In an unusual acknowledgement of the pain inflicted by Western sanctions, Syria's oil minister said Wednesday that U.S. and European curbs on its oil trade have cost the regime $4 billion and caused widespread shortages of cooking fuel and other essentials.
The concession by Oil Minister Sufian Allaw that "oppressive European and U.S. sanctions" were taking their toll surprised Middle East analysts. The government of embattled President Bashar Assad has sought to downplay the 15-month-old uprising as an annoyance provoked by outside forces.
Allaw made the disclosures at a news conference in Damascus, where he also announced that help was on the way, including a 35,000-ton shipment of fuel oil from Venezuela that docked in Syria on Monday.
Allaw said Assad's government was also negotiating with Russia to secure a long-term arrangement for fuel supplies. Until the first of two Venezuelan shipments arrived this week, Allaw said, no tankers had docked in Syria since April 2011.
U.S. and European Union officials have sought to isolate the Assad regime for its brutality against opponents by imposing an embargo on trade and international commerce.
"The oil sector has lost almost $4 billion because of the oppressive European and U.S. sanctions, blocking exports and imports of oil and oil derivatives," the Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, quoted Allaw as saying.
"The measures taken by the EU and United States are behind this crisis. They want to put pressure on the Syrian people by widening the embargo," the minister said, according to the English-language website Middle East Online.
The Assad regime has pressed to put down the rebellion since it began with peaceful protests in March 2011 in the heady pro-democracy movements that began sweeping the Middle East last year. As fighting and bloodshed continued Wednesday in Syria, Egyptians went to the polls for their first free elections to choose a president to replace the Arab Spring's most prominent casualty, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Allaw vowed that Syria "will overcome the new difficulties." But Middle East analysts said it was significant that he publicly acknowledged the hardships.
"The sanctions are not crushing the economy but they are certainly putting the government in a difficult position," said David Schenker, Arab politics director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The government needs money to fuel tanks, to buy bullets to suppress the revolt, to pay the military and the paramilitary irregulars. It's an expensive endeavor."
But governments don’t generally reveal how much it is costing them to put down rebellions, Schenker said. Assad's regime has armed and deployed over 100,000 troops for more than a year of "running throughout Syria playing a game of whack-a-mole to snuff out one rebellious town after another."
Schenker said he doubts the oil minister's candid comments about the bite of sanctions were aimed at showing sympathy or solidarity with average people struggling to deal with inflation and shortages of staple foods and fuel.
"This is a regime that has not demonstrated any real concern for the well-being of the Syrian people," he said, pointing to the toll of at least 10,000 dead in the uprising and another 40,000 missing.
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Syrian Oil Minister Sufian Allaw speaks during a news conference in Damascus on Wednesday, disclosing that Western sanctions have cost the regime of President Bashar Assad $4 billion. Credit: Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images