News / Middle East

    Assad's Secret Oil Lifeline: Iraqi Crude From Egypt

    Reuters
    The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad has received substantial imports of Iraqi crude oil from an Egyptian port in the last nine months, shipping and payments documents show, part of an under-the-radar trade that has kept his military running despite Western sanctions.

    Assad's government has been blacklisted by Western powers for its role in the two-and-a-half year civil war, forcing Damascus to rely on strategic ally Iran - itself the target of Western sanctions over its nuclear program - as its main supplier of crude oil.

    A Reuters examination based on previously undisclosed commercial documents about Syrian oil purchases shows however that Iran is no longer acting alone. Dozens of shipping and payment documents viewed by Reuters show that millions of barrels of crude delivered to Assad's government on Iranian ships has actually come from Iraq, through Lebanese and Egyptian trading companies.

    The trade, which is denied by the firms involved, has proven lucrative, with companies demanding a steep premium over the normal cost of oil in return for bearing the risk of shipping it to Syria. It also highlights a previously undisclosed role of Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon in Assad's supply chain, despite those countries' own restrictions on assisting his government.

    Both the Syrian national oil company that received the oil, Sytrol, and the Iranian shipping operator that delivered it, the National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC), are on U.S. and EU sanctions lists barring them from doing business with U.S. or European firms, cutting them off from the U.S. and EU financial systems and freezing their assets.

    Although firms outside the United States and EU are not subject to their sanctions, companies that do business with firms on sanctions lists risk themselves being blacklisted: Washington and Brussels regularly add companies and individuals from third countries to their sanctions lists if they are found to deal with companies already listed.

    At least four firms from third countries that were added to the U.S. Treasury's sanctions list for Iran when it was last updated on Dec. 12 were punished specifically “for providing material support to NITC”, the Treasury said.

    “We have been very focused on targeting Iranian attempts to aid the Assad regime through economic as well as military means,” said a Treasury Department spokesman. He declined to comment on the specific activities described in the documents reviewed by Reuters but said companies and individuals had been added to the sanctions list for similar types of activity.

    The cache of documents describing the trade between March and May this year was shown to Reuters by a source on condition of anonymity. Many details were corroborated by a separate Middle Eastern shipping source with long-standing ties to the Syrian maritime industry. Publicly available satellite tanker tracking data, provided by Thomson Reuters, parent company of Reuters, was used to confirm the movements of ships.

    The documents refer to at least four shipments by four tankers named Camellia, Daisy, Lantana and Clove, each of which is operated by Iran's NITC and, say the documents, carried Iraqi oil from Egypt's Mediterranean port of Sidi Kerir to Syria.

    According to the documents, Beirut-based trading firm Overseas Petroleum Trading (OPT) invoiced Syria for arranging at least two of the shipments and was involved in a third, while a Cairo-based firm, Tri-Ocean Energy, was responsible for loading Iraqi oil into at least one.

    Both OPT and Tri-Ocean denied any involvement in the Syria trade, declining to offer an alternative explanation for what the documents and ship tracking data show.

    An EU country government source said Tri-Ocean is already under scrutiny by the United States for suspected violations of sanctions against Iran, giving no further details. The U.S. Treasury spokesman declined to comment on specific investigations.

    Iran's NITC declined to comment.

    There was no evidence that the Iraqi or Egyptian governments were involved in shipping Iraqi oil through Egypt's port, as crude can change hands after first being exported.

    Iraq has been criticized in the past by Western countries for allowing deliveries of supplies and weapons from Iran to Syria to pass through its airspace. Iraq's oil ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Iraqi government controls exports of crude from the country and has tried to restrict traders from re-selling its oil.

    A representative of the Arab Petroleum Pipeline Company, which is known as SUMED and owns and operates Egypt's Mediterranean port of Sidi Kerir where the oil tankers loaded, had no comment. SUMED is half owned by the Egyptian state oil company EGPC and half by a group of four other Arab countries.

    Tarek El-Molla, the chairman of EGPC, said that Egypt had banned state companies from dealing with Iranian oil and shipping firms, and that he was unaware of shipments to Syria.

    El-Molla said a tanker flying the Iranian flag would not be able to berth at Sidi Kerir. The four NITC-operated tankers involved in the shipments have all been renamed within the past few years and were flying Tanzanian flags at the time they loaded in Egypt, a tactic Reuters has previously reported has been used by Iran to mitigate the impact of sanctions on its shipping since sanctions against Tehran were tightened in 2011.

    Assad's Beirut oil dealer

    Syria imported up to 17 million barrels of crude oil between February and October, of which roughly half came directly from Iran and half from Egypt's Sidi Kerir port, according to the Middle Eastern shipping source. The cache of documents reveals that at least half of the oil from Egypt's port was Iraqi crude.

    Lebanese oil trading firm OPT arranged the shipments with Syria's internationally blacklisted state-owned oil company, Sytrol, operator of the one functioning refinery still under Assad's control. The documents show the firm invoicing Sytrol for almost $250 million for two deliveries of Iraqi crude it had arranged in March and May to Syria's Banias refinery.

    In a letter to Sytrol's marketing manager dated April 4 of this year, OPT asked for a payment advance of around $50 million and detailed previous deals with the Syrian state oil company.

