LONDON (Reuters) - The Syrian government is negotiating deals with firms in London, Singapore and the Middle East to sell crude oil in return for the fuel it needs to survive in the face of an increasingly bloody insurgency, documents seen by Reuters show.
Syria has been starved of diesel for its army and fuel to keep the economy running because U.S. and European Union sanctions have cut off its usual suppliers. As sanctions bite, income from crude oil sales becomes increasingly important.
Despite political support from China and Russia, which have repeatedly blocked U.N. sanctions on Syria and opposed military intervention to end the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad’s fuel and cash lifelines have all but dried up.
“The war is costing him about 1 billion euros a month and he has fewer and fewer resources. We estimate he only has a few months left without the support of Russia and Iran,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week.
Syria has been largely cut off from fuel supplies as sporadic diesel deliveries from Iran, its main regional ally, are meeting only a fraction of its needs and fresh deals with Russia have not yet been finalized, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Qadri Jamal said this week.
Commercial documents, correspondence, shipping records and other papers reviewed by Reuters show how the Syrian government is seeking and sometimes clinching fuel deals, which even if not huge are vital for the government’s survival.
Syria’s new business partners include firms domiciled in Britain, Egypt and Lebanon, all countries critical of Assad’s crackdown on the opposition.
In one instance, the papers show a Lebanese broker working on behalf of the Syrian government signed contracts in July and August with an Egyptian firm to trade crude oil and refined oil products and has already succeeded in making some deliveries.
While it is not illegal for firms in the Middle East and Asia to deal with the Syrian authorities, many refuse to do so for fear of being associated with a government whose forces have killed thousands of civilians.
“There is a moral threshold to pass for some of the larger actors (while) ... killing is ongoing. This is actually an important factor for the supermajors and many mid-size oil companies,” said Samuel Ciszuk, an analyst for KBC Energy Economics consultancy.
Syrian oil product imports virtually ground to halt after the national fuel distribution organization was blacklisted by the European Union in March, cutting off its usual EU suppliers including Greece’s Naftomar and Monaco’s Galaxy Group.
Critics say outside suppliers may be helping Assad cling to power because they are providing households with basic fuel needs and so preventing a wider humanitarian crisis.
“Assad will benefit if Syria’s energy needs are somewhat met, it does make him marginally more viable in the short term,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at Eurasia group.
Syria’s thirst for diesel extends beyond the needs of its army’s tanks. Industry and agriculture have been brought almost to a standstill because there is no fuel to power machinery.
One document shows an oil firm with a London billing address - Aurora Finans Limited - hired a vessel from energy company Mar-Link Offshore Services (MLOS) in July to ship 200,000 metric tons (220,462 tons) of diesel to government-controlled Syria.
The diesel was to be supplied from Malaysia’s state oil firm Petronas, which declined to comment on the deal.
MLOS, which has an office in Singapore, confirmed it had entered into a deal to sub-charter the vessel to Aurora Finans in mid-July but denied the fuel was for delivery to Syria.
“The agreement for vessel charter and purchase of fuel was initially agreed for deliveries to Thailand,” said MLOS director Michael Liburn in an email.
Liburn said the vessel was not authorized for trade outside Asia and that Aurora cancelled the contract in late July when MLOS declined to change the delivery port to Syria.
“We are quite happy to provide fuel to Syria as long as the port of delivery is safe and there are no international restrictions,” Liburn said via Skype last week.
Aurora Finans Limited was incorporated in 2008 by Companies House - the official British body that registers companies - and is up to date with its accounts.
Individuals related to the company are all based in Cyprus and occupy similar positions at other firms registered to the same address.
Requests to speak to Aurora’s agents in Malaysia and India, which MLOS said were its counterparties in the deal, went unanswered.
Plans to import liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) a fuel used widely in Syrian homes and businesses for cooking and heating were more successful.
At least three cargoes, each worth close to $10 million, have been delivered to Syria in recent weeks, with the latest shipment arriving in the port of Banias on Monday.
