Published on the ABC Drum: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-10-08/rizos-power-plays-over-the-syria-war/5008350
Posted Tue 8 Oct 2013, 10:58am AEDT
The supply of energy from the Middle East remains key to understanding the war playing out in Syria, but the dynamics have changed a lot since Iraq, writes Xavier Rizos.
The river of misery brought by the Syrian civil war has been confounding western democracies. The US and France are now arguing that with the use of chemical weapons, Assad has drawn the line beyond which he cannot stay in power anymore.
Still, after 2 million refugees and 100,000 deaths in two years – a toll the war in Iraq took six years to achieve – the once imminent demise of Bashar al-Assad has not come.
Despite these intolerable crimes against humanity, the situation is more complex than a fight between a ‘good’ rebellion and an ‘evil’ dictator. What initially looked like a repeat of the 2003 Iraq war is less likely to happen. 2013 is not 2003, Syria is not Iraq, and gas is not oil: this is the key to reading the new situation.
The Syrian conflict started as a domestic crisis but with significant global contributing factors.
For the past 10 years, IMF-backed reforms have caused an increase in unemployment and inequality. Falling oil revenues have cut the regime’s ability to subsidise its economy, and drought possibly brought by climate change has contributed to rebellion in rural areas.
However it has now become a regional conflict tangled in the political strategy of isolating Iran, and the economic strategy of securing gas supplies.
This means that the crisis is beyond the point where the ‘simple’ removal of Assad would bring resolution or stop the blood bath fuelled by Qatar on one side and by Iran and Russia on the other side.
So far, judging by the way Putin has pushed his agenda, like a chess master culminating with an unprecedented op-ed in the New York Times, Russia is emerging as the winner from this war.
Following the dissolution of the USSR, the Russians realised they had lost the energy war. They had not secured access to the Middle East oil fields, which remained under American control. Vladimir Putin vowed not to repeat this mistake when he became president. He understood that gas was the new battlefield, and his weapon to win this time was going to be the giant company Gazprom. In the 1990s, it was privatised and its assets were stripped by corrupt oligarchs who transferred them to their families. Putin prosecuted them, ended this looting, and established state control of this strategic asset.
What came out of it has had a direct impact on today’s war.
Since then, Gazprom has established a quasi monopoly on gas exports to Europe. This came to Europe’s attention most powerfully in winter 2009 when a dispute between Russia and Ukraine resulted in Putin ordering cuts to exports by 60 per cent overnight. It plunged the EU into an energy crisis and reinforced its paranoia about becoming a hostage of Gazprom.
This is the origin of the EU’s love affair with Qatar.
Qatar possesses some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves and has been financing the Syrian rebels. In fact it has become to gas what Saudi Arabia used to be to oil, which puts it on a direct collision course with Russia and Iran.
Indeed tensions are increasing between the Qatari Sunni Emirate and the Shiite Iranian Islamic Republic because of the gas fields they share right in the middle of the Persian Gulf. While international sanctions are frustrating Iran’s gas exports, Qatar is emptying the shared reserves. It is shipping liquefied gas on tankers via the Strait of Hormuz, which is under the military control of Iran. To break this vulnerability, Qatar had a project to build a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea via Syria.
However Assad refused to go with this Qatari project, preferring to sign a ‘Pipelineistan‘ deal with Iran, which had a possible extension to Lebanon to reach Europe. It was supported by Moscow which wants to prevent Qatar from supplying Europe. The Syrian civil war derailed this plan and an angered Qatar has been funding the Syrian rebels in revenge.
This explains the French president’s insistence on intervention. For him, a new collaborative Syrian regime would support the objective of breaking Europe’s dependency to Gazprom via a Qatari gas pipeline.
The final piece of the jigsaw is the changed US strategy.
