07 July 2012

I Never Thought I Would Disagree With Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk is one of my heroes.

He has been covering the Middle East for decades and he knows about the region more than any journalist alive. Given the American media's one sided coverage, he was often the only source that included the views of the other regional actors.

Imagine my discomfort when I found myself disagreeing with such an icon. My contrarian streak finally put me in an indefensible position, I thought. But, in the immortal words of an unconvicted war criminal, it is what it is.

On 29 June Robert Fisk wrote that Bashar al-Assad might remain in power for another two years as the US, Russia and most of the regional powers were about to agree to keep him in power for that time frame.
According to a source intimately involved in the possible transition from Baath party power, the Americans, Russians and Europeans are also putting together an agreement that would permit Assad to remain leader of Syria for at least another two years in return for political concessions to Iran and Saudi Arabia in both Lebanon and Iraq.
 He notes that the current situation is not really working out for al-Assad:
Information from Syria suggests that Assad’s army is now “taking a beating” from armed rebels, who include Islamist as well as nationalist forces; at least 6,000 soldiers are now believed to have been murdered or killed in action since the rebellion against Assad began 17 months ago. 
Despite that, the US is apparently keen on negotiating with Russia to acknowledge Iran's patron saint status for Iraq and Hezbollah to enable Saudi Arabia and Qatar to look after Sunni rights in those places.
The US-Russian negotiations – easy to deny, and somewhat cynically hidden behind the current mutual accusations of Hillary Clinton and her Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov – would mean that the superpowers would acknowledge Iran’s influence over Iraq and its relationship with its Hezballah allies in Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia – and Qatar - would be encouraged to guarantee Sunni Muslim rights in Lebanon and in Iraq. 
In other words, the US spent a couple of trillion dollars, sacrificed over four thousand American troops, killed hundreds of thousands Iraqis, established five big bases all over Iraq only to agree that Iran should have control over it.

Why, would it agree to that, you may ask. According to Fisk's sources, it is oil and gas pipelines:
 But the real object of talks between the world powers revolves around the West’s determination to secure oil and particularly gas from the Gulf states without relying upon supplies from Moscow. “Russia can turn off the spigot to Europe whenever it wants – and this gives it tremendous political power,” the source says. “We are talking about two fundamental oil routes to the West – one from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Jordan and Syria and the Mediterranean to Europe, another from Iran via Shia southern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and on to Europe. This is what matters. This is why they will be prepared to let Assad last for another two years, if necessary. They would be perfectly content with that. And Russia will have a place in the new Syria.”
This is where he lost me.

First of all, why should leaving Assad in power be conducive to stability? He has been unable to suppress the uprising. And while you might argue that his departure would lead to total chaos, the current situation is not what you can call pipeline protective stability.

In fact, there is a gas pipeline that connects Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Turkey known as the Arab pipeline (ironically, it also connects Egypt to Israel).  The problem is, it has been nonoperational for months because it is impossible to maintain its security. Not just in Syria but also in Egypt. The section in Syria goes through Homs, the town made famous by the constant shelling and the extreme nature of the atrocities committed there. I don't see how Assad remaining in power would make this or any other pipeline more secure.

Secondly, I am puzzled by his source's claim that Syria is in the middle of the only two possible routes to channel gas to Europe. I know that the proposed Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline was going to go through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to reach Turkey. But I don't see why it has to cross Syria. There are 11 pipeline networks (either installed or in discussion) going through Turkey. It would make a lot of sense to pass through Iraq and Turkey and eventually connect to the Nabucco network.
Not only the EU, but Iraq and Turkey also need Qatar’s natural gas. Iraq does not have sufficient natural gas reserves in the central and southern parts of the country. For this reason, even the oil wells in Basra utilize sea water instead of natural gas. Natural gas drilling in the Kurdish regions of Iraq can only supply northern Iraq. It will therefore be beneficial to Qatar if its natural gas is also supplied to Turkey and Iraq and integrated with the Nabucco project.
Already the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced that it will be selling its newly discovered natural gas (three trillion cubic meters) directly to Turkey and a pipeline project is currently being discussed.

Thirdly, if the motivation was to reduce Europe's dependency on Russian gas, why would they pass a pipeline through Syria and let Assad stay in power. Is he not seen as Russia's man? Wouldn't this plan reward Russia with increased dominance in Syria? How could this be construed as a challenge to Russian control of gas going to Europe?

There is more to this.

