* Reserves depleted, shortages critical - former oil chief
* Russian cargoes first large shipments to arrive in months
* Unclear if backed by Moscow or trading firm acting alone
* No evidence that cargoes violated sanctions against Syria
By Jessica Donati
LONDON, Dec 24 Two cargoes of Russian diesel
have reached war-ravaged Syria this month, providing the first
significant volumes in months of the fuel it desperately needs
to power industry and the military, generate electricity and
Both shipments were transported from Russia on Italian
tankers to a port controlled by Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad, but it was unclear who was behind the shipments. Nor
was there any evidence they violated sanctions against Syria.
"(Our vessels) loaded two cargoes of gasoil in Russia at the
beginning of December for delivery to the East Mediterranean.
The charterer then asked us to deliver the volumes to Banias,"
said Paolo Cagnoni, who heads Mediterranea di Navigazione
S.p.A., the family-run Italian tanker firm.
He declined to disclose the names of the vessel charterers
and the recipient of the deliveries, which amount to around
42,000 tonnes of gasoil worth close to $40 million at current
The first cargo was loaded at the Russian port of
Novorossiiysk on Dec. 2 aboard the Ottomana, which sailed full
steam to Syria and arrived in Banias five days later.
"It was doing 12 knots after the Bosphorus strait ... they
went fast," said an oil products trader who monitors shipments
from the Black Sea.
The latest shipment arrived at the Syrian port of Banias
over the weekend aboard the Barbarica, and the vessel was still
docked there on Monday morning, satellite tracking showed.
Shortages of diesel and other fuels in Syria have grown
severe since the European Union introduced tighter sanctions in
The sanctions do not expressly ban all shipments of fuel but
are aimed at a list of companies connected to the Assad
Trading firms that previously did business with Syria have
dropped out of the market for fear of falling foul of the rules
or becoming associated with Assad's bloody crackdown on civil
Cagnoni said the name and details of his contract were
"Before accepting their request, we complied with due
diligence standards, which led us to conclude that none of the
firms involved ... are banned by the European Union."
Syria announced in August that it had reached an agreement
with Russia to exchange oil for refined products
, and Russia has been an Assad ally, blocking
three U.N. Security Council resolutions designed to pressure
But traders said there were no indications whether the
deliveries were backed by the Kremlin or were the actions of a
trading firm acting on its own.
Russian government officials could not be reached for
"PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING"
Syria's fuel shortage has become critical, the retired
president of the state oil firm Sytrol said in his first
interview since the war began.
"It's (the fuel inventory) depleted very sharply ... I hope
that they will sort out these matters, because people are
suffering very much now," said Jaber Ghzayel, who retired in the
summer, speaking by telephone from Damascus last week.
Sytrol has been desperately seeking deals to import diesel
from as far away as Malaysia, but fear of being associated with
an increasingly bloody civil war has deterred most firms from
doing business with Assad's state.
The sanctions also have created logistical and financial
complications by making it difficult for Syrian banks to process
payments abroad and for traders to get insurance on cargoes.
Since the summer, Syria has received only one similarly
sized cargo at government-controlled ports. In October an
Iranian vessel arrived with a shipment of gasoil and returned
with Syrian gasoline.
Diesel has since trickled into Syria aboard smaller vessels
arriving from Georgia and Lebanon, but these shipments have
averaged only around 7,000 tonnes each, about a quarter of the
first 26,000 tonne Russian delivery.
"We found some new players ... it was persons rather than
companies, some of them Syrians living abroad," Ghzayel said,
adding that the deliveries covered less than 2 percent of the
(editing by Jane Baird)