Hundreds of cars standing in long lines have become a regular feature at the filling stations of Damascus, symptoms of the “economic war” facing the Assad regime, the pro-government Al Watanreported on Wednesday, April 17. Government forces can lay their hands on no more than 24,000 barrels a day in regions recovered – well short of the 136,000 barrels the population needs. Imports have been slashed by the halt of the “Iranian credit line” which had served as Syria’s “fundamental support framework.”
The scarcity of fuel and its products will hit Syria with redoubled force when the Trump administration tightens its sanctions on Iranian oil exports on May 8 by cancelling the waivers granted to eight nations, chiefly China, India and Japan.
Damascus has already been warned of sanctions risks to parties involved in petroleum shipments to the Syrian government, including “deceptive shipping practices” used to deliver oil to Syria. The Trump administration aims “to isolate Syria’s leadership and its supporters form the global financial and trade systems” as punishment for the atrocities it perpetrated in the course of the eight-year war, especially its use of chemical weapons. The Assad regime has consistently denied this, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Al Watan lifted a corner off the dire fuel shortage reaching Damascus but did not reveal the whole picture. DEBKA Weekly reports that up until recent months, Syria could count on supplementary fuel supplies sent from Iran by tankers and unloaded at its Mediterranean ports. However, the last tanker reached a Syrian harbor in November 2018. Since then, every effort made by Iran and Syria to charter a tanker vessel for delivering oil to Syria has run into a blank wall, especially when not a single insurance firm was ready to guarantee the cargo. When, in early 2019, Syrian government agents asked private commercial importers to sign contracts to carry refined oil products to the embattled country, they were turned away over “logistic difficulties” that prevented ships reaching Syria.
DEBKA Weekly adds that the Trump administration is hitting Syria’s energy supplies with three further steps:
1. The Americans warned the Kurdish YPG militia, key element of the pro-US Syrian Defense Forces, which control Syria’s main oil and gas fields, not to allow a single barrel to be smuggled out to Damascus, since any tankers heading west would be attacked. The Conoco natural gas facility, the largest in Syria and the al Omar oil field, the largest and most lucrative field, are situated in eastern Syria under the control of pro-US forces and out of reach of the Assad regime.
2. US forces deployed in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, and in western Iraq on the other side of the Syrian border, were instructed to take action against Iranian oil tankers attempting to reach Syria via Iraq.
3. The Baghdad government was warned that any attempt to channel Iraqi oil to Syria would be deemed a breach of the sanctions the UN has imposed on the Syrian regime.
Still, Damascus and Tehran did manage to find a way to steal past the sanctions-locked doors and ease Syria’s fuel crisis. Lebanon, said Syrian sources, have begun sending Syria daily shipments of fuel, albeit as a temporary measure until a permanent solution is found. It is not clear who in Lebanon authorized the shipments to Syria, obviously some official allied with Hizballah.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday Iraq’s Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU or Hashd al-Sha’abi) were placed on high alert along the international highway linking Al Qaim in Iraq to Abu Kemal in Syria. DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the PMU, which defers to Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has posted its 17th and 18th divisions near the Ratabeh intersection in the western Anbar Governate near the Syrian border. While these movements are described officially as required to stem the escape of Islamic State terrorists defeated in eastern Syria across to Iraq, the US command in the region calculates that this is another attempt by Tehran to break the US fuel embargo on Syria by transferring oil tanker convoys through Iraq. If the PMU is only partly successful in keeping this route open, Tehran will congratulate itself on striking an effective blow against US oil sanctions ahead of the Trump administration’s tightening of the sanctions screw on May 8.