The U.S. Department of the Treasury added 32 ships on Monday to its public list of vessels engaged in the illicit delivery of oil to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Treasury’s additions marked the third major action in six months against the networks of Iranian, Russian, and Syrian entities working to evade sanctions on oil imports.
The U.S. and EU made only intermittent efforts to enforce oil import sanctions during the first several years of the war in Syria. As a result, the Assad regime brought in billions of dollars’ worth of crude oil from Iran, which it could refine and then resell or use for military purposes.
Last September, the Trump administration moved to disrupt this trade by targeting a pair of oil procurement networks. The first network arranged imports from territory held by the Islamic State; the second arranged for imports by sea. Two months later, the administration exposed a network responsible both for illicit imports from Iran and for the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to terrorist organizations including Hamas and Hezbollah.
In addition, Treasury published a global advisory in November 2018 directed at the petroleum shipping industry, describing the methods employed by sanctions evaders and listing 35 vessels that delivered oil to Syria. This week, Treasury published a new advisory, including an updated watch list with names and hull numbers of an additional 32 ships.
The updated list includes the Iranian-flagged SINOPA and the Panamanian-flagged TOUR 2, the ships responsible for the largest deliveries of Iranian crude to Syria since Treasury issued its initial advisory, according to Tanker Trackers. These vessels notwithstanding, deliveries of Iranian crude are down sharply since Treasury issued its original advisory, contributing (along with an unusually cold winter) to severe fuel shortages in areas under Assad’s control.
Treasury’s new list also includes dozens of medium-sized and smaller vessels that usually carry refined petroleum products. Since Assad maintains control of Syria’s two major refineries, this suggests the regime no longer has sufficient crude to refine.
It is unclear how many medium-sized and smaller vessels are still able to evade sanctions. Using satellite imagery, Tanker Trackers determined that a refined products tanker reached the port of Baniyas on February 18, though its identity remains unknown. Also, data from the Marine Traffic database indicates that two ships on Treasury’s list, the DEVREZ and GITTA GAS, approached or entered Baniyas in mid-January.
Afterwards, the DEVREZ visited Iran’s major oil terminal at Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf, then headed back to the eastern Mediterranean. The ship’s transponder shows it spent the last eight days south of the Suez Canal, although ships involved in illicit commerce often cloak their true location. If the DEVREZ goes no further, it may indicate that Treasury’s warnings and sanctions are effective deterrents.
The Trump administration should build on its successful efforts to disrupt Syrian oil imports. Targets include the shipping registries that have certified the vessels involved in this illicit traffic. Treasury’s list includes vessels that fly the flags of Panama, Liberia, Russia, Tanzania, Thailand and a number of small island states. The U.S. should remind these states of their responsibility to uphold maritime law and monitor illicit activity.
David Adesnik is the 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.