A family business owned by Canadians, MHD Nazier Houranieh & Sons Co. calls itself a pioneer in the global metals trade.
European governments describe it more ominously: a supplier for Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Working from Damascus and Beirut, the company is accused of importing materials used to produce “chemical weapons delivery systems.”
According to the allegations, the firm purchases metals and alloys from foreign suppliers for the branch of Syria’s chemical warfare department that manufactures missiles.
It also allegedly attempted to procure the aeronautical-grade aluminum and steel that goes into Fateh-110s, Iranian ballistic missiles used by the Syrian regime and that Russia reportedly wants.
The allegations have landed the company and its owners, Chadi and Mohammad Houranieh, on European sanctions lists.
Their shipments have been seized in three countries, their assets have been frozen, and they are banned from travelling to Europe.
The Houraniehs are the only Canadian citizens sanctioned by the European Union, aside from a Hezbollah bomber from Vancouver who blew up a bus in Bulgaria.
But in interviews with Global News, Chadi Houranieh called the allegations “absurd.”
While he once did business with Syria, he said it was unrelated to weapons.
“I have nothing to do with any chemical program.”
Scientific Studies and Research Centre
Houranieh, 44, grew up in Mississauga, in a house near the Sheridan Mall. He went to Toronto Blue Jays games at what was then called SkyDome.
“I personally love it,” he said of Canada.
He wanted to stay, but after studying at the University of Miami, he returned to Damascus to help with the family business.
Founded in 1949, Houranieh & Sons imports sheeting, piping and other metal products it purchases from Canada, Europe and China. It calls itself one of the largest global metals traders.
“When you work in the metal industry, you’re literally involved with everybody,” Houanieh said. “So someone’s making a new factory, they need some sort of metal. Restaurants, their kitchens are always stainless steel. Decorations for homes and stuff like that. So it’s really nice.”
“You’re involved with a lot of people. I’ve always enjoyed it.”
The clients of Houranieh & Sons included the Syrian government and in particular, its Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC).
Despite its bland name, the SSRC was exposed in 2005 as a front for the development of chemical weapons, which Syria started producing after losing a 1973 war with Israel.
A Canadian Security Intelligence Service report obtained by Global News report said the SSRC was “responsible for developing and producing chemical and biological weapons.”
The Canada Border Services Agency reported that the SSRC was part of the Syrian defence ministry and reported directly to President Bashar al-Assad.
Houranieh insisted the SSRC was not just a military agency and had a hand in a wide array of civilian industries like agriculture and bread factories.
He acknowledged his company sold the SSRC small amounts of aluminum and steel. The biggest contract was no more than US$120,000, he said. But the products were all commercially available and he was not a significant supplier, he said.
“We’ve never dealt with anything that was illegal.”
He said he was never asked to acquire metals for weapons and would not have done so if he knew that was the intent.
“If I find out that anything I’m going to be a part of has anything to do with hurting or destroying other people, I don’t want a part of it,” he said.
Western countries, meanwhile, used sanctions to cut his regime off from the materials required to produce them, and France went after what it alleged was one of the SSRC’s suppliers.
But did it get the right one?
The 'Houranieh Group'
In February 2017, 53 tons of aluminum the Houraniehs had ordered from an Egyptian supplier were seized at the port of Beirut.
Houranieh said Lebanese intelligence called him in and said he had two options: go to jail or sign a statement promising not to import the metals to Syria.
The container was sent back to sea and later seized in Romania, according to the records.
France alleged the shipment was on its way to Institute 4000, the wing of the SSRC in charge of missile production.
“I really don’t know what to say about that,” Houranieh responded, insisting the cargo was not going to any government agency.
That September, Houranieh & Sons took steps to acquire 17,000 tonnes of aluminum and steel needed for Fateh-110 missiles and rocket engines, France further alleged.
Iran has been widely reported to be sending its Fateh-110s to Syria, Hezbollah and possibly Russia for use against Ukraine.
“I’m just shocked,” Houranieh responded.
He said that while “I’m sure there’s a lot of things I don’t know,” he was never asked to supply metals for Fateh-110 missiles.
The alleged incidents coincided with rising concerns about chemical attacks. On April 4, 2017, Assad’s forces fired rockets loaded with the nerve agent sarin into rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun, killing 90.
The U.S. responded by firing cruise missiles at the Syrian air base used to conduct the attack and sanctioning 271 SSRC staff.
In January 2018, France sanctioned Houranieh & Sons on the grounds it was using Paris bank accounts to help Assad’s chemical program.
According to the French allegations, the company was part of a trio of related firms owned by the Houraniehs and their cousin.
The so-called Houranieh Group “uses the proceeds of financial investments made in France to finance its contribution to the proliferation of chemical weapons,” France alleged.
Houranieh & Sons “supplies the SSRC with materials used in the manufacture of weapon delivery systems chemicals,” the French sanctions continue.
“Therefore, MHD Nazier Houranieh & Sons Co provides material support for the manufacture of chemical weapons and participates in preparations for the use of chemical weapons, thereby contributing to the persistent threat posed by the proliferation and use of chemical weapons.”
