Pipelines or Pipe Dreams: The Roots of War in Syria
October 6, 2016
Steve Weissman / Reader Supported News & Pepe Escobar / CounterPunch
"Our war against Bashar Assad did not begin with the peaceful civil protests of the Arab Spring in 2011," writes Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "Instead it began in 2000 when Qatar proposed to construct a $10 billion, 1,500-km pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey." But this disregards the historic conflict between Syria's Sunni Arabs and the ruling Alawites and their minority allies. Syria is an energy war featuring a vicious geopolitical competition between two proposed gas pipelines -- the ultimate Pipelinestan war.
Pipelines or Pipe Dreams: What
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Gets Wrong About Syria
Steve Weissman / Reader Supported News
(September 9, 2016) -- "Our war against Bashar Assad did not begin with the peaceful civil protests of the Arab Spring in 2011," writes Robert F. Kennedy Jr. "Instead it began in 2000 when Qatar proposed to construct a $10 billion, 1,500km pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey."
RFK Jr., the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, claims to speak here for many unnamed Syrians, as the controversial blogger Clay Claiborne pointed out. Like so many Americans, Kennedy tells the Syrian story almost wholly from a US perspective. He disregards the ongoing conflict between Syria's Sunni Arabs and the ruling Alawites and their minority allies.
He ignores the long years of homegrown struggle against the brutal dictatorship of Bashar's father, Hafiz al-Assad. He says little of the Turks, who at times backed Bashar and aided the Islamic State, or of the Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian Kurds, who so often pursue very different agendas.
And when he mentions the all-important rivalry between Bashar's supporters in Shi'a Iran and his current opponents in Sunni Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he reduces it largely to a fight over competing natural gas pipeline proposals, which RFK Jr. gives as the primary reason for American intervention.
In 2009, he tells us, the Qataris and Saudi pushed Assad to accept their proposed pipeline, which would pass through Syria to Turkey and then to the European market. Assad refused. Going along with his Russian allies, he favored a proposed "Islamic pipeline" that would go from Iran through Syria to the ports of Lebanon. Assad's refusal is the lynchpin of Kennedy's argument.
"Secret cables and reports by the US, Saudi and Israeli intelligence agencies indicate that the moment Assad rejected the Qatari pipeline, military and intelligence planners quickly arrived at the consensus that fomenting a Sunni uprising in Syria to overthrow the uncooperative Bashar Assad was a feasible path to achieving the shared objective of completing the Qatar/Turkey gas link," he says.
"In 2009, according to WikiLeaks," he adds, "soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria."
Except for the WikiLeaked documents, Kennedy gives us no way to verify his "secret cables and reports" to see if they explicitly tie the decision to overthrow Assad to his rejecting the proposed pipeline.
If they make the connection, Kennedy needs to tell us how they describe it. If they do not, he needs to tell us why not. Either way, ample evidence refutes his argument, since the US was planning regime change in Syria and funding opposition to Assad years before he refused to go along with the Qatari pipeline.
Former NATO commander Wesley Clark happened to be at the Pentagon on September 20, 2001, when one of the generals called him into his office. "They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq," the general told him. A few weeks later, Clark returned to the Pentagon.
His friend had just received a piece of paper from the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "This is a memo that describes how we're going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran."
This appears to be the first official mention of taking out Syria. Gen. Clark makes no claim that the memo reflected any final decision by President George W. Bush, only that it came either from Rumsfeld or the people around him, which included several high-ranking neocons like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. It showed their thinking at the time, which went worlds beyond any proposed Qatari pipeline or Bashar's much later refusal to accept it.
American officials increasingly berated Assad for helping insurgents in Iraq, and the State Department began trying to fund a handful of "pro-Democracy" individuals and groups at least as early as 2005. State also began the following year to consider military action against the regime, as Kennedy himself admits.
"WikiLeaks cables from as early as 2006 show the US State Department, at the urging of the Israeli government, proposing to partner with Turkey, Qatar and Egypt to foment Sunni civil war in Syria to weaken Iran," he writes. "The stated purpose, according to the secret cable, was to incite Assad into a brutal crackdown of Syria's Sunni population."
