Posted by: bmeverett | June 19, 2011

First Syria, then Iran

Two weeks ago, I offered a recommendation on how to confront the Iranian mullah terror state (Dealing with Iran, June 2) by transferring Iran’s right to export crude oil to a Government-in-Exile, thus allowing the US to shut off revenue until a new government takes power. The costs in terms of skyrocketing oil prices and hyperventilating Europeans would be high, but this approach would have at least a fighting chance of working – unlike our hapless Iran policies to date. We have a perfect opportunity to test my plan on a smaller scale by shutting off oil exports from Syria. Success would not only help to resolve the Syrian situation, but might have some positive spillover on the Iranian situation.

In this year of the Arab Spring, we watched in contentment as the Tunisians and Egyptians threw out corrupt regimes with little or no help from abroad. When Qaddafi started to falter in Libya, we figured that NATO could give him the final push by some selective bombing coupled with demands for his departure. The Libyan venture may yet succeed, but it is proving very costly and messy in the meantime. Syria is a harder nut to crack. Unlike Libya, Syria is a large country (population 21 million) with a serious military capability. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the ruling Assad family is not going anywhere. The Obama administration has demanded that Assad choose reform or isolation. According to the New York Times, 1,400 people have been killed in Syria by security forces with 10,000 detained and another 10,000 in exile. Looks to me as though Mr. Assad has made his choice.

In a June 18 editorial, The Times calls for Assad to go, but offers nothing more than the usual prescriptions for failure. First, The Times wants “an all-out campaign to pass a tough United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria and imposing sanctions.” Hasn’t The Times figured this out yet? Russia and China are not interested in solving problems that upset middle class westerners. These people are delighted with anything that makes the US look weak. UN resolutions require the US to offer Russia and China serious concessions in return for tepid support for luke-warm sanctions. No matter what we do, UN sanctions will never be more than a mild irritation to a bloodthirsty tyrant like Bashir Assad.

Second, The Times say hopefully that “There is talk in Washington about pushing the top consumers of Syrian oil — Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands — to stop buying it.” Despite years of experience, The Times does not seem to understand the fungible nature of the world oil market. Syria currently produces about 400 thousand barrels of oil per day (KBD), about 0.5% of total world supply of 87 million barrels per day (MBD). Syria consumes about 250 KBD leaving only about 150 KBD to be sold on the world market. New York Times editors please listen up: Even if every major oil importers foreswears Syrian oil, somebody will buy it. Maybe China. Maybe Pakistan. Maybe just some unscrupulous oil traders. There will be no way to check. A boycott is purely symbolic and will cost Damascus nothing.

On the other hand, prohibiting Syrian oil exports would be a problem for Assad. If oil sells for $100 per barrel and costs the Syrians $20 per barrel to produce, then 150 KBD would generate about $4½ billion per year in revenue for the Syrian government. That’s about a third of the Syrian government’s budget. The only way to deny this money to Assad is to: (1) recognize a Syrian Government in Exile (GIE), (2) ask a US court to find that Syrian oil is the rightful property of the GIE and not Assad, (3) declare that the US Navy will seize cargoes of Syrian oil on the high seas to be returned to their rightful owner and (4) warn that the US Navy will sink any oil tanker that refuses to be boarded and seized. The loss of Syrian oil supplies have a much smaller impact on world oil prices than shutting off Iranian supplies.

Like Iran, Syria faces serious bottlenecks in its oil export infrastructure. With a limited coastline along the Mediterranean, most Syrian oil exports move through their terminal at Baniyas with a smaller amount moving through Tartus and a tiny bit through Latakia. These ports could be monitored easily. Syrian could always truck a bit of oil out through Jordan or Turkey, but not very much and only at great expense.

Disrupting Syria’s oil export system would present some problems for neighboring states, such as Iraq, which wants to increase its exports through Syria to reduce dependence on the Persian Gulf route. Although these countries would undoubtedly complain about US action, they would also gain a real stake in getting rid of the Assads.

If the denial of oil exports doesn’t work, the US would have a second step readily at hand. Syrian has two oil refineries: one at Baniyas (133 KBD capacity) and one at Homs (107 KBD capacity). These two refineries could be easily crippled by air strikes or cruise missiles, thus shutting down the Syrian economy completely. No need for ground troops, no need to confront the Syrian military on the ground and only a minimal risk of US casualties.

After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Qaddafi panicked, gave up his weapons of mass destruction program, paid his court settlement son the Lockerbie bombing and hoped to survive. The Syrians moderated their behavior substantially. After a while, however, when it became clear that the US military was overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the American people had limited stomach for further military action, both governments breathed a sigh of relief and went back to their old habits of causing mischief. Syria, still closely allied with Iran, has essentially taken power in Lebanon, once a bastion of democracy and moderation in the Middle East. Assad’s sponsorship of Hezbollah remains a major impediment to stability in the region. If the US were to bring him down, other trouble-makers, perhaps even the Iranian mullahs, would start to get worried. That would be a positive development. If my plan for denying Syrian oil exports works, Iran should be the next target.

Shutting off oil exports from Syria and then Iran would have serious and messy consequences. If we stay on our current path, however, we will continue to send the following message. If you are militarily weak, like Libya, we will attack you. If you are militarily strong, like Syria and Iran, we will make lots of demands but leave you alone. If you have nuclear weapons, like Russia, China, North Korea or Pakistan, we will appease you. Get ready for a rough ride.



  1. Insightful suggestions..However, speaking in the matter of righteousness and what’s “fair” why is it that in America we only care about the middle east and oil rich countries. What about regions like Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leon? A capitalistic economy driving a financially broke nation does not have to address concerns of third world countries unless there is a substantial reason, I get that. However, this whole ideology of telling people how to run their business is only going to continue to cost billions of dollars to the US that could be spent elsewhere. Al-Assad is not affected by what US thinks. Men like him are more concerned with power and dignity than political chess war.
    Good post though 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. My real point here is that when the US declares a critical national interest, for example in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, we should do something effective and skip the rhetoric. Otherwise we make ourselves look foolish and weak without achieving any results. Either act or keep quiet.

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