Competitive Shia-Sunni Gas Pipelines Politics?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 19 Jun , 2014

When combat soldiers are faced with a chemical attack, the military practice to exhale polluted air before donning a protective mask is by shouting ‘gas-gas-gas.’ By repeating the ‘G’ word many times over, it appears that USA and her allies have taken the first step: further action(s) against Assad’s Syria – justified or otherwise, are expected.

The Syria-Iran-Iraq Gas Pipeline, dubbed as the ‘Islamic Pipeline,’ is a $10 Billion project which was agreed upon by the three countries in July 2011.

While the western narrative for initiating actions against Syria is being justified as retribution for chemical attacks perpetuated by a diabolic President Assad, there is more happening ‘in’ and ‘around’ Syria than what meets the eye : control of natural gas reserves, its trade, distribution and the strategic advantages it bestows are alternative and cogent reasons meriting western military intervention? History has proved that the lure of energy resources is powerful and oil and gas bequeathed to the Islamic world has turned out more as a curse, rather than a boon for its people; Iraq, Libya and the division of Sudan are recent examples of the plunder of Middle Eastern nationhood. This energy rich region has been repeatedly crushed and mutilated with utter disregard for socio-ethnic concerns for gaining control over the oil ‘wells of power.’ The anticipated attack on Syria by an incensed ‘coalition of the willing’ portends to be the latest in this game of hardball played for gaining geo-political strategic advantage(s).

Since it is intended to provide an alternative narrative for the fast developing war-like situation, a brief background is required to be provided. Geographically located at the junction of the fuel starved European Union and energy rich Iraq and Iran, Syria, by virtue of her location alone has the potential to play a pivotal role in conduiting gas supplies to Europe. In addition, Syria now has recently struck gas off her coast, the closest to Europe from where she could now supply gas directly. Collectively, these advantages make Syria’s role pivotal and dominant in the future. At the same time, the spectre of direct supply supplemented by the gas pipeline from Iran through Syria would trip the dream of Qatar to supply gas to Europe directly. USA, a strategic partner of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and being the largest beneficiary of their oil revenues, seems willing to back her partners to knock out Syria and Iran from the energy equation. By doing so, she would concurrently stymie Russian and Chinese attempts to alter the status quo favouring the USA, western powers and the nations of the Sunni Muslim world as also favour herself and Turkey by ensuring alternative Qatari gas for their joint gas pipeline project.

Essentially an Arab nation with 74 percent of its population being Sunni Muslims, the territory of Syria, which included what is today’s Lebanon, was mandated to France as spoils after the First World War under the Treaty of Sevres; in turn this was the outcome of a secret agreement (Sykes-Picot) brokered between Britain and France. This not only dampened Arab democratic aspirations, despite the elections of May 1919, this also flew in the face of the American led Crane Commission which was required to recommend the political future in accordance with the aspirations of the Arab people: both were thrown out of the window by Britain and France. Cutting the story of the Syrian struggle to the barest, France went on to occupy Syria in July 1920, though it took them another three years to establish full control over Syria. Later, Lebanon was carved out of Syria to provide a safe haven to Christians; the only state in the middle east where they are in majority over the Muslims.

As the world waits with bated breath for American Tomahawks to fly across the Syrian bows, it would be prudent to surmise that these are not merely being fired to punish the use of chemical weapons, but more importantly to serve a warning to Assad to scuttle his ambitious plans to supply piped gas to Europe directly.

The story of independent Syria since 1946 remained turbulent as it soon entered the Arab war against the newly created state of Israel in 1948, losing a part of the strategic Golan Heights in the bargain. Internal rumblings resulted in a coup-de-tat which ushered in military rule, which was replaced by another and the third in 1951. Even a return of a national (civil) government in 1956 could not bring stability; to illustrate, till 1956, Syria already had twenty new cabinets and four separate constitutions. In order to overcome her security concerns after the Suez Canal crisis of 1967, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, allowing the chill of the Cold war to permeate the region. This naturally alarmed the Turks (Turkey has the Syrian city of Iskendron under its occupation), and in turn, pushed the Syrians further in the embrace of the Soviet Union. The important point being made in this story of unstable nationhood is that ‘external’ factors have been many and they have repeatedly altered the course of Syrian history.

