BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government is scrambling to deal with its worst fuel crisis since the war began in 2011, aggravated by U.S. sanctions targeting oil shipments to Damascus.
There was temporary relief when reserves or smuggled oil made their way to the market. Long lines outside gas stations slightly receded, as did public panic that had translated into widespread criticism of government policies.
But more dramatic measures are necessary for the government of President Bashar Assad, which needs to procure more than 75 percent of its fuel from outside sources.
Experts say Damascus either has to regain control of oil-fields in the east, currently controlled by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or replace oil supplies that used to come from Iran with new ones from Russia — at a political cost.
Government forces and their allies could make a quick move on the east if Washington goes ahead with talk of withdrawing its troops based there and working with the SDF. A U.S. withdrawal would also offer Turkey a chance to launch its own assault to push away the SDF, which it considers a threat, and extend its borders. There are signs, however, the U.S. may be reconsidering its plans.
Eventually, an offensive on the east is inevitable, said Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert at the University of Lyon.
“When Turkey (attacks) the Kurds, Assad’s forces will (re)take al-Omar oil field. After 3 months? 6 months? One year?”
For now, Syria needs oil. Domestic production this year reached 24,000 barrels a day — only around 20-25 percent of total needs — down from 350,000 barrels a day before the war. Government officials say they need $2.7 billion worth of subsidized fuel every year.
Iran, which offered vital military support to Assad, was the main provider. But Tehran is feeling the heat as the U.S. squeezes sanctions tighter.
The credit line Iran extended to Damascus since 2013 to supply oil has run dry and its oil shipments stopped late last year. This followed U.S. Treasury sanctions imposed in November on a network that spanned Syria, Iran and Russia and was responsible for shipping oil to the Syrian government. The Treasury also issued a global advisory warning of sanctions for illicit oil shipments, naming specific vessels and pressuring insurance companies. At least one tanker with Iranian oil headed to Syria remains docked outside the Suez Canal since December, according to TankerTrackers.com.
The Syrian pound dropped to one of its lowest values in years, going for 590 liras to the dollar on the black market compared to the official rate of 430 liras, and prices have skyrocketed.