Calgary-based energy company Suncor is not sending money to its Syrian natural gas operation, which provides electricity to homes in the strife-torn country, said company CEO Rick George.

"We're actually not connected to the Assad regime in any way," George said in an interview with CBC Radio's The Current. "We operate with a partner in Syria, the General Petroleum Corporation, which is a state corporation."

'We are not in any way sending money to Syria.' —Rick George, Suncor CEO

George said that is normally how such operations are set up around the world, "so we are not directly connected to the regime."

Suncor acquired its Syrian assets during a merger with Petro-Canada in 2009. The $1.2-billion operation is a natural gas field, hooked to a gas plant, which provides electricity to about 10 per cent of the population in Syria.

"So this is not oil that is exported from the country," George said. "It's used internally to keep the lights on."

The project was completed in April 2010, "long before all of this occurred," he said of the uprising and unrest.


Suncor's Ebla facility in Syria provides electricity to 10 per cent of homes in the country. (Suncor)

International pressure is mounting against President Bashar al-Assad's regime while he continues to try to crush a six-month uprising. Nearly 2,000 people are believed to have been killed in the crackdown, while tens of thousands have been arrested.

A number of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have said that Syria's president should step down. Canada has announced sanctions against Syria.

However, production at the Suncor plant is progressing normally, despite the unrest and the sanctions. The company has said it is still able to produce natural gas in Syria under the current Canadian sanctions. It is reviewing U.S. sanctions.

Suncor is receiving money from Syria on investments made long before the outbreak of violence occurred, George said.

"We are not in any way sending money to Syria," he said.

Safety is a priority

George said the safety of the Syrian employees as well as Canadian workers at the facilities is a priority, and the company has a human rights policy as well as an ethics charter signed with its government partner.

He did not want to go into details on how the Syrian employees are being protected, since revealing such points would make thing less secure for them.

"All of us share the common concern, and that is we are concerned that this violence ends and the people of Syria resume a peaceful life in which they can reach their dreams," said George.

"Countries under stress like this are better with responsible, ethical being in there [rather] than not being in there."

People in this country who support the anti-Assad movement have said the Canadian government needs to do more to help those fighting for change.

George said Suncor does not have a "direct sphere of influence" but companies must uphold their own ethics and try to make sure the joint-venture partners do the same.

"We share the concerns of all of our stakeholders. We want to see violence ended in Syria and the country go back to a peaceful being."

Stopped Libya operations

Suncor will not operate in Libya, with George saying the conditions in the two countries are quite different, when the actions of the UN, NATO and the Arab League are considered.

"The industry, en masse, the Western companies left Libya virtually all at the same time, including the Canadian government."

The operations in Libya and Syria are not big parts of Suncor's operations, at less than two per cent of last year's earnings, George said. Reuters reported that Suncor had a $514 million writedown on its Libya oil operation.

Clearly, the company had high hopes for development in Libya, as its website describes holdings that could prosper over the next 25 years, saying it has "significant onshore acreage holdings." Suncor does note that the information was posted on the site before the unrest in Libya got underway.

At the Ebla site in Syria, the company said on its website that it had "also embarked on an oil project associated with Ebla, which began producing approximately 1,000 barrels per day in December 2010."