No one can ignore the reality any longer now that the conflict raging in Syria has evolved beyond the simple question of a people fighting for the right to participate in government and determine their own fate. Nor can the conflict be defined solely within the parameters of a Sunni-Shiite contest — despite an undeniably sectarian aspect to the fighting. Rather, the conflict has — to a considerable degree — metamorphosed into a competition over influence being waged among global and regional powers. The fundamental backstory to this conflict revolves around natural gas and gas-related dilemmas, which extend well-beyond the Syrian arena and directly encompass the other countries in the eastern Arab world such as Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and even Cyprus.
Indeed, the time may well have come to bring this issue into the open and out of the shadows, where it has been the preserve of specialists. Perhaps once the facts are exposed, their clash with public opinion will facilitate peaceful settlements and rational solutions, built upon shared interests and aimed at halting the killing of innocent civilians. This, in turn, may suppress the wars now raging and ward off the specter of future wars yet to come.
Russia is a major player in these gas wars. Its tight reins over the Syrian card and staunch support of the Syrian regime conceal its overriding desire to defend its strategic interests. Foremost among these interests is the preservation of its privileged position as Europe's main supplier of natural gas and, conversely, denying any attempt at establishing alternative pipelines outside Russian control. For this reason, Moscow has opposed Turkey's growing role in this respect, particularly since the proposed Nabucco pipeline project.
The Nabucco pipeline skirts those regions under Russian influence, connecting Azerbaijani gas deposits in the Caspian Sea to the European market through Austria. Now, Nabucco has been replaced with plans for the Trans Adriatic pipeline (TAP) and Trans-Anatolian pipeline (TANAP), which take a new, shorter route to Italy. Turkey has cultivated these ties since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, seen for example in cooperation on the completed South Caucasus pipeline that connects to TANAP. It also represented one of the principal challenges to Moscow's influence and role in the post-Cold War era. But Nabucco's success in providing an additional source of natural gas exports to flood the European market with a resource it badly needs has not yet been assured. The hope that it would do so had been — and still remains — the central goal of the cooperation between Turkey and Qatar. That cooperation, in turn, was embodied in the project to build an additional network tied to Nabucco route and, through it, to the European market. The pipeline was to begin from Qatar, continue to Turkey and pass through Saudi Arabia and Syrian territory. The Syrian government rejected this project in 2009 under the pretext that it would harm the interests of its Russian partner, with whom it has decadeslong economic ties. No doubt this refusal provided an additional impetus to Qatar and Turkey for the sake of moving forward in supporting the Syrian revolutionaries financially and militarily.
It is true that a project of this sort worried the Kremlin for two reasons. First, it threatened to deprive Russia of its role in supplying the demand of the European market. Second, it threatened to drive down gas prices as a result of glutting the market with a heightened supply. On the other hand, it remains true that Syria went back and signed on to a competing pipeline project connecting Iran and Lebanon and passing through Iraq. The project for the network in this region originated in the area of South Pars — the same from where the Turkish-Qatari project originated, consisting largely of a series of gas wells shared between Iran and Qatar. Nothing could better underscore the primary embodiment of the "Shiite Crescent," in coordination with Moscow. This prospective network of gas lines would be independent of Russia's own network; indeed, it would act as a competitor to that network.
It is worth noting that this project was not formally announced until 2012 — that is, after Syria had entered a state of civil war and pro-Iranian forces had embarked on a full-fledged campaign to support the Syrian regime. Based on this information, it should no longer come as a surprise that the issue of gas lies at the heart of the negotiations that took place between Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the Russian side during the former's most recent trip to Moscow. According to those portions of the talks that were leaked by the Saudi side, the most important items included a guarantee that Gulf gas exports would not be used to threaten Russia's position as Europe's principal supplier.
The issue of natural gas is not confined to the parties now vying with one another in Syria. Rather, it also encompasses neighboring states such as Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Cyprus. And here, too, matters are trending in the direction of crisis, where religious and ideological slogans trump economic interests. One can find a perfect expression of this in the tension that came over Egypt-Israeli ties as a result of the shock waves of the Arab Spring, and the attacks perpetrated by groups affiliated with political Islam against pipelines exporting gas from Egypt into Israel. As oil profits increased, the economic indicators of the relevant — "oil-producing" — states rebounded. But by the same token, this wealth grew at the same proportion as the dangers associated with it, so long as the mechanisms for resolving disputes peacefully and distributing wealth justly remain absent.
No doubt the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean basin may yet prove beneficial to the Lebanese and Israeli economies. But it will also act as a source of tension that — if matters are not properly handled — might lead to the outbreak of a new war. This wealth in and of itself has stoked ambitions and whetted appetites even in relatively peaceful times. How much more destabilizing will they prove against the backdrop of a conflict such as the one between Hezbollah and Israel? That conflict has already dragged Lebanon into war twice in the past decade. The current conflict between the two countries centering on the demarcation of their maritime borders must find a diplomatic solution in the corridors of the UN and at US prompting, owing to the role of mediator that the United States is capable of playing — particularly with Israel. Just as the UN was charged with drawing up the Blue Line to demarcate the land border between the two states, it must proactively demarcate the maritime borders between these states.
Even the Gaza Strip enjoys a wealth of natural gas in close proximity to its shores that might contribute to alleviating the burden of deteriorating economic conditions, on the condition that the drilling and contracting processes be carried out in a framework of international coordination and cooperation. Turkey has an active and central role in bringing together this issue with that of Central Asian natural gas more generally, owing to its geographic position and its role in transferring gas and linking gas pipelines. To play this pivotal role, however, it must moderate some of its ideological choices, which have made more than a few parties uneasy. Instead, it must build upon what was its most distinguished feature in the past decade, and what raised Turkey to the top tier of Middle Eastern powers: economic development and partnership.
This situation calls for pre-emptive diplomacy on the part of international parties acting to strengthen the foundations of stability and cooperation. It is worth noting that this sort of mediation requires forethought and magnanimity, and cannot be reduced to secret, bilateral deals that might benefit some parties at the expense of others. They also require persistent follow-up. The Iraqi model — which has yet to pass a law settling the issue of oil wealth distribution, or even settling the ownership of the disputed oil-producing territories of Mosul and Kirkuk — is the best evidence that bargains on paper are not enough. On the contrary, they must have buy-in from the international community. This sort of buy-in is built upon partnership in the spirit of openness, cooperation and, sometimes, pressure from the powerful. From warding off the specter of the threat of chemical weapons, it is possible to move toward bringing closer a just distribution of wealth that will bring stability to all.
The mix of religion and oil ignited the Middle East and the world. The events of 9/11 are the clearest manifestation of this phenomenon. The mix of ideology and natural gas, on the other hand, might yet ignite the region once again, toppling international security and stability. The issue of natural gas must therefore be approached soberly, rationally, transparently and on the basis of common interests. Such an approach would clarify the points of dispute and seek solutions in accordance with international law, far removed from the logic of bilateral deals or bargains combining sectarian or ideological considerations with economic interests. The horns of the dilemma might serve as the gateway to the solution, if it is approached in the appropriate way, with the appropriate logic. After all, did Europe not escape from a situation of war and factionalism to one of unity and development through an agreement of mutual cooperation whose first building block was an agreement on coal and steel?
Sami Nader is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader
Editor's note: A previous version of this article represented the Nabucco pipeline as a current project. It has instead been abandoned in favor of the proposed Trans Adriatic pipeline project (TAP) that would link Italy with Turkey, and the future Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline project (TANAP) that would connect TAP with the existing South Caucasus Pipeline to Azerbaijan.
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