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Syria Misrepresents Scale of Mediterranean Oil Spill

Syria Misrepresents Scale of Mediterranean Oil Spill
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Video production: Nik Yarst

Ghassan el-Zamel

Ghassan el-Zamel

Syrian Minister of Electricity

“What happened cannot be described as pollution, but the incident was noticeably hyped through social media.”


A large oil spill off Syria’s western shores has been spreading eastward across the Mediterranean Sea, edging close to Cyprus. The spill began on August 23, when a dilapidated oil container belonging to a power plant in the coastal city of Baniyas leaked though a crack in its walls.

The Syrian government immediately downplayed the problem, claiming everything was under control and a clean-up nearly complete.

The country’s electricity minister, Ghassan el-Zamel, told the Alwatan newspaper that the spill was under investigation and that a national disaster had been averted by a rapid response from power plant crews.

“What happened cannot be described as pollution, but the incident was noticeably hyped through social media,” he said.

But that is false.

Neighboring countries and global environmental groups are crying foul. While Syria claimed most of the spill was on its own shoreline, satellite photos showed it had spread afar.

Images from Orbital EOS, a Spanish Maritime Safety & Rescue Agency software platform, captured a huge floating pond of fuel heading into open seas, toward Cyprus.

The Syrian Directorate of Ports said cleaning efforts were being made by hand because advanced clean-up equipment and maintenance parts were unattainable as a result of the sanctions imposed on Syria.

The U.S. government designated Syria a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979. Since the uprising in Syria in 2011 and subsequent civil war, the U.S. has tightened economic sanctions on Syria to punish the regime’s aggression against civilians.

The Mediterranean Marine Initiative, an effort by the nonprofit World Wide Fund for Nature, issued a statement on September 1 expressing concern about the spill and its long-term impact.

“An 800 km2 oil spill is threatening the coastline of Cyprus and Turkey, with potentially devastating consequences for marine biodiversity and ecosystems,” the statement said.

That is an area approximately the same size as New York City, including all its boroughs.

Cypriot authorities monitored the oil slick as it initially headed toward Cyprus’ Turkish-controlled Apostlos Andreas Cape, 130 kilometers west of the Syrian coast. But a Cypriot official later said the slick had moved away from the divided island’s eastern shore.

On August 31, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told the state-run Anadolu Agency that the coast guard was monitoring the slick from the air, and there were hopes it could be contained in the open sea.

“We are taking the necessary measures by mobilizing every means available that we have without giving any chance to the spill to turn into an environmental disaster,” Oktay said.

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry said the oil slick is being carried northward by coastal streams and does not pose a risk to Israeli shorelines.

In February, blobs of sticky tar showed up on Israeli beaches, forcing them to close. Israel said later that an Iranian-owned ship had dumped crude oil nearby, describing it an act of “eco-terrorism.”

Syria marked 10 years of war this past March. A decade of conflict has left barely a town or a village unaffected. The U.N. estimates that the war in Syria has claimed 400,000 lives and displaced 12 million people, leaving them either internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.

According to a report by Syria Direct, an independent media organization for democracy and justice in Syria, the country “has witnessed the insidious impact of war on its natural environment.”

The report added that the widespread destruction in Syria has ravaged its environment and natural habitats. Wildfires have been raging across forests in coastal areas during summers. In the north, makeshift oil refineries have contaminated the soil and the water.

War and upheavals in some Mediterranean countries are adding to their human and environmental woes. In Libya, the destruction of infrastructure and years of negligence have led to a wide contamination of its coastal areas. In late August, Libyan officials shut down the country’s beaches because of the sewage and trash that have been piling up on its shores for years.