In 2003, the US dependency on oil meant that they were eager to go to war in Iraq to control their supply. However, 10 years later things have changed. Politically, after the crusade advocated by the neoconservatives of the Bush era, US foreign policy has shifted back to the realpolitik of the Kissinger years, where a costly conflict is seen as too much of a gamble and simply not in America’s national interest.
To add to this shift in political doctrine, the energy situation has also dramatically evolved because of the US shale gas revolution. Seven years after George W Bush’s warning about their “addiction to foreign oil”, the US has now become self-sufficient with cheap gas extracted domestically.
So now that the energy imperative is gone, the only significant motivation for war would be to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And even this has been diffused with the recent historic phone call between Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama during the last UN General Assembly.
An example of this reversal is the abandoned Nabucco pipeline project. It was once an emblematic strategic initiative sponsored by the EU, with the strong political support of Washington. The goal was to build a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe via Turkey in order to bypass Gazprom. But ultimately the American change of heart killed it this year.
In conclusion, the US may still end up deciding to strike Syria, but muscular intervention has now given way to a shrewder chess play. After being burnt one time too many in Afghanistan and Iraq, they realise that the new ‘Great Game’ is a giant network of gas pipelines that could do more to develop the Middle East than any ‘regime change’ imposed by foreign powers.
Xavier Rizos researches relationships between economics, governance, regulation, politics and culture. View his full profile here.
08 Oct 2013 2:20:33pm
This is an analysis of Syrian conflict & its impact to Western countries, presented to the general public by Mr. Rizos, on behalf of The Oil & Energy Corporations. He doesn’t go deep enough to explain the complexities of the Syrian conflict from a historical perspective, and the role of the major Western parties involved in it. For example he does not mention G.W. Bush’s ‘road map’ for the entire region specifically. Everyone knows by now that it was in full swing well before The First Gulf War and initiated after the big oil crisis of the 1970s. The aim of the United States is, the control of oil & gas producing countries, control of the oil & gas trade (with US currency), control of the trade routes and the supply of energy to second and third parties. Assuming that the US does not depend on oil & petroleum products today is misleading. The American machine still needs oil to grease its wheels & cogs. …By the way, the reference to the casualties in Iraq in the second paragraph is misinformation – pure and simple-
08 Oct 2013 5:59:52pm
You are right, but it is still better than the ABC’s one sided report on Syria presented by our own Matt Brown.
Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia:
08 Oct 2013 7:36:07pm
Interesting insight on the dynamics of the forces behind the tragic Syrian civil war.
I am against foreign intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. Recent examples of such failures are Iraq and Libya.
Historically I am disgusted that General Gordon of UK helped the Manchus to put down the Taiping Revolution by the Han Chinese in China when 25m people died.
08 Oct 2013 8:30:38pm
Empires come …Empires go.
The only thing constant in this Universe is change, Mr BS.
Caesar was jealous of Alexander’s success at such a young age of 21. But where are their empires now?
…In History books, Mr BS.
British Empire ended same as General Gordon.
The US Empire is next.
Dr B S Goh, Australian in Asia:
09 Oct 2013 8:58:09am
Thanks for reading my post.
Maybe there exists an equilibrium for empires lasting decades or centuries backed by nuclear bombs. Do you know of the Mutually Assured Destruction Strategy, MAD?
Is it conceivable that USA will disappear as a Super Power after they sought out their financial disaster at Congress?
09 Oct 2013 3:45:03pm
Not all empires crumbled because of external threats. Neither MAD guaranteed long lasting existence.
I believe many empires collapsed because of …
(1). It ran out of puffs.
(2). It overextended itself, financially and militarily.
(3). Too corrupt.
(4). People became too soft as time progressed.
(5). It consumed too much.
(6). Its enemies grew stronger as itself grew weaker.
(7). Its existing subjects refused to accept its dominance.
(8). Its existing subjects became more politically aware and demanded independence.
Take the Roman empire for example, some would say it never disappear altogether. I believe it is true as you will see it in Europe, and even in the M.E.
