A gas pumping station in Georgia near the Turkish border. The author argues that the tensions surrounding the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline shed light on the Syrian conflict. (Photo: Robert Thomson)
Much of the media coverage suggests that the conflict in Syria is a civil war, in which the Alawite (Shia) Bashar al Assad regime is defending itself (and committing atrocities) against Sunni rebel factions (who are also committing atrocities). The real explanation is simpler: it is about money.
In 2009, Qatar proposed to run a natural gas pipeline through Syria and Turkey to Europe. Instead, Assad forged a pact with Iraq and Iran to run a pipeline eastward, allowing those Shia-dominated countries access to the European natural gas market while denying access to Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The latter states, it appears, are now attempting to remove Assad so they can control Syria and run their own pipeline through Turkey.
The standard Shia-Sunni conflict is little different from many other socio-ethnic-economic-political-religious (SEEPR) conflicts that originate in competition for resources, but in Syria it has a lucrative twist. The pattern of SEEPR control in Syria is similar to that in many other Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan Africa countries (and is arguably common in every country, but more so in traditional societies): Who controls the government controls the state’s resources, and by extension, the wealth derived from them. In Syria, the Sunnis have tried to unseat the Alawites ever since France installed them during the French mandate that ended in 1943. But now the stakes are higher, thanks to natural gas.
Any review of the current conflict in Syria that neglects the geopolitical economics of the region is incomplete. (Nearly all media reports fit this description.) Take “The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War,” published in January by STRATFOR’s Reva Bhalla, which provides an effective Syria-specific revision of Robert Kaplan’s “Geography Strikes Back,” complete with historical acuity, but without mentioning the pipeline. Reports such as these shed little light on current geopolitical economic developments that are at the heart of the issue. Oil and natural gas pipelines bring large amounts of wealth to states which control them, thus attracting international attention, intrigue, and in many instances, terrorist activity.
It is helpful to look at a similar situation: the GAAT region (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey), also known as the Caucasus. As proposals for an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Europe took form, every power broker in the region struggled to influence the route, seeking the wealth that would flow to any country involved in the deal.
Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a key Russian ally in the region, prevented the shortest pipeline route, through Armenia. The pipeline ultimately went west through Tbilisi and Ceyhan, but only after Moscow demanded and received a partial diversion pipeline that transports Azerbaijani oil north into Russia. In 2005, oil first flowed through the BTC Pipeline, so named because of its route from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, through Tbilisi, Georgia, and on to Ceyhan, Turkey.
But the pipeline’s completion hardly settled questions in the conflict-ridden Caucasus. Potential malcontents include factions from Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh region (backed by Armenia’s sponsors Russia and China), separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Turkey. In October 2012, an explosion damaged the pipeline in Turkey; although it remains unclear whether the blast was an accident, the PKK separatist group was quick to claim responsibility.
The potential for conflict in the Caucasus is so great that the U.S. Army uses it as the setting for capstone exercises at several of its service schools. Conducting several iterations each year at various locations, officers from all branches of the U.S. military, interagency community, and several international partners study coalition warfare using the Caucasus and its pipeline as a theater of operations. These field-grade officers study the general regional strategic implications of the pipeline’s development, including the controversy involved in its formation.
If the BTC pipeline is destabilizing enough to convince the world’s superpower military to plan key developmental exercises around it, the planned pipeline in Syria must have similar implications.
Viewed through a geopolitical and economic lens, the conflict in Syria is not a civil war, but the result of larger international players positioning themselves on the geopolitical chessboard in preparation for the opening of the pipeline in 2016. Assad’s pipeline decision, which could seal the natural gas advantage for the three Shia states, also demonstrates Russia’s links to Syrian petroleum and the region through Assad. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as al Qaeda and other groups, are maneuvering to depose Assad and capitalize on their hoped-for Sunni conquest in Damascus. By doing this, they hope to gain a share of control over the “new” Syrian government, and a share in the pipeline wealth.
The main point for decisionmakers is that the upcoming pipeline increases the geopolitical stakes surrounding the Syrian conflict. The tremendous wealth from the natural gas flow, enough to transform regional economies, has drawn in competing regional players from both ideologies. Analyses that include the pipeline make Syria look a lot like the Caucasus scenario playing out in real time, and they provide reliable information on which to base international decisions. Reports that disregard the pipeline and its geopolitical implications ignore the elephant in the room.
Army Maj. Rob Taylor is an instructor at the Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth. The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.