chilling effect through a business community that the Syrian government is now relying on to redevelop the country.

The targeted men are magnates. As investors and developers, they have business interests that 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 later, World Bank estimates suggest that a third of the country’s housing stock has been destroyed, leaving many refugees without homes to return to. 

“These business figures are making lucrative profits through their ties with the regime and are helping finance the regime in return,” one European diplomat said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to reporters. 

“The hope is that this will send a message to people who might consider getting involved in the future,” the diplomat added.

The sanctions come as Syria declares itself open for business. State media outlets regularly herald the arrival of foreign commercial delegations. Arab states of the Persian Gulf, which once backed 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 that cut relations in response to the repression of mass protests in 2011.

Three European diplomats, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, said colleagues traveling regularly between Syria and neighboring Lebanon had 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.

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Eight people and five entities on the new E.U. sanctions list have links to a flagship project that could form the blueprint for Syria’s ambitions to reconstruct. Marota City, built on the razed land of a southwest Damascus suburb known as Basateen al-Razi, has a cost of $170 million in 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 return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Areas slated for rezoning, both now and in 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 have now lost their homes. 

Senior Syrian officials have suggested that critics of the government should stay away. 

“We lost the best of our youth, infrastructure, but we did win a more healthy and harmonious society,” Assad said in a speech in August 2017 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 10 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. Under a law known as Decree 66, it became one of the first zones designated for redevelopment, and six years later, it’s the fledgling Marota City. YouTube videos show an artist’s impression of the lush trees and high-rises that will one day fill the area.

“In the next phase of the conflict, laws passed by [the] Syrian government are going to have a huge effect,” said Sara Kayyali, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “They’re laws being used to formalize the ways in which civilians’ rights have been abused through the war. These sanctions send the message that we are onto them.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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