To understand Syria’s turmoil, follow the oil

Lost in the handwringing over Syria is any discussion of energy politics, which is a shame, because it's energy as much as sectarian hatred that has transformed this conflict into no ordinary war. 


by Sarah S. Davison

Lost in the handwringing over Syria is any discussion of energy politics, which is a shame, because it’s energy as much as sectarian hatred that has transformed this conflict into no ordinary war.

Afghanistan looks like a game of Monopoly compared to the Big Power interests at play in Syria, where nascent energy and resource interests are colliding with fragile or fractured national identities.

For decades, Syria’s “delicate mosaic” of Alawites, Shi’ites, Sunnis, Druze, and Christians was a source of national pride – despite the strongman and the brutal secret service that helped glue it all together. Syria’s uneasy stability was prized by a region haunted by the 20-year Lebanon conflict, and this also helps to explain why Hezbollah took more than a year to engage.

Unfortunately, regional restraint was no match for what is, at least in part, a conflict over who gets to transport the natural gas from the massive South Pars field, straddling Iran and Qatar, towards Europe.

Last year, Iran signed a $10-billion pipeline through Iraq into Syria with a possible extension to Lebanon.

That was a poke in the eye to Qatar and Turkey, who are developing a rival route from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and then Turkey.

Their objective, obviously, is to cut out Iran. And Russia.

Naval capability explains Russia’s uncompromising attitude regarding Syria. The Iraq-Syria pipeline ends in the Mediterranean port of Tartus, an appealing target for a near-landlocked nation dependent upon its warm Black Sea ports to keep the oil flowing through winter.

The depth of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commitment became evident last week. Even as talk about Geneva peace talks continued, Putin moved Russian vessels into the Eastern Mediterranean, while offering Damascus state-of-the-art ground-to-sea missiles.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Now inject Kurdistan, and its newfound oil wealth, into this calculus.

On March 21, after 30 years and 30,000 lives, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) agreed to a ceasefire effectively ending its armed insurrection across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria to establish a Kurdish state.

The reason? Oil. Kirkuk in northeastern Iraq, an area that falls under the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), recently discovered massive oil reserves that need to find their way to market.

Iraq’s Al-Maliki central government is insisting that any energy corridor deals must be driven by Baghdad rather than the notoriously independent-minded KRG capital of Erbil.

Ostensibly, Turkey joins Qatar and Saudi Arabia in wanting Bashar Al-Assad gone – but a KRG pipeline deal with Ankara would consolidate Kurdish influence in southeast Turkey, stabilizing that area while allowing the movement of up to 7,000 PKK fighters out of Turkey – where they are considered a thorn in the side – and into Syria. There, they may just shift the balance – especially if Washington follows through on its decision to arm the rebels.

Except that things are now spinning out of control in Syria. Some rebel groups are still fighting to remove Assad, but increasingly everyone agrees that the most – and probably the only – really effective group is the al-Qaida-linked Al-Nusra Front.

Yes, these are groups affiliated with the same people who brought down the Twin Towers.

It gets worse. Two days ago reports started to emerge that Al-Nusra has disintegrated and been replaced by a far more vicious al-Qaida grouping under an Iraqi leader known as Al-Baghdadi, who is importing a uniquely relevant set of skills learned during nearly a decade of American occupation. This is not the sort of group that can be controlled or directed.

This is now an expanding, regional conflict driven by brutally uncompromising Big Power strategies, and inflamed by sectarian hatreds. The headlines are all about the violence, but it is energy, not sectarianism, that is driving the conflict.

Until there is a resolution to the energy and pipeline conflicts that surround Syria, there will be no end to that nation’s agony. At least that provides a place to start. Unfortunately, these are resource wars, and resource wars tend to end with redrawn maps.

Sarah Davison is a former Yukon journalist who attended the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. She currently lives in Whitehorse.