A brief interlude (1958-1961) of merger with Egypt followed taking the form of the short lived United Arab Republic. The experiment failed after power was retaken by the military in Damascus, this time under the cloak of the Baath Party: the party that had also taken over in neighbouring Iraq. At that stage there were talks of a unification of Syria, Egypt and Iraq as a solitary Arab nation, which eventually floundered after the party lost control over Baghdad in 1963. Within three years there was yet another coup ushering in the Second Baath government. The 1967 Six Day War with Israel that followed resulted in weakening of the Syrian government, though this did not deter them to send in forces for a misadventure against Jordan in support of the Palestine guerrillas after the dramatic events of the Black September. After receiving another bloody nose, it was the turn of the Minister of Defence, Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president belonging to the dominant Alawites (Alawis are a prominent religious group of Shia Muslims, forming twelve percent of the population of Syria who live in the Levant which is located at the cross roads of Western Asia, Eastern Mediterranean and North East Africa) to take over and consolidate the nation under the National Progressive Front, which undertook a ‘Correctionist Movement’ over the next thirty years. It was the lingering effect of his ‘reformist’ movement that transfer of power to the son following his death in June 2000 was smooth as the Syrian Parliament relaxed the minimum legal age from 40 to 34 to facilitate taking over by President Bashar al-Assad. The reign of Assad, an army physician by training, has been relatively less turbulent, despite the US led invasion of Iraq and the ongoing civil war. He has cultivated amicable relations with Iran and despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, has maintained close links with Moscow.

Coming to what has led to war clouds rumbling over Syria once again – it’s all about gas and more importantly, the economics connected to it.  Environment friendly and low cost natural gas has emerged as the energy of choice of the future and is set to replace coal and nuclear power generation, with the European Union being the largest market. This shift has coincided with major gas finds in Qatar, Iran, Syria and Israel, and it is this happenstance in energy geo-politics that as a blog put it as forming the string that ‘binds Israel, Turkey and Qatar in the form of an unholy alliance on one side, and Assad’s Syria, Iran, Russia and China on the other.’

…in strategic terms, the Qatar-Turkey pipeline is exceedingly important for Europe and USA as Europe can be freed from the Russian gas stranglehold, a grim reality of today.

As the world waits with bated breath for American Tomahawks to fly across the Syrian bows, it would be prudent to surmise that these are not merely being fired to punish the use of chemical weapons (rumoured to be a false flag operation), but more importantly to serve a warning to Assad to scuttle his ambitious plans to supply piped gas to Europe directly. It needs to be highlighted that the war to destabilise President Assad has been going for over two years and has taken the form of a Sunni-US sponsored civil war. It is the lack of success on this front that USA is being forced to go in for the kill. Legitimacy for undertaking the operation is being brokered to undertake punitive action(s) under an UN mandate for purported crimes committed against humanity and the chemical attack is being played up. It would be recalled that hysteria for war on Syria had also been built up in 2012; this got scuttled due to the actions taken by Russia and China working in tandem; this also led to the resignation of the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.

The Syria-Iran-Iraq Gas Pipeline, dubbed as the ‘Islamic Pipeline,’ is a $10 Billion project which was agreed upon by the three countries in July 2011. This proposes to pipe gas from the Pars field located in the Persian Gulf (single largest in the world) to Lebanon’s coast from where it would be supplied to the European markets by the year 2018. Since the Iranian Pars gas field extends beyond the Persian Gulf, Qatar, the second claimant of the world’s second largest field also plans to supply gas directly to Europe but through an alternate pipeline through Turkey traversing Iraq, but bypassing both Iran and Syria. In Turkey this would be linked with the US backed Nabucco pipeline, carrying gas supplies from the Central Asian Republics, adding to the value, since it would have a diversified source. Both proposals are thus in direct competition with each other whose leverage makes them strategic since their impact would be far reaching and would increase with time. It is important to highlight that in strategic terms, the Qatar-Turkey pipeline is exceedingly important for Europe and USA as Europe can be freed from the Russian gas stranglehold, a grim reality of today. On the other hand, the pipeline from Iran and Syria would remain somewhat under Russian influence as would be the supply of gas through the Nabucco line from the Central Asian Republics.

