The Destabilization of Syria – Who Gains?

2016/08/11

The Destabilization of Syria – Who Gains?

I’ve spent the last several posts analyzing the Ghouta chemical weapon attacks in Syria including:

Today I want to take a big step back and look more generally at the geopolitical motivations affecting Syria.

Of course, understanding all the players and motives operating in Syria is a very tall order.  I don’t presume to say what follows is a complete analysis but simply a summary of the major movers and shakers I bumped into over the last several months as I tried to answer the question: Why?  Why has Syria, like Libya before it, been targeted for destabilization?

A Tale of Three Pipelines

Before we run down the list of players and their motivations we need to talk a little bit about pipelines.  Natural gas pipelines to be exact.  Because, of course, what Middle East conflict would be complete without energy resources being a major factor.

The first pipeline to discuss in the so-called Islamic pipeline.  Back in July of 2011 (not coincidentally around the time the fighting broke out in Syria) Iran, Iraq and Syria signed an agreement to construct the Islamic pipeline.  This proposed pipeline would run from Iran’s massive South Pars and Assalouyeh gas fields, through Iraq, and into Syria to the Mediterranean.  From there the gas would be shipped to Europe via Syria’s ports.  Plans to extend the pipeline under the Mediterranean sea to connect directly to European markets are also being floated.

This Islamic pipeline would complete directly with the Western backed Nabucco pipeline which will connect Azerbaijan gas with Europe through Turkey.  Planning for the Nabucco pipeline began back in 2002 with Turkey, the U.S. and EU all heavily invested in the project’s success.

The third pipeline playing into this is the Qatar-Turkey pipeline which Qatar proposed to run from its side of the South Pars gas field (which it shares with Iran) through Saudi Arabia, Jordon, Syria and into Turkey and Europe.  Qatar proposed this pipeline back in 2009 but Syria rejected the plan in favour of the Iran/Iraq/Syrian Islamic pipeline.

Here’s a rough representation of the three pipelines.  Note that I’m simply showing the general routes through the countries involved and not the specific route the pipeline will take through those countries.  But, this is sufficient to give us the strategic perspective on the pipelines.

syria_pipelines

Next let’s look at some of the religious tensions that are always boiling under the surface in any Middle Eastern conflict.

The Sunni-Shia Tension

Next to competition for scarce resources, religion is a leading cause of conflict.  This is especially true in the Middle East where two branches of Islam compete: Shia and Sunni.  I won’t go into the differences between the two sects; suffice to say that, to many muslims in the region, the differences are important enough that they’ll kill each other over them.

What’s important here is to look at a map and understand the natural alliances and adversaries that form along these religious lines.  This is not a hard and fast rule but still useful in the general sense.

shiite_sunni

While Shiite’s only comprise 15-20% of the population in Syria, Syria has been traditionally Shia friendly.  Indeed President Assad’s family is in fact Shiite (well, Alawite more precisely but this is a sub-sect of Shia) though his wife is a Sunni.

With these religious divisions in mind. the Islamic pipeline and Syria’s generally close alliance with Iran starts to make more sense.  Likewise, the reason Syria would be inclined to partner with Iran on a pipeline while turning down the Qatar-Turkey pipeline starts to come into focus.

With that general background covered, let’s look at each of the various players meddling in the Syrian civil war.  In many cases we’ll see that they are at least partially motivated by pipeline politics and religion.

Israeli

Israel quite obviously has an interest in anything that happens in the MIddle East.  In the case of Syria, lying on its north-eastern border this is certainly the case.

Recall that Israel currently occupies the majority of the Golan Heights, territory it annexed in the 1967 six day war.  Since that time Israel has been steadily building settlements on the disputed land despite condemnation of this action by the international community including the U.N. (see U.N. Security Council Resolution 497).  Obviously Syria has and will continue to oppose and protest this situation.  But if Syria were to cease to be a viable sovereign nation, these hassles would simply disappear for the Israelis.  Thus, the destabilization of Syria could allow Israel to finalize a land grab begun decades ago.

And there’s a further factor with respect to the Golan Heights.  The Israeli government recently awarded U.S. based Genie Energy (to which Dick Cheney is an advisor) the rights to explore the Golan Heights for oil and natural gas.  Genie Energy believes that the region may hold substantial reserves.

Obviously were substantial oil or gas reserves be verified in the Golan Heights, there would be massive pressure brought to bear on Israel not to exploit these resources given the territory is still legally a part of Syria.  But, if Syria no longer existed as a state having dissolved into chaos or fractured into several states along ethnic and religious lines, the way would be open for Israel to exploit any resources found.

