Slouching Towards Greater
August 8, 2012
Deep beneath "Damascus volcano" and "the battle
of Aleppo", the tectonic plates of the global energy
chessboard keep on rumbling. Beyond the tragedy and
grief of civil war, Syria is also a Pipelineistan
More than a year ago, a $10 billion Pipelineistan
deal was clinched between Iran, Iraq and Syria for a
natural gas pipeline to be built by 2016 from Iran's
giant South Pars field, traversing Iraq and Syria,
with a possible extension to Lebanon. Key export
target market: Europe.
During the past 12 months, with Syria plunged into
civil war, there was no pipeline talk. Up until now.
The European Union's supreme paranoia is to become a
hostage of Russia's Gazprom. The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas
pipeline would be essential to diversify Europe's
energy supplies away from Russia.
It gets more complicated. Turkey happens to be
Gazprom's second-largest customer. The whole Turkish
energy security architecture depends on gas from
Russia - and Iran. Turkey dreams of becoming the new
China, configuring Anatolia as the ultimate
Pipelineistan strategic crossroads for the export of
Russian, Caspian-Central Asian, Iraqi and Iranian
oil and gas to Europe.
Try to bypass Ankara in this game, and you're in
trouble. Until virtually yesterday, Ankara was
advising Damascus to reform - and fast. Turkey did
not want chaos in Syria. Now Turkey is feeding chaos
in Syria. Let's examine one of the key possible
I went down to the
Syria is not a major oil producer; its reserves are
dwindling. Yet until the outbreak of civil war,
Damascus was making a hardly negligible $4 billion a
year in oil sales - a third of the government
Syria is way more important as an energy crossroads,
much like Turkey - but on a smaller scale. The key
point is that Turkey needs Syria to fulfill its
Syria's play in Pipelineistan includes the Arab Gas
Pipeline (AGP) from Egypt to Tripoli (in Lebanon)
and the IPC from Kirkuk, in Iraq, to Banyas - idle
since the 2003 US invasion.
The centrepiece of Syria's energy strategy is the
"Four Seas Policy" - a concept introduced by Bashar
al-Assad in early 2011, two months before the start
of the uprising. It's like a mini-Turkish power play
- an energy network linking the Mediterranean, the
Caspian, the Black Sea and the Gulf.
Damascus and Ankara soon got down to business -
integrating their gas grids, linking them with the
AGP and, crucially, planning the AGP's extension
from Aleppo to Kilis in Turkey; this could later
link to the perennial Pipelineistan opera, the
Nabucco, assuming this fat lady ever sings (and
that's far from given).
Damascus was also getting ready to go one up on the
IPC; in late 2010 it signed a memorandum of
understanding with Baghdad to build one gas and two
oil pipelines. Target market, once again: Europe.
Then all hell broke loose. But even while the
uprising was underway, the $10 billion
Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipelineistan deal was clinched. If
finished, it will carry at least 30 per cent more
gas than the bound-to-be-scrapped Nabucco.
Aye, there's the rub. What is sometimes referred to
as the Islamic Gas Pipeline bypasses Turkey.
The verdict is open on whether this complex
Pipelineistan gambit qualifies as a casus belli for
Turkey and NATO to go all-out after Assad; but it
should be remembered that Washington's strategy in
south-west Asia since the Clinton administration has
been to bypass, isolate and hurt Iran by all means
Damascus was certainly pursuing a very complex
two-pronged strategy - at the same time linking with
Turkey (and Iraqi Kurdistan) but also bypassing
Turkey and incorporating Iran.
With Syria mired in civil war, no global investor
would even dream of playing Pipelineistan. Yet in a
post-Assad scenario all options are open. Everything
will hinge on the future relationship between
Damascus and Ankara, and Damascus and Baghdad.
The oil and gas will have to come from Iraq anyway
(plus more gas from Iran); but the final destination
of Syria Pipelineistan could be Turkey, Lebanon or
even Syria itself - exporting directly to Europe out
of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara is definitely betting on a Sunni-led post-Assad
government not dissimilar to the AKP. Turkey already
halted joint oil exploration with Syria and is about
to suspend all trade relations.
Syria-Iraq relations involve two separate strands
that seem a world apart; with Baghdad and with Iraqi
Imagine a SNC-FSA Syrian government; it would
definitely be antagonistic towards Baghdad, mostly
on sectarian terms; moreover, the Shia-majority al-Maliki
government is on good strategic terms with Tehran,
and recently, also with Assad.
The Alawite mountains command the Syrian
Pipelineistan routes towards the Eastern
Mediterranean ports of Banyas, Latakia and Tartus.