USA which is not only a strategic partner of Qatar, has compulsions since her strategically important bases of CENTCOM are located in Qatar…

Adding to the complexity are issues related to the supply of gas from Egypt and Jordan. President Assad has preferred his tie up with Iran over that with Egypt and Jordan who planned to supply gas directly to Homs in Syria for Europe and Turkey through the Arab Gas Pipeline running directly from Aqaba via Amman in Jordan. This line already supplies gas to Lebanon and Israel through outlets in Sidon and Haifa, though the link to Homs in Syria is still to be developed. By proffering his preference over Egypt and Jordan, both Sunni Muslim states, President Assad has placed his hopes with Shia Iran and therefore this competition is projected as a Sunni-Shia Muslim internecine conflict and this is the colour of the civil war raging in Syria to displace President Assad with a candidate of choice from the Muslim Brotherhood, preferred by the Sunni world. It is pertinent to highlight that amongst others, the fight against Assad (regime change being the unstated aim) is being waged by Al Qaida jihadis along with numerous fighters sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the western world, including Israel. Principles, if there are any which are followed in the real world of energy geo-politics and geo-strategy already stand compromised.

At this stage there is the requirement to inject the role of the other affected party who is in direct competition with Syria – Israel. In addition to the gas that Syria is to receive from Iran for supply to Europe, her own (recently discovered, but under played) Qara gas field close to her border with Lebanon and near the Russian naval port of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast is believed to be equal if not greater than the gas reserves of Qatar; bestowing a great advantage to Syria. Around the same time, Israel which was till recently an energy deficient nation hit pay dirt by the discovery of a ‘giant’ gas field in the offshore Levant basin. Both Syria and Israel are therefore now in direct competition with each other for supply of gas to Europe, which in practical terms would be cheaper than the gas sourced from either Iran or Qatar due to the low transportation costs. A map is highlighting these links and issues.

When viewed in perspective, Israel and Syria will both have the economic edge over Iran and Qatar due to reduced distances, whereas in strategic terms, the enhanced role that Syria could play directly, combined with the leverage of Iran and Russia at the expense of Qatar, Turkey and Israel becomes the compelling and time critical reason for the west and the Sunni world to nip the threat before it can develop. USA which is not only a strategic partner of Qatar, has compulsions since her strategically important bases of CENTCOM are located in Qatar;  these include the Air Expeditionary Wings of the US Air Force as well that of the Royal Air Force. Naturally, she would wish that the Iran-Syria initiative is eliminated from the equation. Since the thrust of the western initiative is also directed against Iran, this also reinforces Sunni domination over the Islamic world by the House of Saud over the Shiites of Iran. While the benefits for Israel and Turkey are obvious, this also dilutes Russian influence over Syria, while it provides an alternative source of gas for the US Nabucco pipeline. At the same time this restricts Chinese penetration in Iran’s energy infrastructure. Thus while the immediate case to act against Syria is loudly made out as retribution for Assad’s purported use of chemical weapons against the freedom loving people of the sponsored ‘Free Syrian Army,’ the game plan is larger with major strategic ramifications – behind the planned attacks, it’s all about gas.

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14 thoughts on “Competitive Shia-Sunni Gas Pipelines Politics?

  1. Dear Author,

    Thanks for the article explaining this hideous game so well.
    It now becomes crystal clear why :
    a) the recent offensive in Iraq has reputed suddenly and
    b) why it has looked like a swift take over so far. (Reminds me of the Tughlaq cavalry rushing from Delhi to Bengal through the Gangetic plains of Medieval India – almost like a lightning.)
    Anyway, hope India rethinks her energy insurance policy in light of all this.