Of course, Israel is already relatively flush with natural gas and nurturing ambitions of becoming a player in the natural gas arena.  They’ve recently discovered two large gas fields under the Mediterranean (Tamar and Leviathan).  This new-found status as a natural gas superpower could well be factoring into Israeli calculations on Syria.  Destabilizing Syria would kill the Islamic pipeline and ensure that Iran’s gas could not compete with Israel for supply to the European market.  It would also limit the possibilities for Qatar to get their gas to market.

Taking Syria out also further isolates Israel’s main adversary in the region: Iran.  Iran and Syria have long been strategic allies and many analysts see eliminating Syria as simply the first step of a larger plan to take down Iran.

And finally, it’s clearly in Israeli interests to have the various muslim sects in neighbouring countries fighting amongst themselves and not unified and fighting against Israel.  This ‘balkanization’ of Syria is a well known and documented plan by Zionist elements in Israel.  Many of these Zionist thinkers do hold senior positions of power within the Netanyahu government, the Likud party and Israeli military and intelligence services.  The topic of Zionism and its goals is outside the scope of this post but something I will likely be researching and writing about in more detail in the future.  But the basic premise applicable here is simply divide and conquer.

Qatar

Qatar is a small but extremely wealthy nation just off Saudi Arabia’s east coast.  Qatar’s wealth comes from large oil and natural gas deposits.  They have recently started to put this wealth to use trying to gain influence in the region.  This has include large donations both to Gaza (to the fury of the Israelis) and to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood earlier this year prior to the coup.

And, in the case of Syria, they have been far more sinister with using their wealth to influence the geopolitical realities in the region.  There is clear documented evidence of at least $3 billion dollars being spent by Qatar to fund and arm the Syrian rebels.  This support can be tracked right back to the very start of the civil war.  Moreover Qatar makes no scruples about funding the most extremist Al Qaeda linked groups involved in the fighting.  From Qatar’s perspective anyone willing to take down Assad is an ally.

So the question is why?  Why has Qatar been so determined to topple Assad right from the start?

One answer is the Islamic pipeline I discussed above.  Recall that back in 2009 Qatar proposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline that would give Qatar access to European markets.  Syria was to be the key middle section of this pipeline.  But in 2011 Syria rejected Qatar’s offer and instead accepted Iran’s competing offer to construct the Islamic pipeline.

It’s not a coincidence that within weeks of Syria announcing its acceptance of the Islamic pipeline, Qatar started openly funding the rebels.  The Islamic pipeline coupled with the religious tensions that already existed between Sunni Qatar and Shia-friendly Syria seemed to convince Qatar that Assad had to go.  And, with massive wealth at their disposal, the Qataris have been one of the main funders for the rebels ever since.

Another factor that’s important to document when talking about Qatar is that they have gone to great lengths, and expense, to ingratiate themselves to Western interests.  Qatar hosts the U.S. military’s Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center as well as two U.S. Air Force bases and one U.S. Army base.  Since 2003 the U.S. has spent over $400 million dollars building up these various installations in Qatar.

Qatar has also been keen to throw its wealth around to gain further political influence amongst Western nations.  With an outsized sovereign wealth fund, Qatar has been busy buying influence throughout the Middle East, Europe and beyond.  Qatar may be small but it’s got big ambitions and the chequebook to back them up.

The point here is not necessarily that Qatar is aligned with Western policy on Syria, but rather that Qatar is leveraging its position to help shape Western policy on Syria and further their goal of becoming a more dominant regional player.

Saudi Arabia

The involvement of Saudi Arabia in funding and supplying the Syrian rebels is, as with Qatar, well established and known in the main stream.  There’s also a crazy, and seemly founded, story circulating about the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar (aka Bandar Bush), trying (and failing) to cut a deal with Putin to stop supporting Assad’s government.  In return for their cooperation the Saudis proposed giving the Russians large weapons orders and guarantees that, whatever regime comes into power in Syria next, it will be under the thumb of the Saudis who will ensure no pipelines get built.  When this offer was rebuffed Bandar tried to sweeten the pot by offering to reduce oil supply boosting price which would benefit Russia.  Still meeting resistance Bandar allegedly next threatened the Putin with unleashing the various extremists groups in the Caucuses (like the Chechens) for attacks on Russia’s pipeline and disruption of the upcoming winter Olympics being hosted in Russia.  Putin, as one might expect, did not take kindly to this tactic.

