Oil tanker at sea
Oil tanker at sea Photo by AP
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The Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has received substantial imports of Iraqi crude oil from an Egyptian port in the last nine months, part of an under-the-radar trade that has kept his military running despite Western sanctions.

About 8 million barrels of crude oil made their way from Egypt's Sidi Kerir port, shipping and payments documents show, at least half of which was Iraqi crude.

Assad's government has been blacklisted by Western powers for its role in the two-and-a-half year civil war, forcing Damascus to rely on strategic ally Iran - itself the target of Western sanctions over its nuclear program - as its main supplier of crude oil.

A Reuters examination based on previously undisclosed commercial documents about Syrian oil purchases shows however that Iran is no longer acting alone. Dozens of shipping and payment documents viewed by Reuters show that millions of barrels of crude delivered to Assad's government on Iranian ships has actually come from Iraq, through Lebanese and Egyptian trading companies.

The trade, which is denied by the firms involved, has proven lucrative, with companies demanding a steep premium over the normal cost of oil in return for bearing the risk of shipping it to Syria. It also highlights a previously undisclosed role of Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon in Assad's supply chain, despite those countries' own restrictions on assisting his government.

Both the Syrian national oil company that received the oil, Sytrol, and the Iranian shipping operator that delivered it, the National Iranian Tanker Co (NITC), are on U.S. and EU sanctions lists barring them from doing business with U.S. or European firms, cutting them off from the U.S. and EU financial systems and freezing their assets.

Although firms outside the United States and EU are not subject to their sanctions, companies that do business with firms on sanctions lists risk themselves being blacklisted: Washington and Brussels regularly add companies and individuals from third countries to their sanctions lists if they are found to deal with companies already listed.

At least four firms from third countries that were added to the U.S. Treasury's sanctions list for Iran when it was last updated on Dec. 12 were punished specifically "for providing material support to NITC", the Treasury said.

"We have been very focused on targeting Iranian attempts to aid the Assad regime through economic as well as military means," said a Treasury Department spokesman. He declined to comment on the specific activities described in the documents reviewed by Reuters but said companies and individuals had been added to the sanctions list for similar types of activity.

The cache of documents describing the trade between March and May this year was shown to Reuters by a source on condition of anonymity. Many details were corroborated by a separate Middle Eastern shipping source with long-standing ties to the Syrian maritime industry. Publicly available satellite tanker tracking data, provided by Thomson Reuters, parent company of Reuters, was used to confirm the movements of ships.

The documents refer to at least four shipments by four tankers named Camellia, Daisy, Lantana and Clove, each of which is operated by Iran's NITC and, say the documents, carried Iraqi oil from Egypt's Mediterranean port of Sidi Kerir to Syria.

According to the documents, Beirut-based trading firm Overseas Petroleum Trading (OPT) invoiced Syria for arranging at least two of the shipments and was involved in a third, while a Cairo-based firm, Tri-Ocean Energy, was responsible for loading Iraqi oil into at least one.

Both OPT and Tri-Ocean denied any involvement in the Syria trade, declining to offer an alternative explanation for what the documents and ship tracking data show.

An EU country government source said Tri-Ocean is already under scrutiny by the United States for suspected violations of sanctions against Iran, giving no further details. The U.S. Treasury spokesman declined to comment on specific investigations.

Iran's NITC declined to comment.

There was no evidence that the Iraqi or Egyptian governments were involved in shipping Iraqi oil through Egypt's port, as crude can change hands after first being exported.

Iraq has been criticized in the past by Western countries for allowing deliveries of supplies and weapons from Iran to Syria to pass through its airspace. Iraq's oil ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Iraqi government controls exports of crude from the country and has tried to restrict traders from re-selling its oil.

A representative of the Arab Petroleum Pipeline Company, which is known as SUMED and owns and operates Egypt's Mediterranean port of Sidi Kerir where the oil tankers loaded, had no comment. SUMED is half owned by the Egyptian state oil company EGPC and half by a group of four other Arab countries.

Tarek El-Molla, the chairman of EGPC, said that Egypt had banned state companies from dealing with Iranian oil and shipping firms, and that he was unaware of shipments to Syria.

El-Molla said a tanker flying the Iranian flag would not be able to berth at Sidi Kerir. The four NITC-operated tankers involved in the shipments have all been renamed within the past few years and were flying Tanzanian flags at the time they loaded in Egypt, a tactic Reuters has previously reported has been used by Iran to mitigate the impact of sanctions on its shipping since sanctions against Tehran were tightened in 2011.