With Assad's rejection of the proposed Qatar-Turkey pipeline, the issue gained some importance, but even then it remained only a small factor. The conflict between the Sunni kingdoms of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and Shi'a Iran had grown far more geo-strategic, as I tried to explain in "Obama bin Sultan and Bandar ibn Israel."
RFK Jr. is hardly the first to reduce such complexities to pipelines. During the early days of George W. Bush's military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, many left-wing activists saw the primary motivation in the desire of Unocal and other US oil companies to build an oil pipeline from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean. They were often would-be Marxists using a knee-jerk economic determinism to "explain" a situation where the facts did not support the argument. But friends repeated it as gospel. Some probably still do.
The wonderfully entertaining writer Pepe Escobar takes the simplification even further -- though with tongue in cheek, I suspect ‒ explaining most recent conflicts in the Greater Middle East as part of what he calls "Pipelineistan."
Pipelines may or may not play a role in a specific case. But they are rarely anywhere near the whole story. Lots of pipelines are proposed, touted in intergovernmental agreements, and bandied about in the global game. Many of the proposed pipelines never get built, as people in both the industry and government ministries know.
No question that oil and natural gas play a huge role in determining US policy. But so does promoting a market in both the Pentagon budget and overseas sales for American aircraft, rockets, and other weapons of war. Along with US bases and increasing numbers of military contractors throughout the region and around the world, these are what the military-industrial complex is all about.
Policymakers also factor in their desire to maintain what Zbigniew Brzezinski calls "American global primacy," including an effort to impede the rise of any rival, whether Russia, China, or some coalition of Islamic or other nations.
One other element helps put all of this in perspective. Policymakers may choose to do the bidding of an influential ally, say Israel, as the Obama administration has at times done in Syria, but chose not to do in pursuing the nuclear deal with Iran. Take the WikiLeaked email from Hillary Clinton in which she says, "The best way to help Israel deal with Iran's growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad."
"What Israeli military leaders really worry about ‒ but cannot talk about ‒ is losing their nuclear monopoly," she explained in December 2013. "An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would not only end that nuclear monopoly but could also prompt other adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to go nuclear as well.
The result would be a precarious nuclear balance in which Israel could not respond to provocations with conventional military strikes on Syria and Lebanon, as it can today. If Iran were to reach the threshold of a nuclear weapons state, Tehran would find it much easier to call on its allies in Syria and Hezbollah to strike Israel, knowing that its nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent to Israel responding against Iran itself."
Clinton's email goes a long way to explain the nuances of US policy toward Israel and Iran. But it does not prove, as many have assumed, that Washington intervened in Syria primarily on Israel's behalf.
That is certainly part of the story, just as are Kennedy's competing pipeline proposals. But, as journalist Patrick Cockburn reminds us, the conflict in Syria and US involvement in it is infinitely complex, much like three-dimensional chess played by nine players and with no rules.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."
Syria: Ultimate Pipelineistan War
Pepe Escobar / CounterPunch
(December 8, 2015) -- Syria is an energy war. With the heart of the matter featuring a vicious geopolitical competition between two proposed gas pipelines, it is the ultimate Pipelinestan war, the term I coined long ago for the 21st century imperial energy battlefields.
It all started in 2009, when Qatar proposed to Damascus the construction of a pipeline from its own North Field -- contiguous with the South Pars field, which belongs to Iran -- traversing Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria all the way to Turkey, to supply the EU.
Damascus, instead, chose in 2010 to privilege a competing project, the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria, also know as "Islamic pipeline". The deal was formally announced in July 2011, when the Syrian tragedy was already in motion. In 2012, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed with Iran.
Until then, Syria was dismissed, geo-strategically, as not having as much oil and gas compared to the GCC petrodollar club. But insiders already knew about its importance as a regional energy corridor. Later on, this was enhanced with the discovery of serious offshore oil and gas potential.
Iran for its part is an established oil and gas powerhouse. Persistent rumblings in Brussels -- still unable to come up with a unified European energy policy after over 10 years -- did account for barely contained excitement over the Islamic pipeline; that would be the ideal strategy to diversify from Gazprom. But Iran was under US and EU nuclear-related sanctions.
That ended up turning into a key strategic reason, at least for the Europeans, for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear dossier; a "rehabilitated" (to the West) Iran is able to become a key source of energy to the EU.