Historically the Saudis have been a major regional power and spent huge sums of money to maintain their influence both in the Middle East and also with Western powers.  Thecozy relationship between both Bush administrations and the Saudis is well known.

In this respect the Saudis can, in fact, be seen as in competition with the Qataris to a large degree.  This has been most readily apparent in Egypt with Qatar financing the Muslim Brotherhood’s successful ouster of Saudi backed Hosni Mubarak.  The Saudis then funded and influenced to a large extent the coup against the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi.

But then why is Saudi Arabia trying to destabilizing Syria?  We know there is tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia as the two battle for regional influence.  We can understand pretty easily the Qatari motives for taking Assad out.  But what do the Saudis hope to gain from Assad’s removal?

I’m afraid I don’t have a slam dunk answer for that.  If any readers out there fully understand the Saudi angle here please comment on this post and explain it.  All I can come up with are the following relatively weak reasons.  There’s surely much more to the Saudi Arabia story that I am missing.

First, Saudi Arabia has a large Sunni majority which is mostly Wahhabi.  Wahhabism is what we in the West would consider the extremist form of Sunni Islam.  Many of the jihadists fighting in Syria are, in fact, Wahhabi.   These Wahhabi hate Shiites and believe that they must be wiped out.  Thus, the Saudi government, by supporting the rebels in Syria, appeases a large portion of its population.  It also isolates Iran which has long been a major adversary to Saudi Arabia.

But there’s another factor always lurking below the surface in Saudi Arabia.  Despite its regional power, Saudi Arabia’s ruling class of royals live in constant fear of the kind of unrest that was witnessed throughout the region during the Arab Spring.  How precisely this fits into the Syrian picture is not clear to me but it’s doubtlessly a factor.

Then, there’s the real possibility that Saudi Arabia might have gotten involved in Syria simply to prevent Qatar from gaining dominance there.  In this light Syria can be viewed as a strange kind of proxy war with the two adversaries, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both funding the same side of the conflict in an attempt to secure political influence over the state or states that emerge from the chaos.

And finally, obviously energy must be a huge factor for the Saudis.  We know they are an oil production super-power.  We know they have the fifth largest natural gas reserves in the world.  We know that they haven’t really begun to tap those reserves in a serious way.  Could the Saudis be hoping to shut-out the competition by denying them Syria as a pipeline route?

Clearly the Saudis have a long term energy agenda into which they have factored their support for the destruction of Assad’s government.  But, as with the other elements motiving Saudi Arabia, the exact details and grand strategic picture escape me.

Turkey

Turkey’s long term involvement in the conflict in Syria is also well documented.  Unlike Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Turkey is not directly funding the rebels to any large extent.  Rather Turkey role is mainly to provide sanctuary, training and a crossing point for the rebels to enter into Syria.

Turkey’s regional ambition is to become the energy cross-roads linking the Middle-East to Europe, east to west.  After all, Turkey is in the enviable position of providing the only land link between the Middle-East and Europe short of detouring up through Russia (which is not feasible for practical as well as geographic reasons).

There’s huge money to be made off the transit fees charged by host nations on pipelines running through their territory.  This is why Turkey has spent literally years pushing the Nabucco pipeline which runs through Turkey to Europe and is vehemently opposed to the Islamic pipeline.  If the Islamic pipeline were to be built it would totally undermine Turkey’s geopolitical power and rob it of the massive revenues it expects from the Nabucco pipeline.

Iran

Iran’s motives are probably the easiest to understand in this whole twisted network of motives and shifting alliances.  Iran and Syria are longterm, steadfast allies.  Further, Syria’s backing of the Islamic pipeline would provide Iran with a way of getting its vast natural gas reserves to market.

If Syria was to disintegrate into warring factions or be balkanized into several states along religious lines, the vital Shia land bridge – the corridor running from Iran, through the Shiite section of Iraq, and into Syria and Lebanon – would be broken.  This would further isolate Iran which is fast rising to the top of the list of nations being targeted for destabilization.  Thus, from an Iranian perspective, it really comes down to a question of ‘fight together or hang separate’.  This has motivated Iran to provide as much support as possible to the Syrian government.

Russia

Russia, despite international pressure from Western powers, despite attempted brides and threats from the Saudis, has steadfastly supported the Syrian government in the civil war.  This support has included extensive military aid, use of its veto power on the U.N. security council, and most recently the Russian’s deft out-manoeuvring of the U.S. to head off what appeared to be an imminent air campaign against Assad’s forces.