09 Oct 2013 10:20:36am
“I am against foreign intervention in the internal affairs of other countries”
Yeah exactly Dr Goh, who doesn’t love a good old despot.
Why should we care about other human beings…. after all its not like they are human beings like us, worthy of our consideration (particularly those tibetans and falun gongsters)
ps. are you equally disgusted by the mongolian intervention across eurasia and europe in the 13th century?
Waterloo Sunset. 2014:
08 Oct 2013 7:46:40pm
A damn good job that we got rid of Hussein. The mind boggles at the probable casualties. Some 100’s of thousands one would think.
09 Oct 2013 11:49:08am
we got 100s of thousands of casualties anyway.
and perhaps next time you wont be so gungho about supporting, arming and defending murderous thugs like Husseun whilst its convenient so thnigs like this wont happen again.
but I wont hold my breath you learnt anything out of this catastrophy.
08 Oct 2013 2:23:55pm
One of the best commentaries on Syria I have ever read. I, however still find it disgusting what Turkey, the Saudis and the US does by arming al Qaeda to topple Assad. Syria was the most liberal of all Arab states with women’s rights and religious freedom. The rebel/terrorist victory there is so unacceptable and feared that Assad is the only choice if they want to avoid Talibanising Syria. There is too much liberalism in Syria to allow US backed fundamentalism to work.
08 Oct 2013 5:47:34pm
liberal in some ways but Syria was still a repressive police state that didn’t hesitate to use deadly force against peaceful protestors.
AQ and their happy little jihadi mates are a few facets of amongst many that oppose the Assad regime.
09 Oct 2013 9:30:42am
The Syrians are bunch of viscious thugs, Chaz. The question is, would the cost of violent removal be worth it? And if so, for whom? I recall, like many others, sitting in amazement after the First Gulf War when we liberated Kuwait and simply gave it back to the dictator. Nice one. I recall when we invaded Iraq, with half the US army bivying the arabian peninsula, we could have bloodlessly handed over all of those petty tyrants in the region to history and let the people have their own nations back. But we chose to continue to prop up viscious thugs to keep the cheap oil flowing. Let’s not be too pious about middle eastern politics.
09 Oct 2013 10:25:30am
Fair points Dove, and a lovely demonstrate of realpolitik in action.
And yet the Syrian civil war began when normal average syrians asked to have a democratic representative government and were brutally slaughtered by the Assad regime.
Whether or not the FSA and the average syrians can triumph over the Assad regime and the religous fundamentalists attempting to highjack the civil war will yet to be seen.
If the FSA do win and install a representative democratic government (their stated goal) then the winners will be all the people of Syria, and most (if not all) of the neighbouring countries racked by decades of instability caused by Iranian/Russian hegemony.
08 Oct 2013 2:26:23pm
Great piece, showing broader dynamics.
08 Oct 2013 4:53:04pm
Thank you for the explanations. Now I am beginning to understand why the “Human Rights” flag carriers in the M.E. are so keen to off load “Human Rights” to Syria, yet steadfastly hang on to their oppressive power back home.
But then of course, there is the Sunni vs Shiite thing as well.
France is a little bully boy who would huff and puff, threatening to bomb Syria unilaterally. I recall its foreign minister kept highlighting its recent success in Somalia. If he draws a parallel between Somalia and Syria in terms of military strengths, then he should get a proper job like a pastry cook. Now first the UK, the the US got the cold feet, France is not the big bully and Human Rights champion for now. Bullies are only tough when he is surrounded by little bullies.
The US is definitely off the boil as far as military intervention is concerned. It is shutting down half its country, and is facing a credit default by 17th of October 2013. it is a wounded horse with too much burden. The burden being the unfinished war in Afghanistan, and all other niggling pains it still has to endure, like Libya, Iraq.
Israel, as predictable as the sun rises from the East, will always find some reasons to stir up some troubles. As soon as there was a slight hint that Iran and the US are talking again, it claimed two Iranian spies were caught in Israel. I guess the timing of that capture is quite convenient.