The shipments were brokered by a Lebanese oil firm called Overseas Petroleum Trading (OPT) on behalf of the Syrian oil ministry, according to commercial documents and correspondence reviewed by Reuters.
OPT in turn used a private Egyptian broker, Tri-Ocean Energy, to source the products needed and find oil tankers willing to go to Syria.
The documents make clear that Tri-Ocean Energy signed deals with OPT to help them buy and sell crude oil and refined oil products.
Tri-Ocean Energy denied it had agreements with OPT to trade crude, but confirmed it had agreed to supply OPT with two cargoes of LPG.
“We don’t have any information that this cargo has a destination of Syria or Banias,” said Ali Tolba, director of trading at Tri-Ocean Energy, adding delivery had been agreed for Lebanese ports.
Tri-Ocean Energy provided contact details for a man who they said worked for OPT and was their contact for the deal. However, when contacted by Reuters, he would not confirm any relation to OPT or answer questions about the deal, asking for Reuters to speak to him at a later date.
Of two emails sent to different addresses obtained for OPT, one went unanswered, while the second received the following response: “I don’t understand what you are talking about, so I can’t help you and I can’t reply anymore.”
Egyptian and Lebanese firms are not subject to EU or US sanctions, so they are free to enter into agreements with Syria.
The three LPG shipments were supplied and delivered by oil shipping firm Arab Maritime Petroleum Transport Company (AMPTC), according to documents reviewed by Reuters
The first shipment of around 10,000 metric tons of LPG product was loaded from storage in international waters in the Mediterranean and delivered to Banias in mid-July.
An AMPTC official, who declined to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the press, denied the firm had known the cargo was bound for Syria. He said the cargo had been sold to Tri-Ocean Energy, who assured them it was not going to Syria but to a Lebanese broker.
“We made sure that the cargo is not ending up with a Syrian entity. That is what they assured us. We don’t know whether it is allowed or not allowed (to send cargoes to Syria), but (we did this) in order to stay away from this trouble,” he said.
The cargo was sold for around $10.7 million, a premium of about 55 percent above prevailing regional prices.
The deliveries that followed also arrived aboard AMPTC-managed tankers. AMPTC is based in Kuwait and has an office in Cairo, while its largest shareholder is Saudi Arabia.
Its fleet is made up mostly of vessels it is chartering from a Greek shipping company called Benelux.
Depending on the terms of the charter, Benelux’s vessels could be subject to EU law and therefore sanctions.
“Under an ordinary time-charter ... the owner would be in the firing line” said Terry O‘Regan head of the London International Trade Team at Eversheds, a law firm. “On a bareboat basis (no crew or provisions provided), the owners have no control as the charterers pay monthly for the empty vessel.”
Benelux declined to comment because the terms of its agreement with AMPTC were confidential. A director at the firm said Benelux had not broken EU sanctions and Reuters has no evidence that Benelux was acting improperly.
A spokesman for the EU declined to comment in detail but said enforcement of sanctions was up to the ‘competent authority’ in each member state - in this case, the Greek government. A Greek government official said he was not aware of the case and declined to comment further.
The documents reveal the extent of the Syrian government’s efforts to overcome its growing isolation, having become more dependent than ever on foreign fuel deliveries because its energy infrastructure has been targeted by rebel attacks.
It has been many months since fuel last arrived from Russia, while Venezuela sent its last diesel cargo in May. Iran has supplied only a couple of cargoes this year.
Syria is not a major oil producer, but its output of around 200,000 barrels of oil per day - according to a Syrian official earlier this month - could generate millions of dollars even at a substantial discount to market prices of around $116 a barrel.
Syria’s oil and product exports were largely halted by international sanctions in September 2011. Even firms that are willing to do business in Syria face difficulties processing payments because the Syrian central bank is also blacklisted.
Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Sebastian Moffet, Shaimaa Fayed, Harry Papachristou; Editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov, Janet McBride and Giles Elgood