Starting with energy, Russian support for Assad would seem to be counter-intuitive.  After all, Russia’s largely government owned Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas extractor, currently has a virtually monopoly on supplying natural gas to Europe.  The Islamic pipeline, supported by Syria, would obviously introduce competition into the equation.

But given the close alliances between Syria, Russia and Iran, this might not be quite as egregious to the Russians as one might think.

Russia knows that, through one pipeline or another, their stranglehold on natural gas supply to Europe will be broken sooner or later.  That being the case, it’s obviously in their interest to support regional allies like Syria and Iran to the detriment of their regional enemies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.  Even once the Islamic pipeline is in place and supplying gas to Europe, one can easily envision an OPEC like cartel arrangement being leveraged to control price and maximize profits for all involved.  And this is not just idle speculation.  Here’s an article back from 2008 discussing the groundwork for precisely such a cartel being agreed upon.

Russia is also looking at Syria through the lens of a resurgent cold war.  After years of U.S. and NATO powers having free-reign to pursue their geopolitical agenda around the globe, Russia has recently decided enough is enough.  Once again we see Russia trying to assert herself into world politics and check U.S. hegemony.  Events such as accepting NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s asylum request are clear indicators of how far-gone relations between the two superpowers really are.  From this perspective the battle for Syria can be seen as a good old fashion proxy war between Western interests backing the rebels and Russia backing the Assad government.

But Russia also has a more pressing and concrete reason to keep Syria from falling into chaos and extremism: The security of Russia against those same extremists.  Russia knows all too well the cost and danger associated with muslim extremists (remember Chechnya?).  The fall of Syria would be yet another movement of an extremist group closer to Russia borders.  This is something the Russians have every motivation to hold in check.

U.S.

There are several factors drawing the U.S. into the fight.  Many stem from the completely undue and corrupt influence of lobbies on U.S. foreign policy.  There are two main lobbies whose influence is undeniable and which are clearly pushing the U.S. to war:

  1. Israeli Lobby.  The Israeli lobby has an absolute stranglehold on the reigns of power in the U.S.  For decades U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has, first and foremost, been about supporting Israel.  As we have seen, Israel has strong motivations for pursuing the destabilization of Syria.
  2. Military Industrial Complex.  President Eisenhower presciently warned the American people in his farewell address of the dangers of a large and omnipresent defence industry.  Post 9/11 has seen U.S. defence spending more than double to $800 billion dollars a year.  The defence industry’s only way to justify this type of expenditure is through fear (war on terror anyone?).  But fear alone isn’t enough.  The gears of the military industrial complex must be greased from time to time with blood.  Syria is the latest manifestation of this need of the military industrial complex to flex its military might, assert its dominance, and justify the continuation of exorbitant defence spending.

Of course we could add the Saudis to this list along with other smaller players.  But beyond all these lobbies and their influence on U.S. politicians and foreign policy there are other factors motivating the U.S.

The U.S. economy is in full scale meltdown.  The only reason this isn’t apparent is the Federal Reserve’s massive quantitative easing program which at this point is outright monetizing $85 billion a month of U.S. debt.  As the Fed starts to try and withdraw itself from this lunatic monetary policy the mirage that was a supposed economic recovery will vanish.

Throughout history wars have been waged to distract from economic problems at home.  This time is no different.  With the war on terror losing some of its luster in recent years as Americans tire of constant encroachments on their liberties, a new foreign enemy to demonize is just the distraction needed.  An evil dictator who allegedly uses chemical weapons against his own people is the perfect target for such a propagandized distraction.

And, as discussed above for the Russians, there’s a new cold war brewing.  Syria, viewed as the first flash-point of this new war, is obviously important to the U.S. as it attempts to retain its position as the world’s sole superpower.  Thus, a far away conflict in little Syria suddenly becomes a strategic battle in a far larger and higher stakes war.

Conclusion

Untangling the web of geopolitical players and their motivations in Syria is a tall order.  This post just scratched the surface to reveal why Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are so eager to stoke the flames of revolution in Syria.  And, we start to understand why Iran and Russia are standing firm in their support of Assad even in the face of enormous international pressure.

The conflict in Syria ultimately boils down to natural gas pipelines, religious strife and extremism, the quest for regional power in the Middle East, and the emergence of a new cold war between the U.S. and Russia.  Viewing the players and events in Syria with an understanding of those core facets brings us much closer to understanding the truth about what’s really happening in Syria and why.

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