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Shell lukewarm about Syria oil boycott

British-Dutch oil giant Shell is under pressure to cease its activities in Syria. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on countries and companies to suspend their supplies to Syria because of the bloody oppression of the popular protests by the Assad regime.

Shell has said it is prepared to discuss possible oil sanctions against Syria, but has not committed itself to joining a boycott. The company is a 30 percent partner in a consortium which is producing oil in Syria. Half the consortium is owned by state-owned Syrian companies, and the remaining 20 percent is held by Asian investors. Shell is pumping up oil and sells the crude on Syria’s General Petroleum Company. There are no Shell refineries in the country.

Companies

Shell itself is maintaining it is doing nothing wrong in Syria, emphasising that its activities are limited anyway. It’s a line of reasoning familiar to investigative journalist Marcel Metze, currently writing a book about Shell. He said, “This has been Shell’s standard argument for decades. Looking at it with a purely legal eye they might be right, but the question is whether you can draw such sharp distinctions at all.”

Shell spokesman Wim van de Wiel said the company does not reject a boycott outright. But a major condition is that the boycott should be part of a joint political action, rather than relying on a handful of companies.

Syrian control

One of the problems, according to author Marcel Metze, is that Shell is involved in a joint venture which is under strict Syrian control. He said that is a much more immediate relationship than just being a buyer. Responsabilities are at risk of getting mixed up; security personnel, for instance, could be working for both Shell and the Syrian government. Mr Metze is not sure, however, that that is actually the case.

International energy researcher Professor Coby van der Linde pointed out that expectations toward Shell should not be too high, since the company is bound to its contracts. These are hard to break, unless the world community agrees on sanctions against Syria.

Dutch government support

European Union sanctions against Syria have been in force for some time, but Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal has said oil deliveries to Syria are not contravening them. Neither do Shell’s activities violate the code of conduct with respect to socially responsible commerce, as Mr Rosenthal said in reply to opposition MPs’ questions. Shell’s oil is in the army tanks used to repress the Syrian people, the MPs argued. For the time being, the Dutch government continues to support Shell’s position.

Professor Van der Linde is seeing some logic in the US appeal to the Netherlands and the rest of Europe:

“The main point is that Europe, and not the US, is the main importer of Syrian oil. US sanctions alone would have too little effect. The will to his Syria economically and reduce the regime’s income is clearly there.”

Alternative routes

There is no guarantee that international sanctions and a boycott will make oil deliveries to Syria dry up. According to Mr Metze,

“When South Africa was boycotted, all kinds of alternative routes opened up, and it was not clear whether Shell people were in any way involved in this grey area. Shell is anxious to prevent such questions from resurfacing, hence its reluctance to join a boycott.”

Human rights activists say that the violence has cost the lives of some 2200 people, 400 of them soldiers and policemen, and 1800 civilians.

(rk)

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