Brian Ballard, viewed by some as the lobbyist closest to President Donald Trump, is working for an ally of Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
Ballard’s firm, Ballard Partners, disclosed on March 15 that it has taken on a Dubai-based trading company called ASM International General Trading LLC as a client. A Daily Beast analysis of open source materials—including website registration information, leaked offshore investment documents, and résumé sites—indicates that ASM International General Trading is affiliated with a member of Syria’s wealthy Foz business family, which reportedly has close links to the Assad regime.
Reached for comment, Ballard told The Daily Beast his firm will cut ties with the company if it has links to Assad.
“We’re going to do more due diligence,” Ballard said. “We’re not the CIA, but if it were to turn out that there was any connection at all, we would withdraw from our representation of the Dubai trading company.”
Ballard’s firm also represents an anti-Assad group, according to disclosure filings.
“We also represent a group of Syrian-American doctors and others who want a Syria free of Assad, which we fully support,” Ballard added. “We’ve lobbied for that and we’ve never lobbied anything but that, and never been asked to, out of fairness to the trading company.”
Representatives for the Foz family did not respond to requests for comment.
The revelation comes as the Trump administration has been turning up the heat on the Assad regime. Ballard’s lobbying firm disclosed its work for ASM almost exactly one month before Trump ordered a second round of airstrikes on regime targets. That move came in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill civilians in Douma, a rebel stronghold. For years, Syria has been racked by a bloody war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The violence has turned Assad into an international pariah.
Meanwhile, one of Assad’s allies appears to be working with one of Trump’s.
The Foz family has long had business interests throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. And the clan has drawn scrutiny for its relations with the Assad regime.
A 2013 Reuters investigation found that one of the Foz family’s companies, the Aman Group, brokered grain deals with a regime company, Hoboob. The story pointed to the Foz family as “members of Assad’s inner circle,” poised to profit off the war’s food shortages. And the Financial Times reported on March 14 of this year that Foz “has direct ties to the [Assad] inner circle.”
“Syrian opposition leaders say Mr. Foz has used Dubai as a business hub, allowing him to develop links with Iran, an ally of the Assad regime,” the FT reported. “But observers in Damascus say he is now moving closer to Moscow businessmen, as Russia steps up efforts to invest in Syria.”
In a rare interview with Arabisk London magazine, Samer Foz said his company “will not hesitate to participate in the reconstruction” of Syria as the war winds down and that “we do not care to participate for profit, but to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria, which deserves many of its sons.” When asked about his political aspirations, Samer Foz told the magazine, “I am an economist and have no interest in entering the world of politics.”
An article published Sept. 19, 2017, on the Syrian news site Albawaba highlights a business deal between Samer Foz and Assad’s government. According to the site, the government seized land in Damascus—“compensating owners very little”—to sell to private developers. Samer Foz’s Aman Group is putting up nearly $19 million for the project, according to the site. Discussing the same deal, Syria expert Joseph Daher noted that Samer Foz is “very close” to Assad’s regime.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal sold his share of the Damascus Four Seasons to Samer Foz.
Ballard’s lobbying disclosure forms link him indirectly to Samer Foz and directly to Samer Foz’s brother and business partner, Amer. Ballard lists as a client a company called ASM International General Trading LLC, a trading firm based in Dubai. Amer Foz is its general manager, according to several résumé sites as well as personal websites for Foz.
The two brothers’ business interests—ASM International General Trading, and Samer Foz’s Aman Group—are closely intertwined.
According to the Panama Papers—the cache of files stolen from the offshore Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca—Samer and Amer Foz are listed as shareholders of Alaman for Jets Limited, a private airline that plane spotters have documented at airports in Turkey, the U.K., and Italy. Photos of a plane registered to Alaman for Jets show the aircraft’s tail emblazoned with the name Foz.
Registration information provided by the research company DomainTools also shows that websites for both Samer’s Aman Group company and Amer’s ASM International General Trading were at one time registered to the same Dubai-based person, Marah Nader Bitar, using the same Yahoo email address.
The website Fozyatirim.com (“yatirim” is Turkish for investment) lists the same Dubai P.O. Box as the one Ballard listed for Amer Foz’s ASM International General Trading on its U.S. lobbying disclosure forms.
Résumés for Amer Foz posted on professional websites—including one linked to by an apparent personal website for Foz—describe him as having “extensive experience as the deputy general manager of ِAman Group,” the company owned by Samer Foz.
Brian Ballard, who lobbies for the Foz-linked company, has rapidly ascended in Washington. A recent Politico profile dubbed him “The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington” and reported that he is “closer to the president than perhaps any other lobbyist in town.” Ballard and managing partner Susie Wiles are both Trump campaign alums; he raised millions for Trump, while she helmed its successful Florida campaign. Ballard’s firm makes millions representing a host of foreign clients, including the governments of Turkey, Kosovo, Qatar, the Dominican Republic, and the Maldives.
Ballard’s firm also represents an organization called Citizens for a Safe and Secure America. According to its lobbying disclosure, the organization is pushing for democratic elections in Syria and an end to the civil war. It also seeks “to encourage the return of Syrian refugees and displaced persons to their homes.”
Rim Albezem, who works w ith the anti-Assad group, told The Daily Beast she’s been pleased with Ballard’s work.
“If they have represented companies from Dubai, and they did that not knowing that they are affiliated with the Assad regime, and they confirm that those companies are affiliated with the Assad regime, I’m sure they will terminate their affiliation,” she said.
Americans seeking to influence U.S. policy on behalf of foreign clients generally must register as foreign agents with the Justice Department, but the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) allows firms representing foreign companies to register under its less stringent rules. In this case, Ballard registered under the LDA rather than under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Lydia Dennett, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight who specializes in monitoring foreign lobbying, said she couldn’t say whether Ballard should have registered as a foreign agent for its work on behalf of ASM International General Trading but says in general the gray area between foreign companies and foreign governments is a problem for monitoring foreign influence efforts.
“Unfortunately we’ve seen this exemption be exploited, particularly if the entity footing the bills is a foreign company but the entity benefiting is actually a foreign government (as was the case for Michael Flynn),” Dennett told The Daily Beast in an email. “Too often this misunderstood exemption, combined with the Department’s poor enforcement of FARA and reliance on voluntary compliance, allows those representing bad actors to slip through the cracks.”
Former Rep. Robert Wexler, who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was active on Middle East issues, is one of the Ballard Partners lobbyists working for ASM. He traveled to Syria in 2004 to meet with President Assad after the Syrian government had denied previous visa requests—the result, he wrote in a 2009 memoir, of his criticism of an anti-Semitic speech delivered by Assad in 2001 and his sponsorship of sanctions against the Assad regime. The meeting was “fairly confrontational,” by his account. “I was vehemently opposed to the Assad regime, but I believed that part of my job included meeting with people I despised,” he wrote.
UPDATE: After publication of this story, Ballard Partners announced it will no longer represent ASM International General Trading LLC, which The Daily Beast showed has links to Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad.