Syria has been in the news almost constantly over the past seven years as the scene of many atrocities and endless suffering. The early uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’ – against brutal government actions and the spiralling cost of living – quickly developed into all out civil war, with international support for both sides from world powers such as USA and Russia. It is quite hard to comprehend the scale of the devastation the ongoing war has caused to so much of the country.
Leaving the immense levels of human suffering aside for a moment, one question keeps coming back: why are the US, France, UK, and Russia all heavily involved in this conflict? The recent air strikes by the US, France and the UK were justified by the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government. It is hard to argue in any coherent way against air strikes that take out a rogue state’s ability to use chemical weapons which are banned by international treaties – even if this approach has previously been attempted and has failed. However, chemical weapons have been used in other countries in recent years – notably in Darfur in 2016, which is also a region with a troubled history and big oil fields – with barely a murmur from the international community or the media. So what is different in Syria to draw the global powers and high profile media coverage into the conflict?
Two pipelines, two plans
In the murky world of international politics, answers are rarely clear, and usually there are a number of competing interests going on. There are some fairly well documented longstanding oil-and-gas-related complications in Syria, however. It is essentially a tale of two pipelines. The first was proposed by Iran, and approved by the Syrian Government to run a gas pipeline from Iran via Syria to Greece. It’s aim was to supply the enormous and highly lucrative European need for gas imports. The second pipeline was proposed by Qatar to run through Syria and on to Turkey, also to supply the European market. This second pipeline was apparently backed by the US Government, but opposed by Syria, and also (it is claimed) the Russian Government (2). Broadly speaking, the USA holds greater influence over Qatar, Russia holds greater influence over Iran. So both countries can gain or lose financially and politically if one plan wins over the other. Thus the lines of the struggle are drawn – at least in very crude terms. Neither pipeline has yet been built, as a result of the ongoing civil war.
New Syrian oil and gas discoveries
There are a number of reports that claim major new discoveries of offshore oil and gas fields in the coastal waters of Syria in 2011. The rights to these new oilfields are allegedly held by a French Government-backed Company, CGGVeritas, and attracted the attention of U.S. and British fossil fuel companies too. (3) It seems reasonable to expect that whoever ends up on top in the civil war will ultimately control the exploitation of these new oil and gas fields.
A murky, unholy brew
If we add that many of the declining existing oil and gas resources in Syria are currently being exploited by Daesh (ISIS) and the profits of oil sales are being used to perpetuate their bloody conflict, then the whole fossil-fuel-conflict-control cocktail leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, to say the least. The situation is doubtless much more complex than simply a fight over who gets to control the oil and gas that lies in – and probably more significantly, passes through – Syria. However, international politics is always about influence and power, and control over who supplies the European market with gas and oil represents a big chunk of both of those things. The news that foreign companies now effectively control the production and export of oil in Iraq – whereas prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion there were none – only illustrates again that the outcomes for civilians in major oil and gas producing areas remain bleak, even when the foreign boots and tanks have gone home.
Fossil fuel egg – climate change chicken?
Water shortages – due mostly to rising temperatures, a series of droughts (6), poor water management, and a increasing population, with a huge influx of refugees escaping from the 2003 war in Iraq – were a major factor in the displacement of people in Syria immediately before the current war (4). Future wars are likely to be waged over drinking water and productive farmland if current predictions of climate change come to pass over the next 50 years – especially in areas like the Middle East that are already suffering from water stress. So whilst the role of climate change in the current Syria conflict is almost certainly secondary to the presence of oil and gas interests, this is likely to change. In other words, the fossil fuel egg is hatching into the climate change chicken.
The potentially positive take away: Is a ‘peace dividend’ possible?
If it seems unpalatable, or even unbelievable, that governments – including democratic Western ones – are intentionally prolonging the human suffering in Syria to ensure the control and supply of oil and gas, then the only upside from such a conclusion is that reducing our current reliance on fossil fuels could bring a ‘peace dividend’ to many trouble spots across the globe. The estimated cost of U.S. wars after the 9/11 terrorist attacks now stands in 2018 at around $5.6 trillion dollars – $23,386 on average per U.S. tax payer. Whilst not all these wars were uniquely about protecting U.S. fossil fuel supply, there is little doubt that it was a major consideration.
All this makes me personally even more determined than ever to continue cutting out gas and oil as sources of energy in my life.
Til next time.
(1) Repeated use of Chemical Weapons in Darfur, 2016: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/09/sudan-credible-evidence-chemical-weapons-darfur-revealed/
(2) Two pipelines through Iran or Qatar: http://www.news.com.au/world/middle-east/is-the-fight-over-a-gas-pipeline-fuelling-the-worlds-bloodiest-conflict/news-story/74efcba9554c10bd35e280b63a9afb74
(4) https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/14/world/middleeast/14syria.html, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/science/earth/study-links-syria-conflict-to-drought-caused-by-climate-change.html