US forces left four people dead and three oil tankers destroyed following airstrikes in Syrian territory at the end of May. The airstrikes are the enforcement of an oil embargo, which is the prohibition of the trade of oil and related products between different countries. The embargo was implemented by the US and the European Union in an effort to cut off energy importation into Syria, which relies heavily on foreign importation of oil, notably from Iran. Barring foreign imports, Syria has a sizeable domestic energy deficit, with production currently at 24,000 barrels of oil per day and consumption over 130,000 barrels of oil per day. With production not meeting the energy demands of the country, many Syrians have been facing power cuts and energy shortages. Energy shortages have little impact on large swathes of Syria’s people, as many already live in poverty and rely on international food handouts. However, rolling blackouts have now begun to impact the support base of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s domestic support base, along with international backers like Iran and Russia, have allowed him to maintain his grip on power throughout the Syrian civil war. However, this support base is now beginning to call into question the competency of the Assad regime.
The oil embargo strategy has two notable benefits for the US. The energy deficit is eroding support of the Assad regime in Syria, and the embargo cuts off revenue to Syria’s main source of oil: Iran. In 2017, the Trump administration re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran, cutting off its oil exports to international markets. This limited exports from 2.8 million barrels to roughly 50,000. By eliminating many of Iran’s markets such as China, India, and Turkey, countries not willing to risk US retaliation, the Iranian government’s main source of revenue has effectively been cut off. With Iran’s sizeable markets unwilling to import oil, Iran’s only option is to increase exports to Syria. A new border between Iraq and Syria is now being built in an area controlled by Iranian-supported militias to facilitate oil importation. Iran has resumed oil shipments of roughly one million barrels. However, with the US exerting extreme force to limit oil importation into Syria, Iran will be left with no market access and no financing. The US embargo may eliminate Iranian support of Syria and Iranian proxies throughout the Middle East. With Assad losing domestic and Iranian support, the regime will be left with only Russian support. Russia has supported the Assad regime since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, and in return for support will likely seek control of Syria’s key infrastructure and ports.
The US will likely continue pressuring Iran and Syria with the use of sanctions and force to isolate leaders from supporters and access to international finance and trade. With the Syrian civil war continuing into its eighth year, does US presence in the country and the Middle East perpetuate the violence and political dysfunction? Or will US pressure finally topple the Assad regime, which has used chemical weapons and committed atrocities against its own people? With international countries highly invested in the outcome of the Syrian civil war and large swathes of territory still controlled by warring factions, the conflict seems far from over.
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