Attack on Syria: Competitive Shia-Sunni Gas Pipeline Politics?
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.
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.
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.’
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.
India’s Role in Syrian Crisis
The present crisis in Syria poses a great challenge for the Indian foreign policy. Successful negotiations at the Geneva II peace conference are the only hope for avoiding yet another worst-case scenario of humanitarian crisis and extensive civil war. Both Russia and America can engage in dialogues with Damascus, but they don’t enjoy the confidence of the Syrian government. This is where the role of India emerges. Keeping aside Indian model of secular and participatory democracy, India is a time-tested ally of Syria. India has always supported Syrian demand of returning of Golan Heights to Syria and also has supported the cause of Palestine. The two countries also share a 50-year-old bilateral relationship, collaborating on the Middle East peace process and development agenda. Indian demand for permanent seat in UNSC and India’s take on Iran is supported by the Syrian establishment.
The Syrian government has always kept in touch with India, as India has a huge pull in various forums like BRICS. Syria feel India has a certain clout as a rising Asian giant and will be able to influence developments in the present crisis. In the case of any peace initiative at the UN level, a favourable role for India would be welcomed by Damascus. Being a flexible democracy, India is naturally sympathetic to the popular rising in West Asia and stands by the people’s aspirations for a participative and liberal political order. India’s response to the Syrian crisis has been cautious but firm and unequivocal. India is worried that the volatility in Syria could have spillover effects on its neighbourhood and can have negative impact on its own vital interests. India’s relation with Iran has come under strain due to increased economic restriction. This has increased New Delhi’s dependence on Arab countries for oil and natural gas. Moreover, around six million Indian expatriates live and work in the Gulf and send huge remittances back home. The security of these expatriates is also a major concern for the Indian establishment. Other security interests of India in the region includes energy supplies, food security, investments and projects, combating maritime piracy, and most importantly sensitivities of India’s vast Muslim population.
Dr Riad Kamel Abbas, the Syrian Ambassador to India, is learned to have met top Indian officials about two weeks ago to coax India to take up the matter at international fora. In the meeting, Abbas was reassured that India never supported a military strike and is always in favour of a political solution of a problem. In fact, in sync with the assurance given to Ambassador Riad Abbas, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke against a military strike against Syria at G-20 in St Petersburg, Russia. He told his fellow G20 leaders that India opposes any military action against Syria, which is not sanctioned by the United Nation Security Council. “Whatever happens should be under the UN’s auspices and not outside the framework of United Nation,” said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Vice-Chairman of Planning Commission. Prime Minister also told his G20 counterparts that there is a need to be certain about what happened during an alleged chemical weapon attack on August 21 and it is important for the world to await the results of a United Nationinvestigation.
During the ongoing crisis the Syrian government has clearly given indication of India having a greater role in the negotiation process, which seems to be endorsed by Russia and Iran too. India has the potential to encourage a development agenda in Syria. It can also play a big role as a third party between the United States and Russia. While persuading the Syrian government to declare a truce with the rebel factions, India can also facilitate a relaxation in the rigid attitude of the warring parties towards Damascus.
By Nilabh Krishna
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.
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.
(Indian Defence Review)
By Brig Amar Cheema