Why is Lafarge being prosecuted for its work in Syria?

A view of a Lafarge Cement plant is seen in Paris, France on September 8, 2021.
6 min read
15 September, 2021
In-depth: French cement firm Lafarge stands accused of complicity in crimes against humanity, financing terrorism, and violating an EU embargo during its time operating a factory in northeast Syria until 2014.

Last week, France’s highest courts delivered a blow to French cement firm Lafarge, ruling that the company could be tried for complicity in crimes against humanity for payments made to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

The ruling overturned the decision of France’s lower courts, which in 2019 had determined that payments made by Lafarge to IS were not aimed at assisting the group in its criminal activities.

The French Court of Cassation said last week though that “one can be complicit in crimes against humanity even if one doesn't have the intention of being associated with the crimes committed."

Lafarge stands accused of complicity in crimes against humanity, financing terrorism, and violating an EU embargo during its time operating a cement factory in northeast Syria until 2014.

"France's highest courts delivered a blow to French cement firm Lafarge, ruling that the company could be tried for complicity in crimes against humanity for payments made to the Islamic State in Syria"

The company has admitted that their Syrian staff had made payments to armed groups in the area to facilitate operations and protect their staff, but said that they did not pay off any terrorists.

It is now up to French magistrates to reinvestigate and determine if the firm will be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

Bad timing?

To say that Lafarge’s timing was inopportune would be an understatement. Lafarge bought out its regional competitor, Egyptian Orascom Cement, for $12.8 billion in 2007 - one year before the 2008 global financial crisis.

Soon after buying Orascom Cement, Lafarge signed off on a $600 million joint-venture with a local Syrian company (MAS) to create the country’s first private cement factory in a far-out desert plot in Aleppo province.

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The joint-venture, in which Lafarge held 98.6% of shares, was the largest, non-oil related, foreign investment made in Syria ever. Reportedly, the value of the venture was equivalent to 10% of that year’s state budget.

The plant was built and production started in 2010. Less than a year later, Syria’s revolution broke out, and the seeds of one of the region’s bloodiest civil wars were planted.

Lafarge remained undeterred and was determined to keep the cement plant going, perhaps due to the already sizeable sum they had sunk into the project. Production at the factory was for local consumers, and in the first year of the revolution, was largely unaffected by the escalating conflict.

As fighting engulfed the country and opposition groups began to take control of northern Syria, Lafarge was soon forced to deal with local militias to ensure the safety of their staff and the smoothness of its operations.

Materials reached the factory by truck and the company’s customers had to pick up the cement directly from the production site - thus the safety of transport routes to and from the factory was key. The company has also been accused of dealing with IS-linked suppliers to maintain the flow of inputs for its products.

France - LaFarge investigation
It is now up to French magistrates to reinvestigate and determine if the firm will be prosecuted. [Getty]

The company began reaching out to local opposition groups to receive protection and to prevent them from targeting the cement factory. The man in charge of outreach to these groups was Jacob Wærness, a Norwegian former intelligence agent who the company appointed as the factory’s risk manager.

Among the local groups with which Lafarge negotiated protection was the Kurdish Self-Defense Units (YPG), which took control of parts of northeast Syria after Syrian regime forces abandoned it in 2012.

Wærness was arrested in France in 2018 under charges of financing terrorism for Lafarge. He had previously written a memoir about his time working in the factory, in which he detailed how the company “paid taxes” to IS and negotiated with the group, in addition to other al-Qaeda groups.

Though Lafarge denied knowledge of negotiations with IS, Wærness and the company’s then-security chief both claim they informed the company of the contact with the jihadist group.

"The plant was built and production started in 2010. Less than a year later, Syria's revolution broke out"

In total, the courts (and internal documents) claim that the company paid $15.3 million to opposition groups, including IS. Much of this money was funnelled through the company’s local partner, Firas Tlass, the son of the former Syrian minister of defence, who defected from the regime in mid-2012.

Lafarge gave Tlass and his company, MAS, some $6.44 million to, among other things, ensure the security of the company in Syria. According to a report in The Century Foundation by Syria analyst Aron Lund, Tlass would make high-level contacts with opposition groups and other local militias and pay them protection money - insulating Lafarge from having to pay them directly.

Despite its efforts to keep production running, Lafarge was forced to leave Syria in 2014 when IS seized control of its factories. Much of its international staff, including Wærness, had left prior to this for fears of their safety. Local staff also fled in advance of IS’s push northwards towards the factory.

A recent article by The Guardian also reveals that Wærness’s successor, Ahmad al-Jaloudi, was actually a Jordanian intelligence agent. Al-Jaloudi used his position as risk manager of the cement plant to collect intelligence on IS, and to attempt to rescue hostages of the IS.

A senior intelligence agent quoted by The Guardian said that the decision to keep the cement plant running in northern Syria “was bigger than Lafarge,” and that “the court case does not tell the full story.”

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Reconstruction comes with risks

As Syria’s civil war has ground to a virtual deadlock, the need for reconstruction has become more evident. Much of the country’s infrastructure, including its power grid, bridges and oil refineries, are in disrepair.

According to the UN, the country would require $117 billion to fully recover from its decade of civil war. Foreign investment will be key, as the cash-strapped state currently only allocates $66 million a year towards reconstruction. At that rate, Syria would need 1,700 years to fully rebuild.

Currently, the only foreign firms engaged in reconstruction in Syria are a handful of Russian and Iranian firms. Though companies from other countries have expressed interest in reconstruction, fear of falling under US sanctions prevent them from doing so.

Sanctions will likely not last forever, and amidst signs of a regional détente with the Assad regime, the prospect of reconstruction has become more tangible - and more tantalising.

However, Assad’s Syria is more feudal than ever. Its major economic sectors are divided up between a new class of oligopolists like the Katerji brothers and Samer Foz, whose economic fiefdoms have been carved out in blood.

"Assad's Syria is more feudal than ever. Its major economic sectors are divided up between a new class of oligopolists"

Foreign firms seeking to enter Syria’s market will most probably have to work with influential local partners to navigate Syria’s sizeable bureaucracy and cutthroat oligopoly. Firms will have to weigh their risk appetite when sizing up the Syrian market, as many of their local partners will likely have links to dubious actors, or bloody hands themselves.

It is rare for international multinationals to face consequences for misconduct in the developing world. In fact, France’s prosecution of Lafarge is the exception - certainly not the rule.

Coca-Cola has faced no legal consequences for allegedly funding death squads in Colombia, nor has Shell been prosecuted for allegedly being complicit in crimes against humanity in Nigeria in the 1990s.

The outcome of the French court case against Lafarge could be a warning to other multinationals looking to work in Syria that the cost of doing business can indeed be too high.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou