The Bashar al-Assad regime has proven unable to remedy pervasive fuel shortages, although the end of winter may ease demand. The shortages likely reflect the Trump administration’s decision to enforce sanctions more vigorously, even when taking into account that corruption within Syria distorts the market.
While winter fuel shortages have been a recurrent feature of the war, reporting suggests the current shortage is worse. Damascus residents are lining up before dawn to purchase the gas canisters they use for cooking and heating. The poor burn paper and plastic for warmth, while the black market provides increasingly expensive alternatives for those with income to spare. Even the members of Assad’s docile parliament have vented their anger at the government.
Last November, the U.S. Department of the Treasury exposed one of the regime’s illicit fuel procurement networks and issued a warning against further violations. Despite sanctions, deliveries of Iranian crude arrived regularly in Syrian ports through the fall of 2018.
Now, however, according to both Bloomberg and Tanker Trackers, there has been only a single delivery over the past three months. In late December, the Panamanian-flagged Tour 2 discharged just under one million barrels at the port of Baniyas. For most of 2018, by contrast, one or two shipments of that size arrived from Iran each month.
The deterrent effect of Washington’s renewed sanctions enforcement effort is most visible in the case of the Sea Shark, another Panamanian-flagged tanker that made several million-barrel deliveries to Syria in 2018. Tanker Trackers’ analysis of commercial satellite imagery confirms that the Sea Shark has remained at anchor south of the Suez Canal since November, with its Syria-bound cargo still on board.
The Assad regime has alleviated some of the sanctions pressure by importing oil from northeastern Syria, where U.S.-aligned Kurdish forces exercise effective control. While local sources have been reporting for over a year that Washington’s partners are trading with Assad, the Wall Street Journal confirmed last month that a Syrian company, the Qatirji Group, conducts the trade on Assad’s behalf. Last September, Treasury sanctioned the company and one of its owners, Muhammad Baraa al-Qatirji, for facilitating the oil trade between Assad and the Islamic State.
The U.S. should build on its success in the enforcement of crude oil sanctions by working to prevent the import of refined petroleum products, as well. Tanker Trackers reports that an unidentified tanker docked at Baniyas in mid-February to deliver refined products.
The U.S. should also work to end illicit shipments to Assad by its Kurdish partners in northeast Syria. Since Assad controls Syria’s major refineries, there is a strong incentive for Kurds in the northeast to sell him the crude oil they pump. If the U.S. helped Syrian Kurds expand their own refining capability, or brokered other deals on their behalf, it could deter this trade.
While the population living under Assad’s control now endures additional hardship because of sanctions, the leading cause of their suffering is the regime’s manipulation of billions of dollars of humanitarian assistance. In addition to directing aid toward favored groups, “the government siphons off large portions of the humanitarian funding to pay for the war effort and to line officials’ pockets,” according to the physician and scholar Annie Sparrow. Reforming the aid process should be another key focus of U.S. policy in Syria.
David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.