14 June 2013

Syria, Sectarian Violence and Pipelineistan

A good friend of mine asked me what I thought of the sectarian violence in Syria and why I was not commenting on the upcoming Geneva II talks.

I told him that both of these issues are closely linked and they were intelligible only if you looked at the larger picture. I added that there was a very complicated chess game that was being played out and it was hard to make pronouncements without looking foolish in the short run.

He retorted that looking stupid never stopped me before.

And besides, he said, nobody is reading this thing, what do you care?

I have devoted friends.

Let me start with the sectarian violence. In the past, I expressed concern about a prolonged civil war and the radicalization that this would bring to the parties. Over the last few months, I have come to realize that the sectarian violence is a feature not a bug.

What do I mean by that?

Think about the recent horrific video clip that showed the leader of the Omar al-Farouk Brigade killing a Syrian soldier and opening up his chest to bite into what he thought was his heart (it was his lungs apparently). What is unusual about it, is not the unspeakable act he committed. Humanity being what it is, in every war, countless acts of unspeakable barbarity have always been committed.

What is odd is that (a) this Jihadi filmed himself killing that guy and opening up his chest and biting into his organs (b) uploaded the video to You Tube and social media sites (c) took questions from a Time Magazine reporter to acknowledge that he was indeed the guy in the clip (d) volunteered the information that he had recently killed a shabiha militant and cut him up into small pieces with a chain saw. And he said gleefully that he was planning to upload that clip soon.

The clincher: At the end of the interview, he announced that he and his Sunni brothers would do the same to every Alewite in Syria.

A couple of days later another clip appeared on You Tube showing al-Nusra Front militants killing 11 Syrian soldiers.

There was also the (rather credible) allegation that the rebels have used sarin gas. And while "interested"  parties cast doubt on that notion, rebels did not lift a finger to dispel it.

Since then, there was another incident every other day, the last being a couple of days ago, with Al Nusra Front rebels butchering 60 people in a Shia village.

The UN has just released a report that states that 93,000 people died in the civil war.

I have seen similar behavior during the Bosnian civil war and the goal was to ensure that any goodwill or any trace of trust among various communities was permanently erased.

It is ethnic cleansing through You Tube.

A prolonged civil war, increasingly radicalized and polarized community groups and the dissemination of barbaric acts collectively ensure that Geneva II or not (and Assad II or not), at the end of hostilities, Syrians will no longer be willing to live side by side in the same political entity.

And that too is a feature and not a bug.

Let me try to explain why that is the case.


The term was coined by the brilliant Pepe Escobar and it is a fairly apt description of the process of re-arranging the political geography of the region.

Let's take a look at the actors and their stakes.


Qatar is a tiny country in the Persian Gulf. Its most important attribute is to be sitting on top of the largest natural gas fields in the world, the South Pars/North Dome Field. The field is estimated to hold 51 trillion cubic meters of natural gas (that's trillion) and 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates.

What complicates things is that Qatar is not the sole owner of the field. It shares it with Iran as you can see on the map below.

Now Qatar has been developing its side of the field and it has been actively looking for ways to export this natural gas through pipelines. Other than the fact that this is more efficient and cheaper, pipelines eliminate the Iranian threat of closing off the Strait of Hormuz through which tankers transport Qatari gas.

If you look at the map of the region, you can see where such pipelines could go.

The shortest route would go through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria to reach the Mediterranean. Alternatively, the pipes could be rooted through Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria.

And Qatar has been trying to find a way to do this.

But it is a complicated game.


Iran has been trying to do the same for its side of the South Pars field. The Iranian pipeline would go through Iraq and Syria, as it was announced in July 2011. It is a $10 billion project. With a Shiite Prime Minister in power in Iraq and an Alewite running the show in Syria, the project appeared like a Shiite pipeline (at least to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and especially to the US).

But Iran's efforts were hampered by the fact that it needed to invest a lot of money (by some estimates $50 billion) to exploit efficiently its side of the field. To give you an idea of the disparity between the two sides, Iran ranks as the 25th exporter of natural gas in the world, whereas Qatar is now the leading global exporter of liquefied natural gas.

The economic hardship that came with the US sanctions means that Iran has a harder time to find the funds needed for a better exploitation of its oil and gas fields.

From the US perspective, Iran has to be contained and it is something that is proving to be difficult. Already, Iran signed a deal to build a pipeline to Pakistan and India (IPI or the "peace pipeline" that the departing Pakistani President Zardari inaugurated as his last act in office). And that is a problem for PaxAmericana.

The IPI is not the only setback for the US policy. There is more. China is Iran's biggest client for oil and gas and it does not care about sanctions.

