New sanctions have forced major energy companies to close their operations in Syria and political pressure is growing for Suncor Energy Inc. to follow suit, but opposition activists say they're worried that a shutdown by the Canadian firm may hurt their cause more than it helps.
Suncor, still known in Syria by the name Petro-Canada, opened a $1.2-billion natural gas plant last year in the central province of Homs, a place that has become synonymous with YouTube videos of violence against demonstrators.
Overnight temperatures are almost at the freezing point in Homs, and activists say they’re suffering from daily power blackouts and shortages of the diesel that fuels most residential heating systems.
“If the Canadians shut this station, there will be no electricity for 80 per cent of the whole Homs province,” said Mohammed, 28, a resident of Homs who spoke via Skype. “All of us will be without electricity, and frankly we don't need this kind of thing.”
The new Syrian National Council, which aims to serve as an umbrella group for opponents of the regime, has met with senior Canadian officials and maintains a similar position about the Suncor facility.
In interviews with The Globe and Mail, two other Syrian activists repeated the same concerns about cutting the electricity supply at a moment when activists need to get online and families are struggling to keep warm.
Suncor says it’s reviewing its presence in the country. The company finds itself in an increasingly lonely position among big firms: French oil major Total SA announced on Monday that it will halt production, three days after Royal Dutch Shell said it will cease activities in Syria.
Some Syrian analysts are hopeful that recent sanctions by the European Union could leave Damascus dangerously short of hard currency: By one estimate, one third of the $16-billion (U.S.) state budget comes from oil sales, which have almost entirely dried up as European customers have disappeared.
NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière issued a statement on Monday expressing disappointment that the Conservative government has so far failed to issue any estimates of the revenue Suncor’s project generates for the regime. The Ebla gas plant produces about 80 million cubic feet of natural gas a day as part of a joint venture with the General Petroleum Corporation – a Syrian state enterprise now blacklisted by the European Union.
“How can the government say it has given this situation ‘careful consideration,’ but can’t say how much money the Suncor partnership contributes to the Assad regime?” Ms. Laverdière said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told CTV on Sunday that he was reluctant to halt a project that involves the fate of many ordinary people.
“Simply taking every family in Syria off the electricity grid I don't think would help either the cause of freedom or, you know, the battle to win hearts and minds by the Syrian opposition,” Mr. Baird said.
The young activist from Homs said many families are able to obtain enough diesel fuel to keep their heaters running for just three or four hours a day, a problem that will get more serious as the winter deepens.
Enduring such hardships also does not bring Syrians much closer to freedom from the rule of Mr. al-Assad, he said, because the regime has enough money to survive sanctions.
“Sanctions won’t take him away,” the activist said. “They have been stealing from this country for ages. How could you think to break him with money? They have millions and millions and millions of dollars. This won't work.”