There's also much gas to be discovered - following
the recent exploits in Cyprus and Israel. Assuming
the Assad regime is toppled but beats a strategic
retreat towards the mountains, the possibilities for
guerrilla sabotage of pipelines multiply.
As it stands, no one knows how a post-Assad Damascus
will reconfigure its relations with Ankara, Baghdad
and Iraqi Kurdistan - not to mention Tehran. Syria,
though, will keep playing the Pipelineistan game.
The Kurdish enigma
Most of Syria's oil reserves are in the Kurdish
northeast - which geographically lies between Iraq
and Turkey; the rest is along the Euphrates, down
Syrian Kurds make up nine per cent of the population
- some 1.6 million people. Even if they're not a
sizable minority, Syrian Kurds are already
considering that whatever happens in a post-Assad
they will be very well positioned in Pipelineistan,
offering a direct route for oil exports from Iraqi
Kurdistan, in theory bypassing both Baghdad and
It's as if the whole region is playing a Bypassing
Lotto. As much as the Islamic Gas Pipeline may be
interpreted as bypassing Turkey, a direct deal
between Ankara and Iraqi Kurdistan for two strategic
oil and gas pipelines from Kirkuk to Ceyhan may be
seen as bypassing Baghdad.
Baghdad, of course, will fight it - stressing these
pipelines are null and void without the central
government having its sizeable cut; after all it
pays for 95 per cent of the budget of Iraqi
Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have been playing a
clever game. In Syria they don't trust Assad or the
SNC opposition. The PYD - linked to the PKK -
dismisses the SNC as a puppet from Turkey. And the
secular Kurdish National Council (KNC) dreads the
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
So the absolute majority of Syrian Kurds have been
neutral; no support for Turkish (or Saudi) puppets,
all power to the pan-Kurdish cause. PYD leader Salih
Muslim Muhammad has summed it all up: "What is
important is that we Kurds assert our existence."
This means, essentially, more autonomy. And that's
exactly what they got from that July 11 deal signed
in Erbil, under the auspices of Iraqi Kurdistan
president Massoud Barzani; the co-administration of
Syrian Kurdistan by the PYD and the KNC. That was
the direct consequence of a wily strategic retreat
by the Assad regime.
No wonder Ankara is freaking out - it sees not only
the PKK finding a safe haven in Syria, hosted by
their cousins of the PYD, but also two Kurdish de
facto statelets, sending a powerful signal to Kurds
What Ankara could do to minimise its nightmare is to
discreetly help the Syrian Kurds economically -
ranging from aid to investments in infrastructure -
via its good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Ankara's worldview, nothing can stand in the way
of its dream of becoming the ultimate energy bridge
between East and West. That implies an extremely
complex relationship with no fewer than nine
countries; Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia,
Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.
As for the wider Arab world, even before the Arab
Spring, an Arab Pipelineistan that could link Cairo,
Amman, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad was being
seriously discussed. That would do more to unify and
develop a new Middle East than any "peace process",
"regime change" or peaceful or militarised uprising.
Into this delicate equation, the dream of a Greater
Kurdistan is now back in play. And the Kurds may
have a reason to smile; Washington appears to be
silently backing them - a very quiet strategic
Of course Washington's motives are not exactly
altruistic. Iraqi Kurdistan under Barzani is a very
valuable tool for the US to keep a military
footprint in Iraq. The Pentagon will never admit it
on the record - but advanced plans already exist for
a new US base in Iraqi Kurdistan, or for the
transfer to Iraqi Kurdistan of NATO's base in
This has got to be one of the most fascinating
subplots of the Arab Spring; the Kurds fitting
perfectly into Washington's game in the whole arc
from the Caucasus to the Gulf.
Many an executive from Chevron and BP may be now
salivating over the open possibilities of
Iraq-Syria-Turkey Pipelineistan triangulations.
Meanwhile, many a Kurd may be now salivating over
Pipelineistan opening the doors to a Greater
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia
Times. His latest book is named Obama Does
Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
Since the mid-1980s, he has lived and worked as a
foreign correspondent in London, Paris, Milan, Los
Angeles and Singapore/Bangkok. Since 9/11 he has
extensively covered Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central
Asia, China, Iran, Iraq and the wider Middle East.
He is the author of Globalistan:
How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid
Books, 2007]; Red
Zone Blues: a Snapshot of Baghdad during the Surge [Nimble
Books, 2007]; and Obama
does Globalistan [Nimble
Books, 2009]. He was contributing editor to The
Empire and the Crescent; Tutto
in Vendita;and Shia
Power: Next Target Iran? and
is associated with the Paris-based European Academy
of Geopolitics. When not on the road, he lives
between Sao Paulo, Paris and Bangkok.
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