Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Syria - Trying to Understand What's Really Happening

The latest news is that Putin has successfully convinced the Syrian Dictator Al-Assad, to give up his chemical weapons in exchange for a guarantee that "The West" will not conduct air strikes against Syria.  Why would he do that?  Why would Assad agree?  To try and understand those questions, I think we have to know a little more about how other countries and regimes are reacting to the Syrian civil war.

As much as I'd like to believe that the Syrian civil war is about a group of people overthrowing a brutal dictator.  But while that might be what many Syrians are fighting for, that is not the only thing going on here.  I think the best way to think of Syria now, is as a Proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Brutal Iranian theocracy is allies with Assad's Syrian regime.  It has been supplying the Assad Government with money, supplies, and weapons before and during the current uprising.  This is so well known, you'll forgive me if I don't provide a link backing up the claim.

Here's a lesser known fact.  The Saudi Royal dictatorship(along with Qatar) has been supplying the Syrian rebels with weapons and supplies for a long time.  First reported in June of last year(see here and here), it has been repeatedly confirmed since then over and over again (Qatar link).  So while it's lesser known to the public, it certainly isn't a secret.

Without getting into why the Saudi dictators and Iranian theocracy are enemies, let's explore why these two powers would be so bent on getting a "friendly" government in Syria.  There's the standard reasons:  Just to have another partner in the region, the country has some oil reserves - the lifeblood of economy in the middle east, is that it?  Before we answer that rhetorical question, let's ask the same thing of Russia.  What is their interest in Syria?  Russia has access to the second highest amount of oil and natural gas fields in the world and is a routine exporter of them.  So, therefore, Russia doesn't need Syrian (or for that matter, Iranian oil) like the U.S. and Western Europe does.  Often repeated in the media is the fact that Russia has a naval base in Syria.  This is cited as Russia's interest in the region.  Is one military base the reason to give free food, aid, and weapons to a regime that is about to collapse?  Why not stand back, and just buy off the victor to keep your facility?

These are all possible reasons why the leaders of these countries are spending so much to support "their side".  But the one thing almost never mentioned in all the analysis on TV news or front page papers is oil and gas.  No, it's not about Syria's oil reserves - they're pretty small compared to Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.  It's about geography.

Iran wants to build an oil and natural gas pipeline going from Iran, all the way through Syria, and Lebanon, and eventually even into Europe.  The agreement was about to be finalized back in 2011:

The deal of new pipeline to transfer Iran's gas to Iraq, Syria and Europe will be signed on Monday between three countries in Asalouyeh port, south of Iran, Mehr news agency reported on Friday.
The primary agreement on the strategic project was reached in May in Baghdad.
Under the new deal, a gas pipeline will be constructed to transfer Iran's gas to Iraq and Syrian territories feeding their power plants and next through southern Lebanon will extend to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe.

But guess what?  Qatar and Saudi Arabia want the same thing - especially Qatar(another Royal dictatorship government).  Since at least 2009 they've been trying to get a natural gas pipeline from their country to Turkey.  Syria was not open to that deal and has been a major sticking point.

Qatar has proposed a gas pipeline from the Gulf to Turkey in a sign the emirate is considering a further expansion of exports from the world's biggest gasfield after it finishes an ambitious programme to more than double its capacity to produce liquefied natural gas (LNG).
"We are eager to have a gas pipeline from Qatar to Turkey," Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of Qatar, said last week, following talks with the Turkish president Abdullah Gul and the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the western Turkish resort town of Bodrum. "We discussed this matter in the framework of co-operation in the field of energy. In this regard, a working group will be set up that will come up with concrete results in the shortest possible time," he said, according to Turkey's Anatolia news agency.

Furthermore, even if NO pipeline was being built, Qatar probably wouldn't care what happened in Syria.  Qatar ships natural gas to Europe and is a large player(next to Russia) in that market.  But with a cheap pipeline, they would lose their market share and profitability.

Here's where things really start getting murky.  Saudi Arabia, the foremost player in middle east oil and gas, would love nothing more than to block their rivals Iran from building out their infrastructure.  That, combined with the prospect of weakening Iran seems to be fueling their interest in Syria.

The Saudi stance on Syria is motivated by a combination of personal, sectarian, and, above all, political factors. First, the Saudis were never head over heels about Assad and his Ba'athist secular ideology. Second, the continuous crackdown of the mostly Sunni political opposition by the Alawite-dominated regime made Riyadh very uncomfortable. Third, and most significant, Saudi Arabia perceived the decline of the Assad regime as a golden opportunity to weaken Iran, their bigger regional competitor. Moreover, supporting the opposition would also play well within Saudi Arabia while deflating some of the regional criticism regarding the KSA’s policy with respect to the Arab Spring.

