Washington’s threats fall on deaf ears in Syria

It seems the Trump administration was going into very nitty-gritty details on Syria, determined to strangle the country into submission to achieve its objective.
Saturday 07/09/2019
People inspect a stall at the Damascus International Trade Fair, August 30. (AFP)
Business is business. People inspect a stall at the Damascus International Trade Fair, August 30. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The saga of the Iranian supertanker Adrian Darya I, sailing the eastern Mediterranean since July, has reportedly come to an end. As expected, it is off the Syrian coast preparing to unload parts, if not all, of its 2.1 million barrels of oil in Syria, in defiance of US and EU sanctions.

Syria’s tankers are sanctioned and so are its ports but, technically, private ships stationed in Syrian territorial waters are not, meaning that the Adrian Darya I will likely unload its goods onto four Syrian ships, which would transfer them to a refinery in Baniyas, south of the port city of Latakia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he knew this all along, claiming via Twitter that he had “reliable information” that the Iranian vessel was headed to Syria. The US Department of Treasury threatened to sanction anybody providing assistance to the Iranian ship, which would presumably include British authorities in Gibraltar who released the vessel in mid-August after six weeks of captivity once they were given written assurances from the Iranians that it was not headed to Syria.

Transferring Iranian oil to Syria has become exceptionally tricky since the United States renewed sanctions on Tehran last November. Previously, Iran sent approximately 1 million barrels of oil to Syria per month, all on credit.

Over the past ten months, however, the Iranians started demanding upfront cash payments, because of US sanctions that are biting hard on the Iranian economy. The Syrian government, also in dire economic conditions, has no money to make such hefty payments, relying on private sector businessmen to do the job on its behalf.

The oil aboard the Adrian Darya I is worth an estimated $130 million. Tanker Trackers, an online maritime monitoring website, stated that 17 million barrels of oil were sent to Syria from Iran from August 2018-July 2019, an average of 1.42 million barrels per month. So much for US sanctions, which neither Damascus nor Tehran — nor Moscow for that matter — seem to be taking seriously.

Coinciding with the vessel story was the Damascus International Trade Fair, which has snowballed into a low-key defiance of US sanctions. A much-publicised annual event that was suspended in 2011 and resumed in 2017, it is used by Syrian authorities to promote their “economic and political comeback” to the international community.

For two years, big companies from friendly countries, such as Russia, China, India, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, participated in the fair.

This year, however, the United States came out with a thundering statement days before the fair opened August 28, warning investors and businessmen from participating.

“We have received reports that some regional businessmen or chambers of commerce plan to participate in the Damascus International Trade Fair. We reiterate our warning that anyone doing business with the Assad regime or its associates are exposing themselves to the possibility of US sanctions,” the US Embassy in Syria warned in a statement posted on Twitter.

Fair organisers took a long hard breath, expecting an avalanche of last-minute cancellations. That did not happen, however, and two Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Oman and the United Arab Emirates — even took part in the event, in total disregard of the US threat.

Analysts were dumbfounded on what to make of the latest US threats. On one front, it seems the Trump administration was going into very nitty-gritty details on Syria, determined to strangle the country into submission to achieve its objective. At present, that is neither regime change nor decapitation but, rather, the clipping of Iranian influence in Syria.

Yet on another, the United States seems to be speaking loudly but taking no serious action. Everybody knew that the Adrian Darya I was headed for Syria, yet the Americans did nothing to prevent its docking or its release from the Strait of Gibraltar in August. US drones clearly spotted the Iranian oil entering Syria yet nothing was done to prevent it.

“I don’t think that the US was caught off guard,” said Russian Middle East expert Dmitriy Frolovskiy. “Washington was well aware of what was going to happen and just let it go.

“Despite the rhetoric, the White House has no intentions of putting Iran into the corner but rather hoping for the same North Korea-type of negotiations at the end and this is why I don’t see anything unusual in the issue of the Adrian Darya I.”

For now, the United States has sanctioned the Iranian vessel and its captain but that won’t deter Tehran from exporting its sanctioned oil to the sanctioned tankers of Syria.

Likewise, will the United States sanction UAE business figures, wrecking its relationship with a reliable Gulf ally, for the sake of fair participation in Syria?

Last year, the Americans warned the United Arab Emirates against reopening its embassy in Damascus, saying that no partner of the United States should take part in legitimising the government in Damascus.

However, the embassy opened in December as did those of Bahrain and Jordan, two other strong Arab allies of the United States.