To put it in a nutshell, try as they might to gain some traction to make peace in the M.E., there will always be some spoilers to stir the pot.
08 Oct 2013 6:49:38pm
If France bombs Syria, you see them as a bully. If France doesn’t bomb Syria, you see them as weak.
No pleasing some people.
If America defaults on its loans, you will hear the cheering of its enemies. And I’ve got a feeling you’ll probably be cheering with them.
08 Oct 2013 10:41:46pm
Finally got a mature reply from you.
Syria, or the M.E. as a whole, is really complex and messy. No one can be certain who are the goodies and who are the baddies. By getting involved militarily, like France intended to do, may tip the balance towards the probably less savoury mob, ie. the Al Qaeda linked groups. Would Israel be more satisfied and feeling more secure if that is the case? Does it solve the problems?
What makes you think I will cheer if and when the US default on its loan? I bet you had been knocking the ALP for not being careful with expenditures. So it is alright for the US to do likewise?
In your kind of world where it is black and white, either friends or enemies, I suppose you would always assume anyone who criticizes the US is an enemy to the US? Maxwell Smart would be proud of you, Zing, being so logical and deductive.
Either you are with us, or against us?
09 Oct 2013 10:27:37am
“No one can be certain who are the goodies and who are the baddies”
There are no goodies or baddies.
There are just human beings, and two global superpowers (plus two other minor ones) competing over the right to control access to key strategic resources for their own selfish ends.
08 Oct 2013 5:03:57pm
Masterfully written article, great information here. I really appreciated this.
08 Oct 2013 6:05:38pm
I still marvel at North Korea jumping up and down designing nuclear weapons whilst the US insisted such weapons existed in Iraq.
International relations are far from fair. Countries such as China where 10 people can not meet together, telecommunications are controlled (No Chinese person would dare affirm this over the net) and people still disappear gets treated as a fair country despite its normalized corporate espionage. Other countries such as Iran which has different issues gets economic sanctions.
Waterloo Sunset. 2014:
08 Oct 2013 7:48:17pm
Iran should have allowed fair inspections, then there wouldn’t have been a problem.
09 Oct 2013 9:24:06am
You should fact check before you post
Waterloo Sunset. 2014:
09 Oct 2013 10:49:27am
The February report noted that Iran has continued to deny the IAEA access to the military site at Parchin.
That’s Feb 2013, Dove.
Maybe you stopped reading in 2007?
Waterloo Sunset. 2014:
09 Oct 2013 1:07:24pm
This is tedious, I made a reply.
February 2013: The IAEA, was refused access to Parchin (military base), despite satellite imagery, indicating an explosive containment construction!
In March 2012 – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China beseeched Iran to allow UN Inspectors access.
Of course I am an hour behind Sydney, maybe it’s in the pipeline. However, for good measure, read above.
09 Oct 2013 11:51:07am
can you tell me where the inspectors on the ground in Iraq said they werent?
are you going to call for inspectors in Israel WS? or as usual do you think things run best when the US is allowed to run rough-shod over countries indiscriminantly like it did in the Iraq tragedy.
08 Oct 2013 6:45:16pm
The reference to “drought possibly brought by climate change”ignores that the Turks have reduced the level of the water table in many parts of northern Syria through their own water conservation and agricultural plans
Qatar had a project to build a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean previously (in the days when Israel had and office in Doha via Israel) which was stopped by the Saudis refusing to let a line cross Saudi to Israel. An alternative route across the Red sea and via Egypt was potentially available It is therefore much more probable that Qatari interests in Syria are associated with the previous Emirs religous delusions of grandeur than the particular political/economic construct you have offered
08 Oct 2013 7:10:41pm
This is a really good article that succeeds in unraveling key interests in this latest middle eastern intrigue. I would add that the US and the west generally has lost faith in trying to civilise middle eastern societies. They are not victims but aggressive, confident, ultra-religious and don’t want to change. Best to keep clear as much as possible for self-preservation and let the nutters sort it out amongst themselves.
