Syria’s Pipelineistan war
Deep beneath “Damascus volcano” and “the battle of Aleppo”, the tectonic plates of the global energy chessboard keep on rumbling. Beyond the tragedy and grief of civil war, Syria is also a Pipelineistan power play.
More than a year ago, a $10 billion Pipelineistan deal was clinched between Iran, Iraq and Syria for a natural gas pipeline to be built by 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field, traversing Iraq and Syria, with a possible extension to Lebanon. Key export target market: Europe.
During the past 12 months, with Syria plunged into civil war, there was no pipeline talk. Up until now. The European Union’s supreme paranoia is to become a hostage of Russia’s Gazprom. The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline would be essential to diversify Europe’s energy supplies away from Russia.
It gets more complicated. Turkey happens to be Gazprom’s second-largest customer. The whole Turkish energy security architecture depends on gas from Russia – and Iran. Turkey dreams of becoming the new China, configuring Anatolia as the ultimate Pipelineistan strategic crossroads for the export of Russian, Caspian-Central Asian, Iraqi and Iranian oil and gas to Europe.
Try to bypass Ankara in this game, and you’re in trouble. Until virtually yesterday, Ankara was advising Damascus to reform – and fast. Turkey did not want chaos in Syria. Now Turkey is feeding chaos in Syria. Let’s examine one of the key possible reasons.
I went down to the crossroads
Syria is not a major oil producer; its reserves are dwindling. Yet until the outbreak of civil war, Damascus was making a hardly negligible $4 billion a year in oil sales – a third of the government budget.
Syria’s play in Pipelineistan includes the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) from Egypt to Tripoli (in Lebanon) and the IPC from Kirkuk, in Iraq, to Banyas – idle since the 2003 US invasion.
The centrepiece of Syria’s energy strategy is the “Four Seas Policy” – a concept introduced by Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, two months before the start of the uprising. It’s like a mini-Turkish power play – an energy network linking the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Black Sea and the Gulf.
Damascus and Ankara soon got down to business – integrating their gas grids, linking them with the AGP and, crucially, planning the AGP’s extension from Aleppo to Kilis in Turkey; this could later link to the perennial Pipelineistan opera, the Nabucco, assuming this fat lady ever sings (and that’s far from given).
Damascus was also getting ready to go one up on the IPC; in late 2010 it signed a memorandum of understanding with Baghdad to build one gas and two oil pipelines. Target market, once again: Europe.
Then all hell broke loose. But even while the uprising was underway, the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipelineistan deal was clinched. If finished, it will carry at least 30 per cent more gas than the bound-to-be-scrapped Nabucco.
Aye, there’s the rub. What is sometimes referred to as the Islamic Gas Pipeline bypasses Turkey.
The verdict is open on whether this complex Pipelineistan gambit qualifies as a casus belli for Turkey and NATO to go all-out after Assad; but it should be remembered that Washington’s strategy in south-west Asia since the Clinton administration has been to bypass, isolate and hurt Iran by all means necessary.
Damascus was certainly pursuing a very complex two-pronged strategy – at the same time linking with Turkey (and Iraqi Kurdistan) but also bypassing Turkey and incorporating Iran.
With Syria mired in civil war, no global investor would even dream of playing Pipelineistan. Yet in a post-Assad scenario all options are open. Everything will hinge on the future relationship between Damascus and Ankara, and Damascus and Baghdad.
The oil and gas will have to come from Iraq anyway (plus more gas from Iran); but the final destination of Syria Pipelineistan could be Turkey, Lebanon or even Syria itself – exporting directly to Europe out of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara is definitely betting on a Sunni-led post-Assad government not dissimilar to the AKP. Turkey already halted joint oil exploration with Syria and is about to suspend all trade relations.
Syria-Iraq relations involve two separate strands that seem a world apart; with Baghdad and with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Imagine a SNC-FSA Syrian government; it would definitely be antagonistic towards Baghdad, mostly on sectarian terms; moreover, the Shia-majority al-Maliki government is on good strategic terms with Tehran, and recently, also with Assad.
