The impounding last week off the coast of Gibraltar by British marines of an Iranian tanker loaded with oil destined for war-wracked Syria may force Damascus to turn to Russia to help alleviate its acute fuel shortages, say analysts and diplomats.
That in turn, they say, will make Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even more dependent on Moscow and less able to withstand Russian demands. The Kremlin has sought to wield the main influence over Syria and reap geo-strategic and business benefits from its military intervention in the eight-year Syrian war and its propping up of the Assad government.
The seizure of the tanker Grace 1 has emphasized the risks of shipping oil from Iran to Syria, adding to the Assad’s government’s growing fuel crisis as it tries to escape a sanctions noose which has become even tighter as result of the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on its ally Iran.
Britain said Saturday it will only release the Grace 1, if Tehran promises the vessel will not then proceed to Syria.
The price of gas in Syria has tripled this year and rationing was imposed by the Assad government in April. Most Syrians are restricted to purchasing a meager 20 liters each week. Syria’s fuel crisis has worsened sharply the past year when Iran stopped selling oil to its ally at heavily discounted prices, demanding instead full market price from the cash-strapped Assad government.
Attacks on oil pipelines off Syria’s coast are adding to Assad’s oil challenge even when Iranian crude oil is delivered.
On June 22, explosive devices damaged pipelines used to transport crude oil from tankers to the Baniyas refinery, in the western Syrian province of Tartus, causing an oil spill, the official Syrian news agency Sana reported. The sabotage was “qualitative and professional”, the deputy head of the Syrian Company for Oil Transport told a local radio station, claiming that a foreign state coordinated with the perpetrators to send a message to Damascus.
Before the civil war, Syria produced around 385,000 barrels of oil a day; its output is now down to just a tenth of that with most of the territory where its energy reserves are located under the control of either the Kurds or rebel groups. According to Syria’s Al Watan newspaper, Syrian production can only cover 24% of the needs of the 62% of the country under the control of the Assad government.
“Without Iranian oil, the Syrians will have to appeal to Russia,” said a European diplomat.
Iranian officials say the oil being carried by Grace 1 was not meant for President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and they have warned Britain that if the vessel is not released, there will be serious consequences. “This is a dangerous game,” says an Iranian foreign ministry official.
The British say they impounded Grace 1 because it was believed to be heading to a refinery owned by the Assad government and therefore subject to European Union sanctions on Syria. The super-carrier was loaded with oil at Iran’s Kharg Island terminal in mid-April and took the long route to the Mediterranean around the southern tip of Africa, eschewing the much shorter journey via the Suez Canal, where Egyptian authorities have been holding up vessels thought to be carrying oil for Syria.
The Iranians argue the British authorities in Gibraltar were acting at the request of the U.S., which reimposed economic sanctions on Tehran and is pushing Britain be more confrontational with Iran.
For the Assad government, whatever the motivation of the British, the problem of fuel shortages remains and is only getting worse, adding to a brewing political crisis in territory it controls.
“Much of Syria’s energy resources, and agriculture lie under the control of the [Kurdish] SDF and the U.S.-backed coalition, and oil sanctions, international interdictions, and attacks on Syrian underwater pipelines have threatened the shipments of Iranian oil that the Assad regime depends on,” notes Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
“Damascus was struck by a paralyzing fuel crisis in April, after a five-month period in which Iran had been unable to ship any oil to Syria,” he said.
The acute fuel shortage is adding to “plentiful signs of future instability,” says Lister. “Syria is no longer in open civil war, but the country’s political crisis is intensifying. The root causes that gave way to the uprising in 2011 remain in place—most are now even worse,” he adds.
Washington has moved in recent months to disrupt Syria’s ability to import oil, issuing advisories to shippers in November 2018 and March 2019 highlighting the “significant U.S. sanctions risks for parties involved in petroleum shipments to Syria.” And it has sanctioned Iranian figures and two Lebanon companies for facilitating Iranian oil shipments to Syria.