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Greece throws lifeline to Assad by buying phosphates

Austin Powers

Oct 15, 2017
Greece is throwing a slender economic lifeline to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by reviving phosphate imports from mines near the ancient city of Palmyra.

Sales of the mineral — mainly used as a fertilizer — are increasingly important to Assad because international sanctions against the war-shattered nation’s crude oil are restricting his access to hard currency. From 2009 to 2011, Syria supplied almost a fifth of EU imports of phosphate, but those sales collapsed during the war

Official EU import data shows that phosphate shipments to Europe — heading almost exclusively to Greece — are resuming and more than tripled between December 2017 to April 2018. The volumes remain small compared to the pre-war heyday, but Syria is making a clear push to return to the EU market and its giant farm sector.

Syrian data show that total phosphate exports were more than $200 million in 2010.

Three people either working in the phosphate industry or involved with trading the commodity said Syria is able to export again because Russian investors have resurrected the Palmyra mines, which Islamic State militia captured in 2015. Assad awarded these reserves to the Russians last year after Moscow helped him turn the tide against ISIS.

The concession to develop phosphate went to Russia’s OAO Stroytransgaz, owned by Gennady Timchenko, according to the Russian website RBC and a market observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Stroytransgaz and Timchenko were both placed on the U.S. sanctions list in 2014 after the invasion of Crimea.

Neither Timchenko nor Stroytransgaz are sanctioned by the EU. This means it is legal for Europeans to buy rock from the Russians, although lawyers point out there is a risk that the U.S. could target European partners for dealing with the mine.

Stroytransgaz declined to comment on its concession in Syria, on its trading partners or whether it was taking any precautionary measures to comply with U.S. sanctions.

One market observer with knowledge of the Russian investment said that the shipments are heading to Greece from the port of Tartus, home port of Russia’s Mediterranean fleet. “Availability is about 60,000 tons for export per month,” he said. He declined to be named due to his own commercial interests in the market.

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