Syria ship container trade slides as violence grows

By: Jonathan Saul

LONDON – Ship container volumes at Syria’s biggest terminal Latakia have dropped over 20 percent in the past six months year-on-year as growing turmoil hampers trade even for basic goods including food, trade sources say.

Syrian rebels on Thursday kept up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad following the assassination of three top lieutenants, fighting loyalist troops within sight of the presidential palace and near government headquarters in Damascus, residents said.

Official data from Latakia International Container Terminal, issued in recent days, showed volumes in the first six months of the year fell to 217,386 TEUs (twenty foot equivalent units), versus 275,264 TEUs in the same period last year. That compared with 293,111 TEUs in 2010.

Port officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday. French container firm CMA CGM, part of a consortium that manages the Latakia terminal, declined to comment.

“Given the growing turmoil, it is surprising that volumes are not even lower. Syria is facing growing problems sourcing even basic items such as sugar, which are transported in containers,” a Middle East based trader said.

Latakia province is home to several towns inhabited by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Opposition sources and a Western diplomat said the embattled leader was now in the coastal city after Wednesday’s assassinations.

The European Union, the United States and other Western countries have imposed sanctions on Assad’s government in response to his crackdown on a 16-month revolt.

While those measures are not targeted at food, a financing freeze has hurt Syria’s ability to import foodstuffs including grain and sugar on ships. The EU has also banned the export of luxury products to Syria.

GROWING RISKS

Containers also carry household items including canned foods and clothing.

Volumes at the port, located towards the north end of Syria’s coastline, have fallen in recent years as it has failed to attract more international business, but the rate of decline has speeded up as risks have grown.

Overall container volumes at Latakia reached 524,614 TEUs for the whole of 2011, down from 586,283 TEUs in 2010 and 621,377 TEUs in 2009, port data showed.

“Latakia never managed to establish itself as a significant hub and I suspect much of the cargo handled there is actually destined for the Syrian market – or originates from there,” said Jan Tiedemann, a shipping analyst with consultancy Alphaliner.

“The decline will be a blow to the port’s ambitions to gather some ‘critical mass’ and attract more mainline services, but in the end I think they have other concerns at the moment.”

Maersk Line, the world’s biggest container shipping company, said it continued to call at Latakia but had stopped calls to the smaller container port of Tartous further south.

“Tartous has been cancelled not due to the political situation, but a result of a ‘port simplification’ drive. Thus it will not be called until further (notice),” a Maersk spokesman said, referring to cost cutting moves by the group.

Smaller liner Hamburg Sud said it was still calling at Latakia but had also dropped services to Tartous.

CMA CGM, the world’s number three container group, said it was still calling at both Tartous and Latakia, adding that all of its Syria trade complied with sanctions regulations.

There was no data available for the smaller Tartous port, which also handles container vessels.

“Shipping activity overall is much slower and the Syrians are having to work harder to meet their goods requirements due in part to sanctions and also the situation,” the Middle East based trader said.

London’s marine insurance market last year added Syria to a list of areas deemed high risk for merchant vessels. Trade sources said overall shipping costs had risen in recent weeks.

“In the present situation, Syria’s potential is of course limited and I guess shippers and carriers will avoid taking any cargo or vessel near Syria if it can be avoided,” said Alphaliner’s Tiedemann.

“My guess would be that every move that can be handled at alternative ports has already been moved out of Syria.”

Source: Reuters

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