Power plays over the Syria war  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

I was talking with a Jewish friend over my Christmas break and he expressed concern that Israel will become unimportant to the US as the shale oil boom reduces the importance of middle east to the US economy.

I'm doubtful that this will be the case (although hopefully military interventions like the Iraq war won't be repeated) - the reasoning I'm using is that while the US may be able to meet the majority of it's (declining) needs for oil using domestic production (including that from Canada) for some time, middle eastern oil will remain highly valuable for some time as Iraqi oil that can be produced for $5 per barrel has far more profit potential than US shale oil costing $80 per barrel to produce. As a result, there will always be an economic interest in interfering in the middle east (along with the leverage that is conferred over oil importers like Japan and China by controlling middle eastern supplies).

So I'm guessing Israel won't be left to their own devices by the Americans any time soon - this may change in a couple of decades time (possibly accelerated if there is a rapid shift to electric vehicles).

During the conversation we also touched on the Syrian conflict - I explained my theory that gas pipeline routes were one of the prime causes of the violence which resulted in the question being posed "why doesn't anything like this ever get written in the Australian media".

News Corp controlling 60% of the Australian media probably accounts for most of this, with Fairfax's continuing shrinkage of original reporting making matters worse. I had a quick look around to see if there was anything else but couldn't find anything other than a shallow piece at The Daily Reckoning and this post by Xavier Rizos at the ABC's "Drum" (and he is from France originally) - Power plays over the Syria war.

Despite these intolerable crimes against humanity, the situation is more complex than a fight between a 'good' rebellion and an 'evil' dictator. What initially looked like a repeat of the 2003 Iraq war is less likely to happen. 2013 is not 2003, Syria is not Iraq, and gas is not oil: this is the key to reading the new situation.

The Syrian conflict started as a domestic crisis but with significant global contributing factors.

For the past 10 years, IMF-backed reforms have caused an increase in unemployment and inequality. Falling oil revenues have cut the regime's ability to subsidise its economy, and drought possibly brought by climate change has contributed to rebellion in rural areas.

However it has now become a regional conflict tangled in the political strategy of isolating Iran, and the economic strategy of securing gas supplies.

This means that the crisis is beyond the point where the 'simple' removal of Assad would bring resolution or stop the blood bath fuelled by Qatar on one side and by Iran and Russia on the other side.

So far, judging by the way Putin has pushed his agenda, like a chess master culminating with an unprecedented op-ed in the New York Times, Russia is emerging as the winner from this war.

Following the dissolution of the USSR, the Russians realised they had lost the energy war. They had not secured access to the Middle East oil fields, which remained under American control. Vladimir Putin vowed not to repeat this mistake when he became president. He understood that gas was the new battlefield, and his weapon to win this time was going to be the giant company Gazprom. In the 1990s, it was privatised and its assets were stripped by corrupt oligarchs who transferred them to their families. Putin prosecuted them, ended this looting, and established state control of this strategic asset.

What came out of it has had a direct impact on today's war.

Since then, Gazprom has established a quasi monopoly on gas exports to Europe. This came to Europe's attention most powerfully in winter 2009 when a dispute between Russia and Ukraine resulted in Putin ordering cuts to exports by 60 per cent overnight. It plunged the EU into an energy crisis and reinforced its paranoia about becoming a hostage of Gazprom.

This is the origin of the EU's love affair with Qatar.

Qatar possesses some of the world's largest natural gas reserves and has been financing the Syrian rebels. In fact it has become to gas what Saudi Arabia used to be to oil, which puts it on a direct collision course with Russia and Iran.

Indeed tensions are increasing between the Qatari Sunni Emirate and the Shiite Iranian Islamic Republic because of the gas fields they share right in the middle of the Persian Gulf. While international sanctions are frustrating Iran's gas exports, Qatar is emptying the shared reserves. It is shipping liquefied gas on tankers via the Strait of Hormuz, which is under the military control of Iran. To break this vulnerability, Qatar had a project to build a gas pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea via Syria.

However Assad refused to go with this Qatari project, preferring to sign a 'Pipelineistan' deal with Iran, which had a possible extension to Lebanon to reach Europe. It was supported by Moscow which wants to prevent Qatar from supplying Europe. The Syrian civil war derailed this plan and an angered Qatar has been funding the Syrian rebels in revenge.

6 comments

Fascinating. What will the price of North Slope new oil be relative to other sources in the US?

"Qatar has a population of around 1.8 million people, however only 250,000 of these are citizens; the majority of the population are foreigners who work and live in the state."

The wikipedia article goes on to mention the billions spent on infrastructure in an effort to become a Singapore.

A former UK colony and allied to the greater western powers, is it too much to think that not all of the money spent on the "rebels" is entirely of Qatars own volition?

Fixed Carbon - I'm not sure what "new" oil from the North Slope will cost - thus far no one seems to be able to produce any offshore - if you mean onshore perhaps Bernstein research has some numbers...

SP - I'm sure the Europeans are encouraging the Qatari's - presumably the Americans aren't averse to reducing Russian influence either...

FC - these articles quote some numbers (nothing specifically about Alaska) :

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ec3bb622-c794-11e2-9c52-00144feab7de.html#axzz2p2FdmFQU

http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2012/05/02/983171/marginal-oil-production-costs-are-heading-towards-100barrel/

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/why-cautious-next-oil-boom-123433589.html

Kurt Cobb also had an article summarising some of the data :

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-01-13/not-at-that-price-why-long-term-forecasts-for-cheap-oil-and-natural-gas-are-baseless

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