  2. The US wants to exercise control over the world’s resources since it believes in a ‘unipolar’ world. That actually is a myth – whosoever does not belong to m the ‘one’ pole by exclusion belongs to the ‘second’ pole. So the reality is that of a bi or multi-polar world. The US has used chemical weapons (especially Agent Orange) in Vietnam. But the, of course, that was to secure ‘world peace’ – at whose cost and of what kind? Point to ponder. Indians must develop an Indo-centric world view, in the full confidence that we never covet anyones territory, but will not give up what is ours. If we choose to climb on any bandwaggon, we may well get a seat on it but cannot decide the direction it takes or the duration we shall enjoy a place on it.

    • I agree with your views. Now that the dust is settling in Syria and Assad’s chemical weapons are slated for destruction, the world and India need to revisit their respective strategies. India’s vulnerability of energy dependency has been exposed and it is high time that this clink in her armour is covered. Will be writing on this. Thanks. Amar

  3. Sir. What a brilliant article – we are never told the truth in mainstream media, it’s all PR spin lies and omissions – rarely the truth comes out as in WMD and Iraq and hardly anyone in the West knows that the war in Afghsnistan was about caspian oil pipelines – millions will die in the sick game of divide, deceive and destroy by the 1% parasitic elites

    • Thanks Cane-share your anguish. Truth is often unpleasant; raw greed and power grabs are hardly the news that cooperatives want to be publicized. It is because of this that nations play the game by invoking humanitarianism and nationalism. Whichever way these manifest, the end result is that they cost lives. Amar

  4. The most pertinent question that comes to mind is how far are these countries willing to go to secure the middle east? Direct involvement by America, Russia China or Europe sets the scene for trade sanctions, war or an otherwise bleak unsatisfactory hate filled future. 2 World Wars is lesson enough to the scale of destruction humans are capable of.

    Would it be fair to assume that these countries ,although greedy, will not sacrifice what is currently in their power to dominate and control gas pipelines? Gas is abundant by the looks of things around the Middle East(See also Norway, USA Fracking, projects etc..). What’s the use of bringing a foreign competition(war) to your doorstep and effecting relations globally through bullish tactics? I’m glad you mentioned the other middle eastern states as you’ve helped put a perspective on how Syria differs from the rest and why it’s now a crucial focus point in politics.

    Surely diplomatic ,political and business tactics /schemes /assurances would suffice?..A action of which will mostly go unreported and provide less violent fallout for said nations.

    Everyone wants a piece of the pie with regards to the gas/oil resource in the middle east and I agree with the statement that,” it’s more a curse than a boon”, on the peoples of the Middle East.
    Maybe after this civil war Syria can return to some modicum of peace and prosperity as afforded to the South American nations.

    Great Article Amar, keep’em coming.

    • Thanks Colin. The name of the game is played in the garb of securing national interests – I have no problem with that. However, beneath this veneer of nationalistic jingoism lie interests that are driven by cooperative interests.
      I wish I could agree with you that after this hot summer in the Middle East, a modicum of sanity would now prevail. In my view, since the underlying reasons remain, Syria and the region around it would remain a volatile powder keg. Amar

  5. It would be nice if our government would tell us the truth from time to time. This article makes me a believer. I’m getting old; my time is running out. In some ways that makes me happy. I won’t have to live in a world much longer in which my government – my lying, corrupt government – will involve it’s citizens in yet another endless, unwinnable war, sacrificing the youth of this country for the profits of some multinational conglomerate. It makes me sick.

    • Sir. Appreciate your despair. However, while there are doomsday scenarios wrt Syria doing the rounds, I am hopeful that sanity will prevail. You may like to read my latest post War over Syria: Implications, Ramifications and Imperatives. Hopefully reason will prevail. Thanks. Amar

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