The Alawite mountains command the Syrian Pipelineistan routes towards the Eastern Mediterranean ports of Banyas, Latakia and Tartus. There’s also much gas to be discovered – following the recent exploits in Cyprus and Israel. Assuming the Assad regime is toppled but beats a strategic retreat towards the mountains, the possibilities for guerrilla sabotage of pipelines multiply.
As it stands, no one knows how a post-Assad Damascus will reconfigure its relations with Ankara, Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan – not to mention Tehran. Syria, though, will keep playing the Pipelineistan game.
The Kurdish enigma
Most of Syria’s oil reserves are in the Kurdish northeast – which geographically lies between Iraq and Turkey; the rest is along the Euphrates, down south.
Syrian Kurds make up nine per cent of the population – some 1.6 million people. Even if they’re not a sizable minority, Syrian Kurds are already considering that whatever happens in a post-Assad environment, they will be very well positioned in Pipelineistan, offering a direct route for oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan, in theory bypassing both Baghdad and Ankara.
It’s as if the whole region is playing a Bypassing Lotto. As much as the Islamic Gas Pipeline may be interpreted as bypassing Turkey, a direct deal between Ankara and Iraqi Kurdistan for two strategic oil and gas pipelines from Kirkuk to Ceyhan may be seen as bypassing Baghdad.
Baghdad, of course, will fight it – stressing these pipelines are null and void without the central government having its sizeable cut; after all it pays for 95 per cent of the budget of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have been playing a clever game. In Syria they don’t trust Assad or the SNC opposition. The PYD – linked to the PKK – dismisses the SNC as a puppet from Turkey. And the secular Kurdish National Council (KNC) dreads the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
So the absolute majority of Syrian Kurds have been neutral; no support for Turkish (or Saudi) puppets, all power to the pan-Kurdish cause. PYD leader Salih Muslim Muhammad has summed it all up: “What is important is that we Kurds assert our existence.”
This means, essentially, more autonomy. And that’s exactly what they got from that July 11 deal signed in Irbil, under the auspices of Iraqi Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani; the co-administration of Syrian Kurdistan by the PYD and the KNC. That was the direct consequence of a wily strategic retreat by the Assad regime.
No wonder Ankara is freaking out – it sees not only the PKK finding a safe haven in Syria, hosted by their cousins of the PYD, but also two Kurdish de facto statelets, sending a powerful signal to Kurds in Anatolia.
What Ankara could do to minimise its nightmare is to discreetly help the Syrian Kurds economically – ranging from aid to investments in infrastructure – via its good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Ankara’s worldview, nothing can stand in the way of its dream of becoming the ultimate energy bridge between East and West. That implies an extremely complex relationship with no fewer than nine countries; Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
As for the wider Arab world, even before the Arab Spring, an Arab Pipelineistan that could link Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad was being seriously discussed. That would do more to unify and develop a new Middle East than any “peace process”, “regime change” or peaceful or militarised uprising.
Into this delicate equation, the dream of a Greater Kurdistan is now back in play. And the Kurds may have a reason to smile; Washington appears to be silently backing them – a very quiet strategic alliance.
Of course Washington’s motives are not exactly altruistic. Iraqi Kurdistan under Barzani is a very valuable tool for the US to keep a military footprint in Iraq. The Pentagon will never admit it on the record – but advanced plans already exist for a new US base in Iraqi Kurdistan, or for the transfer to Iraqi Kurdistan of NATO’s base in Incirlik.
This has got to be one of the most fascinating subplots of the Arab Spring; the Kurds fitting perfectly into Washington’s game in the whole arc from the Caucasus to the Gulf.
Many an executive from Chevron and BP may be now salivating over the open possibilities of Iraq-Syria-Turkey Pipelineistan triangulations. Meanwhile, many a Kurd may be now salivating over Pipelineistan opening the doors to a Greater Kurdistan.
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).