Syrian government claims Israel’s targeting of Latakia port is aimed at Syrians’ livelihood 

Fires and flames caused by the Israeli air raid on Latakia port - 28 December 2021 (Latakia governorate’s media office)

Fires and flames caused by the Israeli air raid on Latakia port - 28 December 2021 (Latakia governorate’s media office)

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Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri

The recent Israeli targeting of Latakia port has brought light to the issue of stocked imported goods in containers in Syria’s various land and maritime entry-exit points due to customs clearance procedures that prevented goods from reaching Syrian markets. 

The congestion of stored goods in the attacked commercial port of Latakia was attributed to the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) and its latest decisions on financing imports. At the same time, economists loyalists to the regime blamed the bureaucracy of the Syrian government’s institutions. 

Meanwhile, Syrian citizens continue to face the consequences of stocking imported items represented in the scarcity of necessary materials and goods in markets, soaring prices, and high production costs amid deteriorated living conditions. 

What is the extent of the damage?

On 28 December 2021, an Israeli airstrike targeted the container storage area at Latakia port in a second attack against the vital facility in the same month.

While Israeli sources stated that the strike was aimed at ammunition for proxy militias linked to Iran, Syrian state media said that the Israeli aggression targeted containers loaded with food items as part of an “economic war and starvation policy” against the Syrian people.

On 29 December, the head of the Customs Committee in Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Imad Qabani, stated to the pro-government local newspaper al-Watan that 85 percent of the container goods targeted in Latakia port were industrial raw materials and food supplies. 

Qabani said that the attack caused “significant material damage,” adding that Israel targeted containers of food items, textile yarns, and reconstruction-related materials.

The majority of items imported by the regime are raw materials and foodstuffs as a result of import rationing government decisions, according to Qabani.

Bureaucracy or practical government decisions? 

As in many other cases, Syrian regime officials gave contradicting statements on goods stored in Latakia port. On 22 December 2021, al-Watan newspaper cited customs brokers and importers, saying that there are hundreds of containers at the port unlikely to contain food items because such materials are imported under specific facilitations. 

The officials cited the CBS’s import financing decision as to the reason behind delayed customs clearance procedures and scarcity of commodities in markets. They added that the decision caused significant losses, noting that its continued application could contribute to the shortage and disappearance of many goods in markets.

After the latest Israeli targeting of Latakia port, the CBS issued a temporary exemption because of the “attacks on Syrian ports,” requesting importers whose goods had arrived at Syrian ports up to the end of December 2021 and who had not yet obtained permission to enter their goods into the country to visit the bank’s branches to complete the procedures of disclosing financing sources and customs clearance.  

In late August 2021, the CBS amended some of the conditions imposed on its import financing operations, which are due to operate until next February.

In accordance with the new amendment, all importers of the private and joint sectors are obliged to submit a written confirmation from the CBS that their source of funding is approved prior to their imports arriving in Syria to the Customs Clearance Secretariat.

This amendment, however, does not apply to imports not included in the original decision.  

The amendment decision stipulated that importers have to obtain a written letter from the CBS’s import department to be viewed by the Customs Clearance Secretariat. The letter entails permission for goods entry after disclosing imports’ financing sources.

Importers are also required to submit other necessary documents that vary depending on the funding source. 

The Customs Clearance Secretariats are obliged not to complete any customs clearance process without the importer submitting this written letter.

The Chairman of the Syrian Commission of Financial Markets and Securities, Abed Fadilah, defended the Central Bank’s decision on import financing, arguing that it gave the bank the right to scrutinize how and when goods were imported, and that led to a broader case of scrutiny and inspection.

Fadilah said that the official narrative says that many of the procedures that caused delays in the entry and clearance of imports at the port were caused by violations in imports related to manipulating the customs HS code. He added, some goods were brought in under an HS code different from the one describing the nature of the goods. 

Sometimes goods were entered under an HS code of lower customs duties than the real HS code describing the actual imported goods, while some containers included smuggled goods in undercover operations.  

According to Fadilah, the general bureaucracy of some official entities has contributed to delays in completing customs clearance procedures, while manipulations and violations by some importers caused goods congestion in ports containers and substantial losses in hard currencies for cargo companies.  

“Bending the truth”

The regime government took action against 30 traders because of “illicit commercial transactions in goods and foreign currency” in accordance with the provisions of Legislative Decree No. 33 of 2005 on combating money-laundering and the financing of terrorism. The government claimed that the traders had obtained import permits under the names of partners or relatives with no commercial or industrial activity.

The Minister of Economy of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), Dr. Abdul Hakim al-Masri, told Enab Baladi that the regime government’s legal measure is a bend to facts because it claims to combat money-laundering and terrorism, while everybody knows that traders can only operate within designed frameworks by the government.

Al-Masri added that the regime government is trying to create funding sources, regardless of the interests of citizens, traders, and investors, and wants to limit the trading activity within some people only and monopolize materials they had brought in.

The regime does not care about the living crisis in its regions, and its only care is the continuation of the military solution, al-Masri said, noting that prices will rise and the financial burden on consumers will increase as a result of stocking goods at ports and traders paying of customs duties amid a shortage of goods in markets and the disruption of the industry. 

Al-Masri added that under the current dire economic and financial circumstances in regime areas and the disruption of production, the regime government must provide facilitation and allow traders to introduce crisis-mitigating materials into its areas of control. However, the government is tightening measures to appear as a force against money laundering and terrorism. Meanwhile, the regime continues laundering money through drug trafficking.  

The Minister pointed out that the CBS does not act independently but under directions from the regime government, not only against the interests of the market but also against the interests of Syrian citizens.

According to al-Masri, the regime is likely to use the Israeli targeting of Latakia port as a message to its supporters who grapple with dire living conditions and do not know the actual reasons behind the stocking of goods in port containers. 

He added that Israel is bombing sites containing goods placed deliberately by the regime next to Iranian missiles and aircraft at commercial ports to justify the shortage of basic materials and shy away from its irresponsible and indifferent decisions.

Syrian economic researcher Khaled Turkawi told Enab Baladi that anyone has the right to obtain an import permit under legal conditions.

But the CBS wants traders to work in the interests of the regime’s government through selling imported goods to the Syrian Trade Establishment, thus directing revenues to the regime’s Ministry of Finance. As for exporters, they are required to sell 50 percent of their foreign exchange proceeds earned from exports to the CBS at the official exchange rate, Turkawi said.

The researcher asserted that the regime has only its interests in mind, as delays in customs clearance procedures would cause goods’ prices to rise due to storage and delays’ costs.

Turkawi said that it is unlikely that the regime is stocking goods in port containers, as there is a small quantity of goods arriving at the Latakia port; however, the regime’s media is trying to depict the Israeli strike as aggression targeting essential goods, not containers of weapons or drugs.  

According to satellite images obtained by the U.S. Associated Press (AP) news agency on 30 December 2021, the Israeli strike against Latakia port was “a high precision strike that appeared to hit one container.”

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was reported by the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post that the latest alleged Israeli strike on Latakia port destroyed an immeasurable amount of advanced and strategic weaponry.

Kohavi also said that Israel’s continued war-between-wars campaign has led to a decrease in Iran smuggling weapons into Syria.

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