    “Our company (OPT) has and continues to secure the state's needs in oil and oil derivatives in the recent period and was able to secure this despite major difficulties and challenges,” said the letter from an OPT official, Abdelhamid Khamis Abdullah, whose name appears frequently in the correspondence. It was not possible to ascertain his exact role at the company.

    The letter states OPT had already provided Sytrol with almost 5 million barrels of crude, diesel, and cooking fuel. The price for each barrel of Iraq's Basra Light crude in the invoices is between $15 and $17 above the official Iraqi price at that time, equivalent to an extra $15 million for each tanker.

    OPT denied being involved in selling oil to Syria.

    “We dispute all what you mentioned in your below emails,” an OPT employee said in an email, without providing a name. The company offered no alternative explanation for the documents.

    Egyptian oil firm Tri-Ocean Energy, which has brokered deals for OPT in the past, loaded at least one cargo of Iraqi crude onto an Iranian tanker that was delivered into Syria by OPT at the end of May, according to the documents, which say the oil was delivered to Syria on the Iranian tanker Clove on May 26.

    Tri-Ocean's senior trading director Ali Tolba denied in an email that his company supplied Syria with crude or had loaded Iraqi oil onto Iranian tankers. He and Tri-Ocean's CEO, Mohammed el-Ansary, did not respond to a request from Reuters to review the documents seen by Reuters. Syria's Sytrol did not respond.

    The militia money men

    Sytrol has used a blacklisted businessman close to Assad as intermediary to transfer money to OPT, according to the documents. In a letter from OPT to Sytrol on March 14 of this year, OPT requested payment through Ayman Jaber.

    Jaber, who runs a company called Al Jazerra, is himself on U.S. and EU sanctions lists, which means firms or individuals doing business with him can themselves be added to the lists. When it listed Jaber a year ago, the U.S. Treasury accused him of coordinating state-sponsored pro-Assad militia groups known as Shabiha in the port of Latakia.

    “Please could you pay the value of approximately $130 million plus 1.8 percent transfer fee into the account of Mr. Ayman Jaber, the head of Al Jazerra, at the central bank so he can transfer it into our accounts abroad,” OPT wrote. In another letter three weeks later, OPT confirmed receipt of around 375 million euros from Al Jazerra, transferred from the account of Ayman Jaber.

    At least two other firms mentioned in the documents had names and logos similar to companies based in the EU, which would be directly subject to European sanctions forbidding them to deal with Sytrol or NITC. In both cases, European head offices denied any relationship with Syrian offices using their names.

    Some of the documents confirming the arrival of the oil in Syria were stamped or signed by a shipping agency called Med Control Syria. Jhony Matnious, a manager at the company in Damascus, told Reuters by email that the crude imports were Iranian through a government agreement between Damascus and Tehran.

    Med Control has a head office in Greece, which lists Syria as a branch office on its website with the same address, logo, phone number and email as in the documents. A manager there denied any relationship with the Syria office: “We had an agency agreement in Syria but it was never active and we never had any business in that country,” said Sam Papanikolas.

    Documents showed some shipments were certified by a quality control firm called Inspectorate, owned by Paris-based firm Bureau Veritas. A Bureau Veritas spokeswoman in Paris said Inspectorate had previously employed a subcontractor in Syria but had stopped since October 2011, and any certificates this year would have been issued without the firm's knowledge.

    After leaving Iraq, the crude oil was delivered to Sidi Kerir on the 200 mile (320 km) SUMED pipeline, which runs from the Red Sea to the port west of Alexandria, where it was loaded onto Iranian ships.

    According to Reuters AIS Live ship tracking data, which monitors the location of oil tankers via satellite, the four ships each sailed north towards Syria. Each ship switched off its satellite signals just before the delivery date in Syria, then reappeared on satellite tracking shortly after. In some cases the satellite data also contains information about cargo weight, which confirms that the cargo was unloaded while the ships' signals were shut off.

    “Aiming to cut off a regime from oil supplies is very very difficult,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group consultancy in London. “Especially as the regime still has a few allies.”

    You May Like

    Escalation of Media Crackdown in Turkey Heightens Concerns

    Critics see 'a new dark age' as arrests of journalists, closures of media outlets by Erdogan government mount

    Russia Boasts of Troop Buildup on Flank, Draws Flak

    Russian military moves counter to efforts to de-escalate tensions, State Department says

    Video Iraqis Primed to March on Mosul, Foreign Minister Says

    Iraqi FM Ibrahim al-Jaafari tells VOA the campaign will meet optimistic expectations, even though US officials remain cautious

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Processi
    X
    Katherine Gypson
    July 27, 2016 6:21 PM
    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video A Life of Fighting Back: Hillary Clinton Shatters Glass Ceiling

    Hillary Clinton made history Thursday, overcoming personal and political setbacks to become the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major U.S. political party. If she wins in November, she will go from “first lady” to U.S. Senator from New York, to Secretary of State, to “Madam President.” Polls show Clinton is both beloved and despised. White House Correspondent Cindy Saine takes a look at the life of the woman both supporters and detractors agree is a fighter for the ages.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video First Time Delegate’s First Day Frustrations

    With thousands of people filling the streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, VOA’s Kane Farabaugh narrowed in on one delegate as she made her first trip to a national party convention. It was a day that was anything but routine for this United States military veteran.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora