The West Puts the Squeeze on Iran and Syria. Russia Wants Talks.

Yesterday’s Nezavisimaya gazeta appeared with a piece on Syria’s fuel crisis. Entitled “British Marines Have Left the Syrian Army Without Fuel”, Vladimir Mukhin points out that the seizure at Gibraltar on 4 July of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1 carrying 2 million barrels of oil  by the British authorities was surreptitiously planned from London and Washington. It followed an explosion on five oil pipelines from the port of Tartus to Banias, some 35 kilometres away. (The Russians took out a 49 year lease on Tartus this May. As a result of the explosions the régime had to raise the price of oil by 20%.)

The net result of both events for Syria is a severe oil shortage which will gravely weaken Assad’s capacity to wage war, particularly from the air, against the rebels.

The tanker seized was  breaching EU sanctions against the Syrian régime under Assad. It is evident that this event came as something of a surprise to the Russians since previous shipments went through the Straits of Gibraltar unimpeded. Mukhin points out, no doubt in response to hysterical threats of violent retaliation from the Iranians, that “Any retaliation by force on the part of Teheran could turn into real fighting, to a major war in the Near East.”

The Iranian authorities, upping the ante, have claimed that the tanker carrying the Iranian oil to Syria belongs to a Russian company, but no proof has yet been offered. A Russian military expert on the region has now commented that two things  have to happen: first, the Russians have to replace Iran in the supply of oil; and, second, as a quid pro quo, Assad has to be told to open a dialogue at home to resolve the political crisis. “Then the USA and other countries will have no argument against the current Syrian régime.” From the point of view of the Syrian régime and the Iranians this would, of course, spell defeat. Putin is pulling in his horns.

This is a fascinating turn of events. Russian coverage of the war in Syria has been minimal in the last few months, perhaps indicative of a certain weariness with the Assad régime combined with heightened alarm at Iran’s intransigence and its bellicose defiance of the United States. In Moscow this suggests a desire to pull back from further immersion in a war that will not end and that may soon spread further than ever anticipated.