Recent media and human-rights activist reports claim that the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan are playing an indirect role in supplying diesel fuel, weapons and cash to the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Government employees deny the charges to EurasiaNet.org, but key details about the alleged shipments remain unclear.
A March 7 report by Human Rights First, a US-based non-profit organization that “works to identify and disrupt” Syrian government supply chains, named the two countries as among the “enablers” of al-Assad’s regime. Citing a Reuters article, the overview claimed that small vessels from Georgia have shipped diesel fuel to Syria. Based on a ProPublica investigation, it maintained that Azerbaijan also allows Russia to use its airspace for shipments of weapons and cash to the Syrian government.
A subsequent report by Reuters claimed that the Georgian Black Sea port of Kulevi, a facility majority-owned by the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR), had dispatched one diesel-fuel cargo to Syria in February and several in January. The claim appeared to rest on unspecified firms that ship energy to Syria.
Azerbaijani government officials have not yet addressed the allegations and could not be reached for comment. But a SOCAR representative contacted by EurasiaNet.org categorically rejected “any speculations about sales of Azerbaijani oil products to Syria” via the Georgian oil terminal of Kulevi.
“SOCAR is the only producer of diesel oil in Azerbaijan, and it is not being exported to Syria,” said the representative, who asked not to be named. The Kulevi terminal ships “not only Azerbaijani oil, but, also, Kazkh, Turkmen oil and the products of other clients,” he added.
Kulevi Oil Terminal spokesperson Adelina Mamedova echoed that point, calling the facility “just a transshipment point.”
“Usually we don't know who is the seller or/and buyer,” Mamedova wrote in an email to EurasiaNet.org.
That point, however, means that the possibility cannot be excluded that trading companies which buy fuel from SOCAR and ship it by rail to Georgia’s Black Sea ports do not have Syria as a client, said Baku-based energy expert Ilham Shaban. Over the past few years, interest in Azerbaijan as an energy supplier for Middle Eastern clients has grown steadily.
“[B]ut, legally, Baku does not have anything to do with it,” he emphasized.
Diesel fuel, of late, appears to be booming for SOCAR, which saw its production increase by a sizeable 24.8-percent between January and February 2013, compared with the same period in 2012. The firm attributes the rise primarily to domestic use, however.
Exports posted only a modest gain of 2.4 percent between January and March of this year. The company does not specify the exports’ destinations. Analyst Shaban called the chances for tracing the destinations “nearly impossible.”
The trail is no clearer within Georgia. The national statistics agency, GeoStat, maintains that Georgia has not exported diesel fuel directly to Syria for the past four years.
It does, however, export diesel fuel to a range of other countries (Azerbaijan, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom). And these are destinations from which re-exports are possible, observed GeoStat Executive Director Zaza Chelidze. In such cases, the fuel would still be marked with Georgia as the port of origin, he added.
Georgian customs officials did not respond to requests for information about how they screen exports from Black Sea oil terminals. Georgian export data does not distinguish diesel fuel from other petroleum products.
A spokesperson for the privately run Poti Port Terminal, though, told EurasiaNet.org that the terminal had not exported any diesel fuel in 2013 and less than a single container in 2012. KazMunaiGas, the parent company of the Batumi Oil Terminal, also a private facility, did not respond to inquiries.
Irakli Vekua, a spokesperson for the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, emphatically denied that Georgia, a strong ally of both the US and Turkey, is, in some way, assisting the Syrian government with diesel-fuel exports. He called the Human Rights First claims “unfair” and based on “unconfirmed information.”
Trade between Syria and Georgia is “extremely low, virtually non-existent,” and Georgian exports do “not include diesel fuel or any kind of dual use item,” Vekua emailed EurasiaNet.org.
On the foreign-policy front, both Georgia and Azerbaijan have condemned the actions taken by the Syrian government in its armed conflict with domestic opponents, and supported all United Nations resolutions against it.
Azerbaijan once enjoyed warm ties with Damascus – President al-Assad paid a state visit to Baku in 2009 – and signed memoranda of agreement about shipping gas to Syria via Turkey, but Azerbaijani politicians and analysts maintain that those days are long over. The pipeline plans foundered once conflict broke out in Syria in 2011 and Turkey sided against al-Assad.
As with diesel fuel, much of the suspicion about Azerbaijan and Russian flights carrying weapons and cash to Syria appears to ride on the inability to scrutinize the alleged intermediaries.
“Baku has no responsibility for the aircrafts of other countries flying via our air space,” noted analyst Vafa Guluzade, a former foreign-policy aide to the late President Heydar Aliyev. “There are international agreements concerning unfettered use of air corridors which Azerbaijan follows.”
The allegations about Russian overflights only could have grounds if the planes landed in Baku’s airport and did not pass through customs control, or if alerts sent by the United Nations had been ignored, he added.
Anti-terrorism expert Kamil Salimov, head of Baku State University’s department of criminology, doubts that Azerbaijan would deliberately turn a blind eye to Russian over-flights in those cases.
Nonetheless, Salimov added, “[i]t cannot be excluded that some Russian aircrafts carrying humanitarian aid or civilian cargoes to Syria and flying via Azerbaijan had weapons or money on board. But Baku cannot check such cargoes without a strong reason.”
Foreign ministry spokesperson Elman Abdullayev could not be reached for comment, but previously has denied any connection between Azerbaijan and weapons sales to Syria.
This story was amended on April 22, 2013 to correct an attribution. The story earlier stated that the Batumi Oil Terminal did not respond to inquiries from EurasiaNet.org. In fact, representatives of KazMunaiGas, the terminal's parent company, did not respond to the inquiries.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter in Baku.Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.