09 Oct 2013 9:23:25am
Shallow analysis. The middle eastern middle class is largely indistinguishable from any other middle class. Like most outsiders who can’t be bothered to read more deeply than the tabloids you overlook the huge appetitie for change in the region. Most of the populations are under the thrall of dictators, most propped up the the west to secure cheap energy. Anytime they try to affect change they are crushed and we do nothing. The only change we support is to move a country from an hostile dictatorship toward a compliant dictatorship. You also fail to understand religion in the region. Every middle eastern country with any hint of self determination is secular. That would tell a high school student that this is the desired state for the overwhelming majority of the population. They don’t need your civilising- they already had some of their own.
08 Oct 2013 8:44:26pm
So it is not about “freedom and democracy”- but money. Well-who would believe it.
An expose of the fraud perpetuated by Western leaders draws only 14 comments- shows just how brainwashed and brain dead our people are.
In the meantime we have 2 million more Western made potential asylum seekers. That should gladden the heart of Scott Morrison and his boss.
Is there no end to our stupidity?
09 Oct 2013 12:24:09am
Explains the love affair with Qatar and the decision to hold the World Soccer Cup by FIFO even though the weather is murderous and gross human rights violations are being enacted on the workers putting up the infrastructure.
09 Oct 2013 12:30:22am
Interesting article, thanks. It’s difficult to imagine the US intervening in Syria in any military capacity, given the present state of its economy and internal politics.
09 Oct 2013 10:23:35am
History tells us that T.E.Lawrence walked out of the Versailles Peace Conference after WW I because the Arabs had been promised independence. Instead France insisted on the mandate for Syria and Lebanon. Britain had the Mandate for Iraq and Palestine, influence in Egypt and the Balfour Declaration to satisfy.
T.E. Lawrence had lived and worked in the area for years. He knew the Arabs and Arabic as he knew English. He probably foresaw what would happen when Western Powers chased oil and land ignoring treaties. And an ancient country of some 250 years duration would be reborn within 15 years.
History has consequences and responsibilities we cannot avoid. The bloodshed in the Middle East since 1923 testifies to this.
Polly Wolly Doodle:
09 Oct 2013 10:28:21am
The west must stay out of the middle east conflict zones. It must be up to the wealthy arab states to assist their people to live peacefully and end the conflict in Syria. The western nations must assist at the humanitarian level.
In the meantime, the west must look to renewable sources of energy, become independent of oil. To all who live conflict free in western democracies, get out of the gas guzzling cars and onto bicycles and public transport, transport goods by rail, and welcome refugees from conflict zones. It is a complex solution, but simple solutions (removing Assad) to complex problems are always wrong.
09 Oct 2013 1:47:20pm
Interesting to me to say the least.
Where does the outlined stage of protagonists place the yanks though? Supposedly they, the yanks and their cohorts, are waging a war on world wide terrorist groups, roping in other countries who they perceive to owe some kind of debt to assist them.
If the yanks are backing the terrorist groups to do the dirty work on the ground, and the collateral damage is really an important factor to the yanks, why do they continue to wave the flag of democracy, proclaim they are the last bastion for a free world and yet children, grandmothers and grandfathers, the real victims, as in Vietnam, Iraq 1&2 and Afghanistan?
The dog eat dog culture of the yanks inflaming resource rich countries politics so as they have eventual lasting influences has, and is, taking a toll worldwide but, it is not surprising to me coming from a nation that has manipulated as much in wars as they have the history of.
Very sad for the fair dinkum yank, no wonder their government has shut down over a basic like health protection. No nation would want to be a fax of the yanks desperate degrading culture; for a nation to be so technically capable yet morally bankrupt is I believe a pox on the global community.
Comments for this story are closed, but you can still have your say.