At least 17 shipments by eight different tankers have delivered more than 16 million barrels of Iranian oil to Syria over the past six months, according to publicly available data. The “ghost tankers” have docked at Syria’s Baniyas port south of Latakia violating U.S. sanctions imposed on both the Iranian petroleum industry and on Bashar Assad’s government.
After the U.S.’ departure from the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, then-President Donald Trump revived the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports. His successor, President Joe Biden, had considered removing the sanctions to smooth the way for rejoining the nuclear accords, but they remain in effect.
The oil and gas industry was a major source of revenue for Syria prior to its civil war that broke out in 2011. Over a decade of fighting reduced production by 95 percent forcing the Assad regime to rely almost entirely on Iranian tankers as a lifeline. However, the imports fall short of Syrian needs with Damascus and other major cities suffering frequent blackouts, which in turn have paralyzed its economy.
Attacks against these shipments have been reported over the past several years including Israeli drone strikes on the Iranian tankers outside the Baniyas port, and sabotage against the underwater pipelines transferring oil from the ships to the shore. The latter has led to oil spills and slowed the energy supply to Syria.
The tankers, most of which sail under the Iranian flag, are the Daran, Sam 121, Lotus, Arman 114, Shadi, Veronica, Sirvan Sabou and Ares. Daran is the smallest of the eight tankers, with a capacity of 316,308 barrels. The largest is Arman 114, which can carry over 2 million barrels.
According to ship tracking data and satellite images, between November 2022 and April 2023 the vessels have docked at Baniyas at least 17 times, delivering 16.4 million barrels. According to TankerTrackers.com, which tracks crude oil shipments in several geographical and geopolitical points of interest, there were 20 departures from Iran to Syria, amounting to 17.1 million barrels.
Due to the sanctions, Iran attempts to deliver the oil covertly. The tankers’ journey takes them through the Suez Canal in Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea, which requires them to turn on their transceivers – that broadcast their location to vessel traffic services using the automatic identification system (AIS). The system identifies the vessel, its speed, direction and draft, with the latter used to determine the cargo’s weight.
Upon entering the Mediterranean, the Iranian tankers “go dark” – they turn off their transceivers for two to three weeks as they sail north towards Syria, depriving outsiders of monitoring their location. However, their movements can continue being tracked by satellites, which show them traveling to Baniyas, offloading their oil, and returning to the Suez. Passing again through the canal requires them to turn on their transceivers which reveals the tankers’ draft, showing its decreased weight.
Upon reentering the Red Sea they “go dark” again. Some return to Iran to load more oil. However, according to TankerTrackers.com, other now-empty tankers meet up with larger ones and undertake a ship-to-ship (STS) transfer of new oil, which they then take on another journey to Syria through the canal.
Over the past six months, the price of a barrel of oil has ranged between $70 and $80, valuating a single delivery in the tens of millions of dollars. The combined value of the oil Iran has shipped to Syria during this time is estimated at $1.25 billion.
Iran’s “ghost tankers” are old and, due to the sanctions, they are not well-maintained. To hide the oil’s source and movement, they frequently partake in dangerous, unregulated ship-to-ship transfers. Following the invasion of Ukraine, many tankers carrying sanctioned Russian oil have also started sailing “in the dark,” with their AIS off, engaging in ship-to-ship transfers with no oversight. “This is a ticking time bomb,” say sources in environmental groups who warn of increasing oil spills.
Reuters found that in 2022 there were at least eight groundings, collisions or near-misses involving tankers carrying sanctioned crude or oil products – the same number as the previous three years combined.
Iranian “ghost tankers” sailing adjacent to Israeli gas fields in the Mediterranean, also have, per one environmental group, the potential to lead to a violent incident and ecological disaster – amid the ongoing, mostly secret, naval war between Jerusalem and Tehran. Israel has reportedly attacked numerous Iranian tankers in the Red Sea on their way to Syria in an effort to block the flow of funds to Hezbollah. In response, Iran has attacked freighters belonging to Israeli businessmen in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.
In February 2021, a major oil spill came from a Libyan vessel bringing Iranian oil to Syria as it sailed along Israel’s coast with its transceivers off. The spill, which was termed by then-Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel as ecological “terror,” left 160 kilometers of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline covered in tar. The cleaning and restoration of the shoreline took over a month.
During the two weeks that it wandered between Syria and Cyprus, the tanker unloaded oil to another ship, which then took the oil to Syria, causing several more oil spills.
The incident revealed the extent to which Israel was not prepared to deal with major oil spills. The Environmental Protection Ministry suffers from a lack of equipment and staff, relying heavily on volunteers.
Many experts at the time of the spill expressed concern that a bigger disaster could have a profound effect on the Israeli coastline that would not only harm the environment and animal life, but also tourism, and more seriously, Israel’s infrastructure found along the coast such as desalination plants.
For years, legislation that would have prepared Israel for such incidents – the National Plan for Preparedness and Response to Oil Pollution Incidents Law – have been discussed. But despite a cabinet decision taken when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and many declarations on the matter, no legislation has passed.
Similar warnings against oil spills and their consequences also emerged in response to an agreement that had been reached between Israel’s Europe Asia Pipeline Co. and the United Arab Emirates, which aimed to turn Israel into a land bridge for oil being shipped from the Persian Gulf to Europe. The agreement would have led to a dramatic increase in the number of oil tankers arriving at Israeli ports.