debkafile Exclusive: Al Maliki plans to negotiate deal for routing Iraqi oil through Syria in his three-day visit to Damascus

The Iraqi premier, Nouri al-Maliki, arrived in the Syrian capital Monday, Aug. 20 accompanied by his oil minister, Hussein Shahristani. The Syrian army and military intelligence provided the groundwork for the neighborly visit by keeping the border with Iraq sealed for the last two weeks. Bashar Assad approved this closure out of the blue after five years of giving Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda free rein to pump fighters, weapons, money and explosives for Iraqi insurgents across the border.
Now, Damascus has locked its border in both directions, also stemming the tide of Iraqi refugees seeking refuge from the violence after two million had made it across.
This change of policy, if Bashar Assad sticks to it, would affect his troubled relations with Washington and holds the potential for easing the current border tensions with Israel. Such developments would make it possible to resuscitate the old Tapline from Rass Tanoura in eastern Saudi Arabia via Jordan and Syria to terminate at the Mediterranean port of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
debkafile‘s Gulf sources report that the Americans and Saudis are keen on bringing the oil pipeline, disused since 1967, back to life, as a stratagem to partially offset Iran’s threat to block the Strait of Hormuz oil tanker route out of the Persian Gulf in the event of a flare-up of hostilities. The Saudis would like to see Tapline back in business and also carry southern Iraqi oil out to market.
Syria would profit – provided of course Assad is prepared to play ball with the US and Riyadh in a scheme that would interfere with Tehran’s objectives.
Iran wants to see Iraqi oil processed in Iranian refineries, not at Ras Tannura or, alternatively, dependent on the freedom of navigation through the Strait of Hormuz.
When Maliki visited Tehran last week, he signed a deal to send 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil from Basra to Iran’s refineries at Abadan. Accompanied as he is in Damascus by Iraq’s oil ministers, he is expected to sign a deal on oil with Syria too. But there are three flies in the ointment:
1. Syria receives most of its fuel from Iran at cut-rate prices and will think twice before jeopardizing this concession by antagonizing Tehran.
2. Maliki and his government do not have much say in the disposal of Iraq’s oil resources in the South. According to debkafile‘s military sources, the stages of production and export have been shared out among a number of rival armed Shiite militias. As a member of one of those militias, the Fadhallah party, oil minister Sharistani may have more clout than the prime minister.
3. Washington’s take on the oil contracts Maliki is signing is not known. US officials are waiting to see which way he goes, whether to bind himself to Tehran and Damascus in a coordinated anti-American gambit or rather initiate a separate Baghdad-Damascus ploy independent of Tehran.

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