If you were not in the oil and gas business you probably missed the announcement that came on 26 June about the Trans-Anatolian (TANAP) gas pipeline. Azerbaijan and Turkey signed the final deal and committed themselves to building a pipeline that will carry the gas from Shah Deniz field to Europe.

When completed, the initial capacity will be a modest 16 bcm (billion cubic meters) and 6 bcm will go to Turkey. The rest will go to Europe through Nabucco West. Since Europe consumes about 600 bcm per annum, this will hardly make a difference in terms of their dependency. But the project is designed to scale up to end up with 60 bcm in late 2020s.

Russia has been against TANAP and many believed that it would succeed in killing the deal. When the deal got signed Russia's immediate reaction was to express its indignation.
On June 28, a Gazprom official expressed Russian indignation over the Trans-Anatolian natural gas pipeline (TANAP) deal, which was signed between Azerbaijan and Turkey two days previously. The $7bn pipeline is one of the main rivals to the Russian-backed South Stream pipeline and its construction will reduce European dependence on Russian gas exports by creating a direct export route from the Caspian basin. 
Responding to a Turkish request for additional gas supplies following an explosion on the main Iran-Turkey gas pipeline, a Gazprom official said that the Russian gas giant would increase deliveries this time, but that if TANAP is "completed as planned in 2018, Turkey could then apply for help to Baku,” Reuters reported. 
When I started this blog, my working hypothesis was the paramount importance of oil and gas distribution for the next three decades. And on that basis, I worked out a scenario to stabilize the region to ensure the steady flow of oil and gas. The central role in that scenario was given to Turkey not only as an energy hub but also as a regional superpower.

I am happy to consider any evidence that puts my hypothesis in doubt. After all, I am just a nobody speculating from the sidelines. But I doubt that a playbook that gives more powers to Russia and Iran, increases Iran's authority over Iraq and perpetuates Syria's current regime by placing strategically important pipelines in its territory could be considered a sensible choice by the West. Especially if the purported goal is to reduce their dependence on Russia's gas and reduce Russia's influence in the region.

This makes no sense.

On the other hand, when you look at the timing of the TANAP and Shah Deniz deal from my perspective, it is hard to miss the signal sent to Russia. It is also telling that, even two days after the deal, Russia did not want to alienate Turkey by refusing its request for more gas.

So. with apologies to Robert Fisk, I remain a contrarian.

Two interesting footnotes somewhat unrelated to oil and gas issue:

The defection of General Munaf Tlass was hailed as a sign that regime is collapsing. I am not so sure of that. He is a Sunni general in the elite Republican Guard but he "was sidelined more than a year ago, after he was deemed unreliable." So he was hardly Assad's right hand man, as some sources claim. While they were close friends at some point, at the time of his defection, he was no longer in his inner circle.

But his defection indicates that the Sunni-Alawi (or Alewite) dichotomy that seems to influence this conflict in may ways is also affecting the regime itself. Given the financial (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and military (Turkey) power of the regime's Sunni foes and the increasingly religious (Sunni) identity of the opposition, this event indicates that it will be much harder for the assimilated Syrian Sunnis to maintain their allegiance to the current regime.

Oil and gas are important but when identity based polarization takes hold there is very little anyone can do to keep that system in place.

Second point is about an ironic twist. The bodies of the pilots of the downed Turkish plane were found yesterday. One of the pilots was called Hasan Huseyin Aksoy. It is almost certain that he was Alevi (which is Turkish nomenclature for Alawites). 

You see, Alawi, Alawite or Alevi refers to Ali, who was the fourth original Caliph and a cousin and son in law of Prophet Mohammad. He is also the most important person (after Mohammad)  for the Shia. And Alewites are an offshoot of Shia. They both revere Ali and his two sons Hassan and Husain (in Turkish Hasan and Huseyin). They are the second and third Shia Imams and Husain was killed in the Battle of Karbala. Every year Shiite Muslims commemorate that day with sadness, chanting and flagellating themselves to remember what Husain endured for Muslims on that day.

Needless to say, that there are many Muslims belonging to various sects called Hassan or Husain. But if the same person is called Hasan Husain it is almost guaranteed that he comes from a Shiite or Alewite family. 

That's what I mean by ironic twist. 

A conflict that is increasingly cast in sectarian terms might have crossed its Rubicon in the downing of an Alevi pilot by an Alawite commander.

Only in the Middle East.

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