At a moment the Persian Gulf is heating up given the highest tensions and exchange of threats in years between the US and Iran, Tehran is running the high risk gambit of restarting its crude transfers to Syria.
A new CNBC report finds, "Tanker-tracking firms believe Iran is once again shipping crude oil to Syria, resuming the illicit trade as tensions with Washington rise and the Islamic Republic faces increasing international isolation." Specifically a one million barrel delivery was reportedly made through the Syrian port of Baniyas in early May, the first since the end of 2018, according to TankerTrackers.com and ClipperData.
Washington has in recent months ramped up targeted sanctions against Syrian oil imports, causing the worse fuel crisis in Syria's modern history, resulting in a "lifeless" and "decimated economy" with cars lined up for miles, sometimes waiting for days for a simple gas fill-up, as one Bloomberg on the ground report recently described.
Ironically even after seven years of massive bloodshed, as the government has emerged victorious, it is only now with relative stability and ensuing calm over most of the country that an "economic siege" has hit the population with full force.
Damascus even during some of the worst years of war was always a bustling traffic-packed economic center for its six million inhabitants, but as we noted previously the country has been plunged into a fuel crisis that is the result of new US-led oil sanctions targeting Damascus and Tehran. As one recent WSJ report put it, Iranian oil deliveries to Syria have "fallen off a cliff" since January.
Given that Iran said Wednesday it now plans to stop compliance with key parts of the 2015 nuclear deal, citing that it's running out of patience with European signatories of the JCPOA as its economy faces decimation by US sanctions, its close ally Syria will be a remaining key offload point for Iranian crude, along with Iran's neighbor Iraq, as Tehran has also stated its intent to flout US sanctions.
EXCLUSIVE: We spotted the first delivery of Iranian crude oil into #Syria since January 1st of this year. A million barrels arrived on May 5th. More details here. In good company of @genscape and @ClipperData #OOTT Story by @CNBC https://t.co/Wbd7JxbT5Q— TankerTrackers.com ⚓️🛢 (@TankerTrackers) May 9, 2019
Washington has recently vowed to cut off both Iranian exports and any and all Syrian imports of crude by force. "Analysts have widely predicted that Iran will step up efforts to smuggle oil into Syria and neighboring Iraq as the U.S. makes it more difficult for Tehran to ship oil to its few remaining customers, including China, India and Turkey," the CNBC report found.
It appears Iran's latest Syria crude delivery was accomplished by "ghosting" - which involves tankers switching off their transponders.
Describing the Iranian oil tanker Masal, the vessel's trackers found that after departing Turkey:
However, the tanker eventually went offline, switching off its transponder near the Syrian shoreline. According to TankerTrackers and ClipperData, the Masal didn't come back online until May 7, at which point it had unloaded its cargo near the port of Baniyas where Syria's largest refinery is located. It then began making its way back to Iran.
Regional reports have noted that in recent days the fuel crisis in Syria has found some relief due to the covert Iranian shipment arriving last week.
Meanwhile, the WSJ reported previously that Iranian oil had been routinely delivered to Syria throughout most of the war, but now "U.S. sanctions have cut off Iranian oil shipments to Syria, taking an unprecedented toll on a flow of crude that had persisted in the face of long-term international restrictions and helped sustain the Assad regime through years of civil war."
The White House still fundamentally prioritizes weakening Syria as crucial in its ultimate goal of regime change in Tehran. In this sense, the "long war" for Syria could merely be in its middle phase, with the waters in both the East Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf heating up.