So with Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing up the rebels you would think they're allies.  But they're not.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar Royal dictatorships could best be described as "frenemies".  To the point that the two dicators are backing different rebel groups in Syria.

Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood and, it appears, would not object to a brokered deal to end the insurrection that allows the MB to get its nose in the political tent, then make its play for winning control of the new government through some combination of foreign pressure, domestic mobilization, and elections.
Saudi Arabia, it appears, has no love for the Muslim Brotherhood and is perfectly happy to crater the Assad regime through a bloody insurrection abetted by foreign jihadis,  in order to deny Iran a regional ally, score another victory for fundamentalist Sunni rollback, and increase the pressure on the Shi’a-led government of Iraq by adding the factor of a hostile, pro-Saudi and overtly Sunni Syrian regime to the increasingly disgruntled and emboldened Sunnis of western Iraq (some of whom are reportedly participating in the Syrian war).

Let's go back to Russia.  What's their interest?  Sure, that naval base is nice, but their interest ALSO involves natural gas lines.  Russia(or should I say, Putin?) wants the Iran\Iraq\Syria natural gas line as well.  Putin wants more control and more influence on the flow of it and his allies' natural gas.  It is the only power that takes gas from Turkmenistan and ships it to Europe.  So a Qatar or Saudi friendly government in Syria would provide competition to Russia.  It's no wonder Putin would continue backing Assad.
But wait, you might say, isn't Iran going to send Natural gas through Syria to Europe?  Well, yes.  But the Iranian theocracy and Putin's Russia are close allies.  Putin, Iran, and Turkenistan control the first, second, and fourth largest natural gas reserves.  And since they can control Turkmenistan, they can better control prices.  Russia has no leverage to control Qatar.  Besides, as stated above, Qatar already manages to ship quite a lot of natural gas to Europe.

So, to recap.  Qatar doesn't want Iranian natural gas competition via a gas pipeline.  Iran and Russia really want it.  And Saudi Arabia just wants to weaken it's rivals.  All three groups are backing different Syrian factions.  What started out as a popular uprising has turned into a proxy war over regional politics and oil\gas exporting economics.  All this before we even get to the possibility of U.S.\Western involvement("involvement"  here is a euphemism for "bombing and killing a bunch of people").

Even if we assume for the moment that the Obama administration is genuinely concerned about the use of chemical weapons, that doesn't explain why the CIA has been supplying rebel factions from the beginning.  Fortunately, when asked about the weapons the U.S. government is sending to Syria, it is surprisingly up front about who and why.  They are trying to fund a fourth, more western friendly rebel group.

“Movement of those items [directly] to Gen. Idriss,” Kerry said, “is going to have an impact, particularly in the south,” where rebel fighters have begun to gain territory. Donor nations meeting here also pledged to funnel all future aid — weapons largely provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and nonlethal assistance from the United States, Britain, France and others — through the military council to prevent it from falling into the hands of Islamist extremist groups that have grown in power within the anti-Assad ranks.
Idriss, Kerry said, could not have been more clear about “what he and the opposition are doing to separate themselves from what some of the extreme elements are doing. . . . We are quite confident that he is a strong leader with the capacity to make a difference.”

That report was from April of this year, before the Chemical weapons usage.  The goal of supporting "moderates" is repeated in this more recent Sept 11th. article.

In addition to boosting support for rebels under the command of Idriss, who speaks fluent English and taught at a military academy before defecting from the Syrian army last year, U.S. officials in southern Turkey are using aid to promote emerging moderate leaders in towns and villages in rebel-held areas. Across much of the north, Syrians have begun electing local councils and attempting to rebuild communities devastated by war.
Ward’s team — working primarily out of hotel lobbies — has spent the past few months studying the demographics and dynamics of communities where extremists are making inroads. Targeted U.S. aid, he said, can be used to empower emerging local leaders who are moderate and to jump-start basic services while dimming the appeal of extremists.

Now it becomes clear what the Obama administration is actually trying to do.  If the U.S. government does nothing in Syria, 1 of 2 things will most likely happen.  1.  Assad survives the uprising and Iran becomes stronger than ever.  Also boosting Russian economic influence  2.  Saudi Arabia or Qatar backed Muslim extremists will take over the country that are as hostile to America and the West as Iran.  Neither scenario is a good thing for America.  This is probably why Obama was going to try and act directly against Assad under the guise of responding to his use of chemical weapons.  End the war quickly and better able to coordinate action so support the so-called "moderate" factions.

I don't agree with the reasons.  But I think it's starting to become a lot more coherent than the excuse of "limited strikes" and chemical weapons.

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