Houranieh had no idea his assets were frozen until a friend heard about it on the news. At first, he didn’t believe it, and then he received a letter from the French finance ministry.
“To tell you the truth, I was really shocked,” he said.
He said he was never warned he might be helping to arm Assad with chemical weapons. Instead, he maintained that he was just sanctioned and asked to prove his innocence.
“At no point was I told that ‘this is going for a ballistic program, this is going for a chemical program,'” he said.
“And I can’t even tell you, yes, it was. In my opinion, it wasn’t, but again I’m not an expert. I don’t know. Let’s say I’ll leave the door open to that.”
Houranieh said he would never knowingly take part in anything illegal or immoral, and what his customers did with the metals they purchased was not even his concern.
“If a client tells me what they want to use it for, we’ll gladly help. If he doesn’t say anything, I don’t ask anything, honestly,” he said.
Holding him responsible for the end-use of metals would be akin to blaming an auto dealer for selling a car used in a bombing, he said.
“Morally, it’s not my responsibility.”
No evidence was ever provided to back up the allegations, he said. He opened his books and brought in auditors, but they found nothing untoward, he said.
He wished the concerns had been handled differently.
“We all make mistakes in this world, so when someone makes a mistake, come point it out,” he said. “I’m not even saying I made a mistake, but let’s say that I did make a mistake, come point it out, show it to me, prove it to me.”
After they were sanctioned, the Houraniehs cut themselves off from the Syrian government, which accounted for about 10 per cent of their company’s business, he said.
“We got the message.”
But according to France, after the sanctions were imposed, “the Houranieh Group has continued its activities for the benefit of the Syrian regime and the SSRC.”
Mohammad Houranieh allegedly met with members of Institute 4000 “to find new ways of supply,” France alleged.
Since 2019, he has continued to have “exchanges” with an individual “known for his role as an intermediary of the SSRC in the supply of electrical and electronic equipment in Syria.”
Chadi Houranieh, meanwhile, “continues to maintain exchanges with Institute 2000 (the SSRC mechanical wing) and the SSRC acquisitions department,” the French alleged.
Not true, Houranieh insisted.
The Paris courts have agreed, finding the French government had not produced evidence the Houraniehs had carried on their relationship with the Assad regime after January 2018.
But the company remains listed in France, and last November, the sanctions were expanded to all of Europe.
The European Union sanctioned the company, as well as Houranieh and his brother individually, in response to the “continued threat posed by the proliferation and use of chemical weapons.”
The company “supplies the … SSRC with materials used to produce chemical weapons delivery systems,” the EU alleged.
The measures were a response to Russia’s poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Syria’s failure to respect the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The SSRC is on Canada’s sanctions list under its French name Centre D’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifiques. The Houraniehs are not, although the EU sanctions have likely made them pariahs to Canadian banks, which would not deal with them either because they have branches in Europe or simply to avoid the risk.
Global Affairs Canada declined to comment on the company but said its sanctions program prohibited importing, purchasing, acquiring or carrying “any goods related to chemical weapons from or in Syria.”
Canada “calls on Syria to fully declare its chemical weapons program and enter into compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention,” said spokesperson Jason Kung.
The EU said only that it “regularly reviews its restrictive measures with a view to ensuring that they continue to be fully grounded and contribute towards achieving their stated objectives.”
The French Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.
“There is not one piece of evidence that points the fingers at us, not me or my cousins,” Houranieh countered.
A Sanctions ‘Mad’ World
Whether aimed at Syria, Iran or Russia, sanctions have exploded.
Since President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Canada’s sanctions list has grown to 96 pages, with a steady flow of new announcements, often by the prime minister himself.
Governments see sanctions as a useful economic tool that can have an impact without resorting to armed conflict, said Jessica Davis, a former Canadian intelligence analyst and president of Insight Threat Intelligence.
Sanctions have “hard impacts” on their targets, like the denial of financial services, and “soft impacts,” notably that when a Google search brings up serious allegations, companies become pariahs, she said.
In the sanctions age, the idea that companies can do business with no thought to the possible consequences has become outdated, she said.
But she said sanctions can be misapplied and challenging them can be difficult and costly. “So there are plenty of concerns around the use of sanctions.”
Being the target of sanctions has left Houranieh struggling to keep afloat, he said. Clients back off as soon as they find out about the allegations of involvement in chemical weapons. They tell him they can’t work with terrorists or regime insiders.
Banks won’t deal with them. His kids hear about it from their friends. His closest friends are sympathetic but also wary about being associated with him.
“I honestly can’t believe how mad this world has gone,” he said.
His lawyers have appealed in France. He has not fought the EU sanctions. He called himself a victim of faulty intelligence and a government’s attempt to demonstrate it was taking action.
He was optimistic he would clear his name but said it was hard to take being labelled a supplier for a chemical weapons program.
“It’s just devastating, especially for a Canadian.”