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European countries secretly import Syrian phosphate, propping up Russia and Assad regimes

July 4, 2022 at 8:47 pm

Syrian children and adults receive treatment for a suspected chemical attack on the outskirts of the capital Damascus late on February 25, 2018 [HAMZA AL-AJWEH/AFP via Getty Images]

European countries and firms are purchasing and importing Syrian phosphate and giving business to a Russian company close to President Vladimir Putin in the process, an investigative report has revealed.

According to a report by a consortium of investigative journalists led by Lighthouse Reports and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a number of European countries and companies have been importing phosphates from Syria in an effort to boost their supplies of the commodity, especially amid the shortage of materials as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Phosphates, an effective and popular fertiliser, are used for the growth of crops and animal feed, making it an essential commodity for European nations’ agricultural industries. Due to the continent having few phosphate reserves of its own, however, it had significantly relied on Syria’s mining and supplying of the product prior to the Syrian revolution and outbreak of conflict in 2011.

As one of the world’s largest exporters of phosphates at the time, that industry in Syria largely collapsed in 2015 during the conflict and the arrival of Daesh at mining sites. Then, in 2018, Syria’s state-run General Company for Phosphates and Mines (Gecopham) gave control of the mines to the Russian company Stroytransgaz, which is owned by Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire oligarch and friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Despite the ongoing war in the country and the European Union’s (EU) sanctions on the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, some European states again began buying Syrian phosphates over the years.

According to the report, which cited trade data provided to the UN, Serbia imported $72 million since 2017, followed by Italy and Bulgaria resuming their trade over the past two years. More recently, Spain and Poland began importing Syrian phosphates in January this year, with Madrid purchasing around $900,000 and Warsaw buying $37,000 of the commodity, so far.

READ: Syria regime sets up shell companies to dodge sanctions, investigation reveals

Sales of Syrian phosphate have further grown in demand due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a country which was also a key producer and exporter of fertilisers – which has contributed to existing prior shortages of the essential commodity around the world. With that Russian war, have come western sanctions on Moscow, Putin’s government and many oligarchs connected to it.

The report revealed that Stroytransgaz also set up a network of front companies with the support of middlemen, which serves the purpose of concealing the Russian firm’s involvement and control of Syria’s phosphate trade. Along with that industry in its hands, Stroytransgaz controls the Syrian port of Tartus, state-run fertiliser factories and the rights to extract and sell the commodity for 50 years from a major phosphate mine.

When the fertilisers are shipped to the European client countries, the operations are carried out secretly through cargo ships deactivating their tracking systems as they head towards Syria. When they travel back to Europe around a week later, they then switch the tracking systems back on.

Putin blindly bombs Syria - Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Putin blindly bombs Syria – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

One issue the report primarily addressed was that of western sanctions, including those imposed on Syria and Russia by the EU. Due to the bloc’s sanctions not specifically targeting Syria’s phosphate trade, the European companies and government agencies insist they are not violating any sanctions.

The country’s phosphate industry is, however, directly controlled by the Syrian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, Bassam Tohme, who is targeted by the sanctions. The client companies and States again have an excuse for that, though, saying that they do not deal directly with him.

“The Syrian phosphates trade shows why the EU sanctions system is not fit for purpose – sanctions evasion works and it’s not even that difficult,” the report quoted Ibrahim Olabi, a Syrian legal expert who monitors sanctions evasion, as saying. “Russia learned how to do this in Syria and can now use that experience to avoid sanctions over the Ukraine war.”