How a scramble for gas fuels the Syrian conflict

This image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen.Photo PTI
This image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen.Photo PTI

Nation states, much like corporations, tend to act in their own interest. Ideology, morality, ethics and principles all become relative in the face of the nation’s interest or ‘bottom line’ and, more recently, the nation’s ‘security.’ Institutional and governmental reaction to the murder and displacement of innocent people and the destruction of entire societies has rarely been borne out of genuine empathy; it’s nearly always governed by self-interest. Of course, this does not mean that the people who are represented by these institutions are not repulsed by the barbarity of the situation. Today, the case in Syria is no different. For all the talk of vulnerable people, heinous weapons and moral obscenities, the endgame in Syria has perhaps more to do with geo-strategic power and control over natural resources than a concern for the freedom or safety of civilian populations.

Having been rebuffed by the EU, Turkey seems to be looking eastwards to fulfill its geo-strategic aspirations and perceives Iran to be a regional threat. Iran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Hezbollah and is, in turn, supported by Russia and China, both of whom are aligned against the US. Qatar supports various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), while Saudi Arabia sees it as a threat and seeks to promulgate its own ideology. Each wants a pliant government in Syria because the embattled country will be the conduit for gas pipelines that will pass through various Arab countries, Turkey and eventually supply the European markets. This will mean that the liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargo will no longer have to pass through the Persian Gulf over which Iran has control.

This will also undercut Russian gas’ influence and control over the European markets. The EU-US-backed Nabucco pipeline project, which was meant to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia and increase supply from the Caspian Sea region, has been discarded. With dwindling reserves in places like Azerbaijan, the Persian Gulf was deemed to be a better supplier. Syria would be an important transit point for this gas, not just overland but also through its Mediterranean ports, one of which, Tartus, is leased by the Russians.

Not surprisingly, Russia too wants to keep a foothold in this part of the world, which is densely packed, from Turkey to the Persian Gulf, with military bases of the US, the UK and other European countries. China, which has its fair share of skeletons in the closet, has close trade relations with Syria but also with other regional players. It is neither backing nor opposing the regime but says that it only wants to prevent the situation from worsening.

Many countries of the Arabian Peninsula, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are united in their opposition to Iran because it has considerable deposits of natural gas and borders the Caspian Sea, which has large oil and gas reserves, both of which have the potential to make it a strong regional player and challenge their influence.

The 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossadegh’s government in Iran, orchestrated by the US and the UK, was also all about energy resources. Today, the opposition by the Arab States is couched in the language of Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism while that of the Americans is presented in terms of a nuclear Iran being an existential threat to world peace. A nuclear Iran would have complete power over the allocation of its natural resources and, therefore, would not be easily controlled by foreign or market forces.

Regime change in Syria would also mean that the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline proposed in Bushehr, Iran, in 2011 would no longer be viable, especially with the discovery of gas deposits near the Lebanese border and near Homs. The other place where huge gas deposits have been discovered in recent years is Israel, which will, of course, have its own endgame as far as trans-regional pipelines are concerned in the Levant basin. The nature of the Iran-Iraq-Syria project also makes it easier to peddle the sectarian line where Shi’a Iran, majority Shi’a Iraq and Alawi Syria represented an existential threat to the Sunni Arabian Peninsula. Of course, the real threat is economic. Parts of the Syrian Opposition, which has been largely sustained with funds and arms from gas-rich Qatar and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, both allies of the US, are affiliated with the al-Qaeda, which itself views the conflict in sectarian terms. In Yemen and Iraq, however, the other Arab countries and the US are actively hunting down operatives of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Before the Syrian conflict, al-Assad’s regime also provided safe haven for militants on their way to Iraq.

Iran, meanwhile, is building a pipeline with Pakistan. Pakistan has already handed over control of the Gwadar port in Balochistan to the Chinese. The US, which has been an old ally of Pakistan, is getting closer to India, which in turn has dropped out of the Iranian pipeline deal. In its opposition to Iran, Israel is aligned with the Arab States and also pushes the Shi’a-Sunni narrative. Iranian opinion, in turn, seems to be divided, with President Hassan Rouhani’s official website and twitter account not blaming the regime but siding with the “innocent martyrs”, while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the recent chemical attacks were carried out by “insurgents and terrorists”. Both, however, view the current turmoil as part of a Zionist and US conspiracy to destabilise the region. But any mention of energy politics is notably absent from their rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia supported the military coup in Egypt while Qatar supported the ousted MB, which had aligned itself against Israel and even had a temporary rapprochement with Iran. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar want a government in place that would acquiesce to their particular demands as to how to allocate Egyptian natural gas, with a pipeline potentially linking up with the Gulf line in Jordan before cutting across Syria and entering Turkey. Interestingly, a recent CNN analysis of why Iran, Russia and China support the Syrian regime failed to even obliquely mention the role the energy sector is playing and historically has played in this conflict.

Amid this mad scramble in the Middle East over the control of natural resources and therefore markets, millions of people have become displaced and more and more innocent people are dying. Their deaths are sadly being used as a moral veil to hide the real intentions of various powers. Now, as the US, UK and NATO war machines and their proxies, each with bases dotted around the entire region, ready themselves, Russian submarines patrol the waters of the Mediterranean, and Israeli IDF forces carry out drills in the Golan, one can only wonder as to what turn the conflict will take.

With a burgeoning global defence industry that thrives on conflict, it is little wonder that calls for war are getting louder. After all, the thousands of missiles being produced cannot just sit in silos forever. There is no doubt that al-Assad has to go. He should have been deposed years, even decades, ago and the cruelty of the Assad clan did not just begin when pictures of dead victims started being shown on televisions around the world. However, if there is military intervention and the possibility of a negotiated settlement is ruled out, then the potential for this conflict to rapidly spread and escalate across the region is frightening as the various powers scramble to preserve political and economic interests. Welcome to ‘The Great Game 2.0’ — it’s bigger, it’s bloodier and now it’s about gas.


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