BEIRUT, Lebanon — At least three people died when an Iranian tanker was attacked off Syria’s coast Saturday, outside the Baniyas refinery, a war monitor said.
Israel’s Channel 12 news said Saturday night, however, that nobody was injured in the incident and that the fire caused no significant damage. Channel 13 news said the fire apparently had nothing to do with Israel.
“At least three Syrians were killed, including two members of the crew” in the attack that sparked a fire, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It was not clear who carried out the attack, the war monitor said.
The Observatory has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of inflating casualty numbers, as well as inventing them wholesale.
“We don’t know if this was an Israeli attack,” Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that “the Iranian tanker came from Iran and was not far from Baniyas port.”
It was also not clear if a drone or a missile was used in the attack, the Observatory said.
State news agency SANA, quoting the oil ministry, said the fire erupted after “what was believed to be an attack by a drone from the direction of Lebanese waters.” The flames were later extinguished.
— Joe Truzman (@Jtruzmah) April 24, 2021
In a report published last month that cited US and Middle East officials, the Wall Street Journal said Israel had targeted at least a dozen vessels bound for Syria and mostly carrying Iranian oil since late 2019.
In recent months, at least three Israeli-owned cargo ships have been damaged in alleged Iranian attacks, one in the Gulf of Oman, another as it was sailing to India, and the most recent near the UAE.
Hundreds of Israeli airstrikes have also struck Syria since the war began in 2011, mostly targeting Damascus regime allies from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, and Syrian government troops.
The Baniyas oil refinery is located in the regime-controlled coastal province of Tartus.
“It’s the first such attack on an oil tanker, but the Baniyas terminal has been targeted in the past,” Abdel Rahman said.
Video circulating by #Iran's Nour News, which is close to the SNSC, of a helicopter coming to the aid of the tanker off the coast of #Syria today. Nour News is interestingly describing the fire as due to a "welding" incident rather than a drone attack. 1/2 #OOTT pic.twitter.com/OL1C40xvB7
— Jason Brodsky (@JasonMBrodsky) April 24, 2021
Early last year, Damascus said divers had planted explosives on offshore pipelines of the Baniyas refinery, but the damage had not halted operations.
And in February 2020, four oil and gas sites in the central province of Homs were attacked by armed drones, sparking fires and causing material damage.
Saturday’s attack came after a Syrian officer was killed and three soldiers wounded Thursday in strikes launched by Israel. The Israeli army said that a surface-to-air missile had been fired from Syria toward the southern Negev desert, where the Dimona nuclear reactor is located. Reports have indicated the missile likely went off course during an attempt to target Israeli aircraft.
The exchange of fire came less than two weeks after an explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which Tehran blamed on Israel.
Israel is considered the leading military power in the Middle East, and is widely believed to possess its sole nuclear arsenal.
There were no reports of any casualties or damage on the Israeli side.
Israel has long sought to prevent bitter foe Iran from establishing itself in war-torn Syria.
Before Syria’s war, the country enjoyed relative energy autonomy, but production has plummeted during the war, pushing the government to rely on imported hydrocarbons.
Western sanctions on oil shipping, as well as US punitive measures against Iran, have complicated these imports.
Pre-war production was 400,000 barrels per day (BPD) in Syria.
But it stood at just 89,000 BPD in 2020, Syria’s oil minister said in February, of which up to 80,000 came from Kurdish areas outside government control.