Yet, from the point of view of Washington, a geostrategic problem lingered: how to break the Tehran-Damascus alliance. And ultimately, how to break the Tehran-Moscow alliance.
The "Assad must go" obsession in Washington is a multi-headed hydra. It includes breaking a Russia-Iran-Iraq-Syria alliance (now very much in effect as the "4+1" alliance, including Hezbollah, actively fighting all strands of Salafi Jihadism in Syria). But it also includes isolating energy coordination among them, to the benefit of the Gulf petrodollar clients/vassals linked to US energy giants.
Thus Washington's strategy so far of injecting the proverbial Empire of Chaos logic into Syria; feeding the flames of internal chaos, a pre-planed op by the CIA, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the endgame being regime change in Damascus.
An Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline is unacceptable in the Beltway not only because US vassals lose, but most of all because in currency war terms it would bypass the petrodollar. Iranian gas from South Pars would be traded in an alternative basket of currencies.
Compound it with the warped notion, widely held in the Beltway, that this pipeline would mean Russia further controlling the gas flow from Iran, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Nonsense. Gazprom already said it would be interested in some aspects of the deal, but this is essentially an Iranian project. In fact, this pipeline would represent an alternative to Gazprom.
Still, the Obama administration's position was always to "support" the Qatar pipeline "as a way to balance Iran" and at the same time "diversify Europe's gas supplies away from Russia." So both Iran and Russia were configured as "the enemy".
Turkey at Crossroads
Qatar's project, led by Qatar Petroleum, predictably managed to seduce assorted Europeans, taking account of vast US pressure and Qatar's powerful lobbies in major European capitals. The pipeline would ply some of the route of a notorious Pipelineistan opera, the now defunct Nabucco, a project formerly headquartered in Vienna.
So implicitly, from the beginning, the EU was actually supporting the push towards regime change in Damascus -- which so far may have cost Saudi Arabia and Qatar at least $4 billion (and counting). It was a scheme very similar to the 1980s Afghan jihad; Arabs financing/weaponizing a multinational bunch of jihadis/mercenaries, helped by a strategic go-between (Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan, Turkey in the case of Syria), but now directly fighting a secular Arab republic.
It got much rougher, of course, with the US, UK, France and Israel progressively turbo-charging all manner of covert ops privileging "moderate" rebels and otherwise, always targeting regime change.
The game now has expanded even more, with the recently discovered offshore gas wealth across the Eastern Mediterranean -- in offshore Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. This whole area may hold as much as 1.7 billion barrels of oil and up to 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. And that could be a mere third of the total undiscovered fossil fuel wealth in the Levant.
From Washington's point of view, the game is clear: to try to isolate Russia, Iran and a "regime-unchanged" Syria as much as possible from the new Eastern Mediterranean energy bonanza.
And that brings us to Turkey -- now in the line of fire from Moscow after the downing of the Su-24.
Ankara's ambition, actually obsession, is to position Turkey as the major energy crossroads for the whole of the EU. 1) As a transit hub for gas from Iran, Central Asia and, up to now, Russia (the Turkish Stream gas pipeline is suspended, not cancelled). 2) As a hub for major gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean. 3) And as a hub for gas imported from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
Turkey plays the role of key energy crossroads in the Qatar pipeline project. But it's always important to remember that Qatar's pipeline does not need to go through Syria and Turkey. It could easily cross Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea, Egypt and reach the Eastern Mediterranean.
So, in the Big Picture, from Washington's point of view, what matters most of all, once again, is "isolating" Iran from Europe. Washington's game is to privilege Qatar as a source, not Iran, and Turkey as the hub, for the EU to diversify from Gazprom.
This is the same logic behind the construction of the costly Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, facilitated in Azerbaijan by Zbigniew "Grand Chessboard" Brzezinski in person.
As it stands, prospects for both pipelines are less than dismal. The Vienna peace process concerning Syria will go nowhere as long as Riyadh insists on keeping its weaponized outfits in the "non-terrorist" list, and Ankara keeps allowing free border flow of jihadis while engaging in dodgy business with stolen Syrian oil.
What's certain is that, geo-economically, Syria goes way beyond a civil war; it's a vicious Pipelineistan power play in a dizzying complex chessboard where the Big Prize will represent a major win in the 21st century energy wars.
This piece first appeared at Strategic Culture Foundation.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). His latest book is Empire of Chaos.
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