An anti-ISIS protest in Jakarta on Feb. 10. (Antara Photo/Wahyu Putro A.)

Energy and War: a Global Game of Chess


MARCH 03, 2020

As history has taught us, energy has been one of the main root causes of global conflicts. This tenet was again recently showcased in the downfall of Iraq and Libya, and in the relentless Western haranguing of Iran and Syria.

Globally, Syria is a minor producer of oil (making up roughly only 0.5 percent of the global oil output). However, the country is located strategically near major oil and gas producers such as Iran, Iraq, Russia and Jordan with its own access to the Mediterranean and the European Union markets.

This strategic energy channel has created many opportunities for Syria in the past but also massive internal problems.

After the First World War, Syria came under the rule of the Ottomans due in part to this energy route. In the Second World War, Syrian oil pipelines provided the majority of the fuel for the Allied Forces and became a major target of Hitler's attacks.

Later on, it fueled the Israeli-Arab War and prompted the CIA to facilitate a coup d'etat as Washington at the time feared a Soviet-Arab block would have threatened Western multinational companies' presence in the area and Saudi Arabia's oil export.

When the "civil war" in Syria started in 2011, it was also due to none other than a struggle over the natural gas market.

The current situation in Syria has had profound implications for a number of countries involved in the prolonged conflict.

At the start, a clear line in the sand was drawn. On one side were Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and on the other Syria, Russia and Iran.

What catalyzed the conflict was the signing of a gas pipeline deal between Iran and Syria that would deliver Iranian gas from the Pars field into the EU markets.

Had there been no war, gas would have flown uninterruptedly from a Shi'ite country (Iran) to another Shi'ite-influenced country (Syria) via another Shi'ite dominated country in Lebanon and into Europe.

But complicating the situation were the above countries' Sunni adversaries, which at the time consisted of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

If there's anything that could rival the impact of economics in geopolitics, it's the competition between the different sects of Islam.

But it must be stressed that the conflict in Syria was never about the actual religion and its beliefs. It's always been a fight over territorial and resource domination.

Israel then threw their hat into the fray when they discovered a giant gas field in the Tamar region in 2012, prompting them to try to secure their own gas export into the EU markets.

Predictably, they chose to side with the Sunni countries in the Syrian War due to their longstanding bitter enmity against Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Interestingly, Qatar, a gas-rich country isolated by the Gulf Cooperation Council a few years ago, has shifted its energy alliance to Iran from Turkey and Saudi Arabia since they need a channel to export gas despite their isolation, proving the adage that money trumps over everything, including religious affiliations.

Russia, another key player in the conflict and the world's current diplomatic darling thanks to a seemingly endless series of Putin masterstrokes, also has much to play for.

As the Americans covertly attempt to move Syria into their camp, so are the Russians, as they would be crippled economically by losing the opportunity to be the EU's largest exporter of gas if Syria does not emerge as the victor in the current conflict.

It would be a travesty to not see the Syrian War for what it really is: leaders scheming to secure financial and geopolitical brownie points for their countries at the expense of civilian bloodshed.

As they say, "it's nothing personal, just strictly business!" 

Last Stand: Idlib

After eight years of constant warfare, Syria has reached a critical point. President Bashar al-Assad's army has held steadfast while driving out most of the foreign forces.

The last stronghold of Assad's adversaries is Idlib and a battle here could become a true bloodbath in every sense of the word.

Turkey and Russia had signed a demilitarized zone agreement (The Sochi Accord) for Idlib in 2018. A similar pact was reached for four regions in Syria in 2017. Assad has since taken three of those regions back, forcing a retreat of 70,000 insurgents into one concentrated zone in Idlib.

Idlib's demilitarized zone accord has always been seen as a temporary one and now Assad and his army are attempting a final push to liberate it.

Due to the high number of insurgents in Idlib, an insurgent migration into Turkey, if Assad succeeds, is all but certain.

Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's next decision could be pivotal. Ankara has given Assad's army until the end of February to retreat and abide by the accord, however, the likelihood of that happening is, let's say, less than microscopic. 

As the conflict rages on, the petrodollar remains the sole kingmaker to decide ultimately who will sit on the global energy market throne.

There are two types of gases in the oil and gas industry, sweet and sour. The only certainty in this war, which could be nearing its end, is that there will be a side that will taste the rancid sourness of defeat, and another side who will savor the sweetness of triumph.

Rizvi Shihab is an oil and gas professional and a member of Majelis Hikmah Alawiyah (Mahya), a Jakarta-based Islamic organization with a focus on spreading messages of peace and harmony.