In that context, the American thinking is that, if Iran is allowed to build the Iran, Iraq, Syria pipeline, the Islamic Republic might increase its exports significantly and find the necessary investment to exploit South Pars more efficiently. As I said, China, for one, would be happy to help.

This is something the US desperately wants to avoid as they believe that if Iran regained its economic power, it would throw US plans for the region into disarray. They are convinced that Iran would likely use its economic power to challenge its regional rival, Turkey; it could certainly make life difficult for Israel by increasing its material assistance to Hezbollah and Hamas; and it might disrupt efforts towards regional stability by changing the dynamics of the Kurdish and Palestinian peace initiatives.

In that sense, for Syria, choosing the Iran, Iraq, Syria pipeline over Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria pipeline was not a safe and rational economic decision. It signaled to the US and other regional actors that Bashar Al-Assad was siding with one group and thumbing his nose to the others.

Perhaps more importantly, the move was part of a larger strategic plan that went against Turkey's vital economic interests. And alienating the US, Turkey and the wealthy Sunni bloc, all at the same time, was not Assad's brightest move.


You see, prior to signing off on what I call the Shiite pipeline, Assad had announced a new long term vision entitled the "four seas strategy" which aimed to make Syria a regional oil and gas hub by bringing together the Persian Gulf, Caspian, Black and Mediterranean Seas.

Initially, this looked like a fine idea. After all, Syria's Northern neighbor has been working towards the same goal. And bringing Syria in it would be grand for all concerned. In fact, there was already a pipeline that went from Egypt to Turkey passing through Syria and carrying Egyptian natural gas (it was called Arab Gas Pipeline or AGP).

For a while, Erdogan and Assad were each other's BFF and Turkey offered to connect its grid to those proposed pipelines that were going to crisscross Syria. Moreover, AGP was going to be extended to go from Aleppo to Kilis in Turkey to eventually link up with the on-again, off-again Nabucco project.

But then the Shiite pipeline was introduced and, wonder of all wonders, the project completely bypassed Turkey. Not surprisingly, this was perceived by Turkey as a challenge to its energy hub aspirations.

Within weeks, the Turkish government stopped joint oil explorations with Syria.  Erdogan made a complete about face and began to attack Assad and his administration. And since then Turkey has become Assad's number one foe and a safe haven for Syrian refugees and a training ground for Free Syrian Army (FSA).

There is one more actor in all this and that is Russia.


From a Pipelineistan perspective Russia has every reason to support Assad and to push for a protracted civil war.

Russia is Europe's (and Turkey's) biggest supplier of natural gas. By and large, Gazprom is a monopoly. It controls both the volume and price and if there is an issue with either, it simply cuts off the supply. Which means that if Putin or his successors decide to use energy to blackmail Europe, European countries would be helpless. Hence, their desperate quest for an alternate supplier.

Qatar's proposed pipeline through Turkey would provide that lifeline for Europe and put Gazprom in its place. However, that could only be realized if Assad is no longer in charge and a Sunni government replaced him. Conversely, if Assad hangs on the power, every passing month postpones the Qatar pipeline.

In that sense, Russia's moves like blocking successive UN resolutions or pretending to send more arms are intelligible as maintaining a reasonable sense of stalemate and giving its Gazprom monopoly a new lease in life. And I can see those Gazprom managers speculating about the uncertainty of what would happen between the start of the construction and inauguration of the proposed Qatar natural gas pipeline.

It is an intriguing game of chess and it has got a little more complicated with the Hezbollah helping Assad's army to take back Qusayr. The Syrian army is now going after Aleppo. And the US, Turkey and the Sunni bloc are standing up for the beleaguered city.

This is the politics of Pipelineistan.

And this is why no one wants Syrians to be together after the hostilities. They are given every reason not to accept a peaceful outcome. The interested parties expect that Syrians should accept a de facto partitioning like Iraq or de jure partitioning like Bosnia.

And through the Sunni region of the divided up Syria, a shining new pipeline will carry Qatari natural gas.

One last thing: now that the FSA is not doing well, I expect that the US, Turkey and the Sunni bloc to look for a casus belli that would enable them to set up at least a no-fly-zone. I don't expect ground troops going in. I just expect that they would deny Assad's air force to attack targets.

This is why Russia had initiated the process to send them modern anti-aircraft missiles. And this is why it is taking so long.

Next, expect innovative attempts for a decent casus belli.

We live in interesting times, provided that you are not part of the sad statistics.

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this education on the real reason for the "attack Syria because they kill kids with gas"ruse.