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Middle East oil transit routes are at risk from Islamist revolutions and Iranian threats. Does Syria present an opportunity for the West to bypass the most troubling oil chokepoints? Is that a strong driver behind the West’s interest in the Syrian rebellion? Instability all along the oil road is at its highest point in decades, and Syria’s history as a perennial spoiler and location as a potential energy path cannot have been missed.
Is a post-Assad Iraq-Syrian mega-pipeline in the works?
Consider the recent pressures on Middle East oil shipping routes:
- Iranian influence on the Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq has caused significant worry in Washington. Iran’s influence in
- Iraq can be viewed, Stratfor notes, as a greater „arc of influence” from Iran to Iraq, extended through Syria and into Lebanon. The West’s strategy is to contain Iran’s foreign influence and prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Syria would be a natural target for this strategy.
- Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to economic sanctions or military action aimed at its nuclear program. Over 17 million barrels of oil per day flow through the Strait , and the mere threat of closure has kept oil prices elevated.
- Somali pirate activity has expanded well beyond Somalia into the Red Sea, and northeast into the Indian Ocean as far as Oman, Pakistan and India. In 2008, these pirates captured theSirius Star, a tanker that carried 2 million barrels of oil.
- Yemen, which sits in a key position on the Bab-el-Mandab strait, separating the Arabian peninsula from the horn of Africa, struggles with a rebellion against the Saleh regime. It has also been a hot zone of internecine conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite communities and has also been a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity and drone attacks against Islamist militants.
- The Arab Spring in Egypt has seen the rise of Islamist interests inimical to the West and Israel, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which is highly-anti-Western. Since then, diplomatic tensions between Egypt and the US have risen dramatically. Because the Arab Spring was largely stoked and triggered by the explosion of food prices in a very poor part of the world, and they have not abated, the level of desperation and radicalism displayed in Egypt to the West is likely to worsen.
- A single „Suezmax” tanker sunk in the Suez Canal would cause an explosion in world energy prices. If the Suez Canal and/or the SUMED pipeline, were closed, as the Suez was by Nasser in 1957 , then oil tankers would have to travel an additional 9,600 kilometers around Africa to reach its destination. This fact has never been lost on Western logisticians .
As a result, Middle East oil shipping lanes have always attracted a strong, expensive and provocative Western military presence.
An overland alternative?
Good generals study tactics, great generals study logistics. – General Omar Bradley
The search for non-naval oil routes is not a new topic. In 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon requested a feasibility study on the possible revival of the long-defunct Mosul-Haifa oil pipeline route. This pipeline was activated by the British in 1935 to transfer Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean. It was shut down in 1948 by Iraq in the aftermath of Israel’s founding.
While there was much discussion on the pipeline’s revival, the general conclusion was that such an effort would be entirely infeasible, because such a pipeline would be a magnet for terrorist attacks due to the regional stigma attached to Israel. This concern is confirmed by the recent rash of pipeline attacks on Egyptian energy flows to Israel. Thus, most pipelines in the region entirely bypass Israel.
The defunct Mosul-Haifa pipeline .
However, properly secured, a pipeline through Israel, Syria or Lebanon to the Mediterranean would be of tremendous value. The important phrase here is „properly secured”. Otherwise, one choke point would be exchanged for another, potentially more vulnerable one.
Such a route would only be feasible if it were shielded from the blackmail and sabotage so common to the region. Until now, a major Syrian pipeline would have been a pipe dream.
Why not Syria already?
Although there are pipelines through Syria today, they are of miniscule importance compared to major arteries such as Egypt’s SUMED and would do little to replace the Strait of Hormuz-Suez route. For decades, the Assad regime effectively locked itself out of any meaningful commercial links with the West through a combination of wars, dark alliances and support for terror groups across the region.
In the Cold War, Syria’s strong alignment with the USSR, repeated attacks against Israel, both militarily and through its support and shelter of anti-Western terror groups, made it extremely unreliable as a host for pipelines upon which so many nations would depend. In particular, the alignment with the USSR was seen as a political threat by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council nations. 
During the Lebanese Civil War, Syria actively supported Shi’ite factions and came to dominate Lebanon in the aftermath of the country’s civil war. Furthermore, the country harbored Imad Mugniyeh, the prime suspect in the 1983 bombing of a US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, in which nearly 300 US and French servicemen were killed. He was finally assassinated in 2008, in Damascus.
After the Cold War, Syria continued to dominate Lebanon, and was allegedly a key player in the assassination of president Rafic Hariri, a Sunni. Though this led to the „Cedar Revolution” that drove most of Syria’s uniformed troops out of Lebanon and loosened its grip on the country, Syria’s continued support of terror organizations in Lebanon and the political wing of Hezbollah kept it at odds with the West.
Hopes that Bashar al-Assad would initiate a new era of peace and openness with the West were dashed early on. He sheltered a number of key leaders from Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist Party, and did almost nothing to stem the flow of money, fighters and weapons back into Iraq.
Assad’s Syria continued to pursue the development of weapons of mass destruction, which included the attempt to construct a secret nuclear reactor, with the assistance of North Korea, in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The reactor was destroyed by Israeli bombers on September 6, 2007 as part of Operation Orchard .
Syria worked hard to earn its status as a pariah nation, which is why even whispers of a super-pipeline route are so belated. Even with an Assad-dominated Syria, and there are feasibility studies underway to add significant additional crude oil pipeline capacity from Iraq through Syria, as well as an underwater pipeline to Turkey.
INOGATE Pipeline Priorities. Map excerpt source: INOGATE .
There is also an opportunity for Syria in the natural gas transport space. Syria would be the logical choice to host a branch for Egyptian liquefied natural gas into the Nabucco pipeline network.
Nabucco gas line – Syria is seen as a key transit point for Egyptian LNG exports. Source: SeaNews Turkey
The dangerous road ahead
At this point there is little Bashar can do to save his regime. The high food prices that lit the fires of the Arab Spring remain, and the slaughter of so many demonstrators has made untenable any hopes Assad would have to live peacefully in Syria even if he resigned. With the exceptions of Russia and Iran, Syria’s traditional commercial partners, including oil companies, have unified to isolate and starve the regime.
The ultimate question for the outcome of the overland super-pipeline is what will fill the power vacuum after Assad’s collapse? If Syria descends into sectarian civil war, it would be some time before such a project could proceed. Iran will fight for control of the country in the same way it did for Lebanon and Iraq – through a combination of supporting political movements and terror tactics. Some of these have allegedly already come into play to fight for the Assad regime.
Similarly, Turkey has a major stake in the outcome in Syria. Its most immediate interest there is to prevent a destabilizing tide of refugees from Syria, but the more strategic interests are manifold.
Turkey’s leadership, embodied by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, wants to see Turkey re-assert a dominant economic and political position in the region. To have that role in Syria, Iranian influence would have to be driven away. Likewise, Russian influence in Syria, projected from its military hub of Tartus, is not desirable from the Turkish point of view.
Add in the discovery of huge offshore natural gas reserves in Lebanon and Israel, and the precedent of Iranian natural gas embargos to Turkey , and the overall potential impact Syria can have on energy transport, and it becomes clear that Syria carries huge weight in Turkish foreign policy formulation.
How far will Turkey go? Is it prepared to offer its troops as peacekeepers? Will the US and its allies accept the costs of a long-term Turkish presence to contain Iran, and/or guard a critical energy artery as they guard naval routes from the Persian Gulf? The Syrian people – Alawi, Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Kurd alike, do not have fond memories of Ottoman domination. Whatever happens, the iron law remains: the spice must flow.
1. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates