The Treasury Department announced on Thursday it had lifted sanctions on two Dubai-based corporations under the control of Samer Foz, whom it designated in 2019 for “directly supporting the murderous Assad regime.” The rationale for this reversal remains unclear, leaving open the question of whether the administration intended its action as a signal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its sponsors in Moscow and Tehran.
The names of Foz’s Dubai-based firms are ASM International General Trading Company and Silver Pine DMCC. At the time of their blacklisting in 2019, Treasury explained that “[a]lthough much of ASM International Trading’s overt trade is in foodstuff commodities such as grain and sugar, the company also operates in the fields of oilfield services, drilling products, and supplies to the oil and natural gas industry.” Treasury did not offer specifics on Silver Pine beyond noting that it “is an international trading company that operates out of the ASM International Trading offices.”
Both Foz himself as well as his brothers Amer and Husen, who hold top executive positions in ASM and Silver Pine, respectively, remain under sanctions, along with Aman Holdings, the vehicle through which Foz controls at least a dozen companies. The European Union has sanctioned Foz as well.
The delisting of ASM and Silver Pine garnered less attention than the removal of sanctions on three former Iranian officials “and two companies previously involved in the purchase, acquisition, sale, transport, or marketing of Iranian petrochemical products.” The State Department’s spokesman insisted this action reflected a purported change of behavior or status on the part of the delisted individuals and firms and had “no connection” to President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Neither State nor Treasury indicated whether a change of behavior accounted for the delisting of ASM and Silver Pine. Along with its initial designation of Foz in 2019, Treasury designated two Beirut-based firms, Synergy SAL Offshore and BS Company Offshore, which “facilitated shipments of Iranian-origin petroleum to Syria,” a violation of U.S. sanctions on both Syria and Iran. Both Synergy and BS Company remain blacklisted.
In late May, the State Department asserted that the Biden administration would continue to implement sanctions required by the Caesar Act, which “was passed by an overwhelming majority of the American Congress.” Yet the administration has not, so far, designated a single target under Caesar or related authorities, whereas the previous administration issued new designations every month after the law took effect in June 2020. By December, 113 individuals and entities faced Caesar-related sanctions.
The appearance of hesitation to hold the Assad regime accountable comes at an inopportune moment as Biden prepares for his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A major issue of contention there will be Putin’s readiness to employ starvation as a weapon against Syrian civilians who remain in areas outside the Assad regime’s control. Specifically, Putin may employ Russia’s veto to block the UN Security Council’s reauthorization of aid deliveries into northwest Syria directly from Turkey, a route that bypasses Damascus, thereby preventing Assad from blocking or diverting the shipments.
If the administration did lift sanctions on ASM and Silver Pine as an indicator of goodwill toward Assad, Moscow, or Tehran, that would be a mistake, since they have no record of reciprocating. Within the past week, Syrian shelling and Russian air raids killed even more civilians. Concessions at this point would likely communicate a lack of resolve on Washington’s part.
The administration should quickly clarify why it chose to delist two of Foz’s companies. If it alleges their conduct has changed, it should present evidence of that change, since Foz and his other companies remain leading contributors to the Assad regime’s finances. More broadly, the administration should clarify its still-undefined policy toward Syria and appoint a special envoy of a stature comparable to those who served under the previous administration.
David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, the Iran Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.