With warnings against Syria using more chemical weapons, it appears the U.S. may be getting ready to wade into the quagmire there.
What is going on in Syria? Who are the key players in the conflict? Is this about the Shia/Sunni divide or is there a pipeline involved? Let’s take a look.
In 2011, the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa region. The revolts led to the resignations of the presidents in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia. The revolts led to a civil war in Libya, in which Muammar Gaddafi was killed.
Syria was not immune to the protests. In March of 2011, protests erupted as well. The protests were fueled by the torture and detainment of a few boys that supported the Arab Spring by spray painting a few buildings. One of the boys was so brutally tortured, he died.
In typical dictator fashion, President Bashar al-Assad, launched an attack on the protesters, killing hundreds. International condemnation soon followed, with no real action. Possibly sensing a chance to seize power, many members of the military defected in July of that same year, forming the Free Syrian Army. From here, Syria slid into a full-fledged civil war.
Assad sets the terrorists loose
Assad was in trouble internationally and locally. He had one more trick up his sleeve. Assad had ties to extremist groups. Syria was a main artery for jihadis headed to fight the U.S. during the Iraq war. The jihadi network openly operated in Syria during the Iraq war, sometimes with assistance from the regime. In 2008, U.S. Special Operations launched a cross border raid to capture and kill top al-Qaeda lieutenants. This sent a message to the regime, to stop allowing jihadis to use Syria as a base. Assad got the message, and jailed many of the remaining jihadis. Until he didn’t.
Assad released the jihadis into the public just as it seemed he was losing control in 2011. This gave him the image of fighting a terrorist insurgency, not a peaceful uprising turned rebellion. The men released formed the core of al-Qaeda in Syria, and many would split off and form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
From there it became a full-fledged quagmire. You had Assad fighting the Free Syrian Army and sometimes working with and fighting ISIS. ISIS was fighting the FSA while trying to establish a caliphate. The Free Syrian Army was being attacked by all sides involved. The Kurds are in the middle of this and all they want is their own autonomous region like their fellow Kurds in Iraq have.
The question perhaps that President Trump ought to ask is what happens next should Assad be deposed? Trump must consider the third order effects, unintended consequences of getting involved — and potentially creating another Iraq-like insurgency targeted at U.S. forces.
Foreign powers get involved
In come the foreign parties. By this time, many foreign nations had declared and undeclared interests in the conflict and they chose a side. Iran sided with Syria, while the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia chose the rebels and jihadis. The oil rich Arab states then poured millions into the jihadis, simply because they were against Assad.
Iran got involved for two reasons. Iran uses Syria as a client state, and did not want to lose that part of the Shia Crescent or Black Gold Triangle. The jihadists in Syria and Iraq were Sunni, and slaughtering Shia Muslims, as well as Christians. Iran felt it was their religious obligation to protect their fellow Shia.
The Shia Crescent and the Black Gold Triangle are almost identical. The triangle starts in northern Oman, UAE, and east Saudi Arabia, and runs through Iraq and ends at a point in northeast Syria. The Shia Crescent continues westward into Lebanon. This area is majority Shia Muslim and houses the clear majority of fossil fuel resources in the Middle East. It’s easy to see why Iran would not want to lose that influence.
Russia itself became involved in Syria for one reason for sure. Syria is a client state Russia. The relationship goes back to the end of WWII. The then Soviet Union was one of the first nations to recognize Syria following the French pullout in 1946. The USSR would support the Syrians with over $200 million in military aid from 1955 to 1960.
The relationship would get better for the two nations, when in 1971, President Assad, the father, would allow a Russian naval base to be built in Tartus, Syria. Russia still uses this base today, and it is the only base Russia has on the Mediterranean Sea. If Russia wishes to project strategic power, it must maintain this base. Ergo, it must protect whoever the host government of Syria is.
And let’s not forget Turkey. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn’t busy ordering his bodyguards to beat up protesters in Washington, D.C., he is busy consolidating power. Following the failed coup attempt, that looked suspiciously staged, in July of 2016, Erdogan has moved to gain more power. An election this past April, gave him more say in fiscal policy, the authority to appoint top judges and ministers, and call elections at any time.
Turkey sits at the nexus between Asia and Europe. It was the last of the Islamic caliphates, being forced to break up after losing in WWI. Many in Turkey still see themselves as legitimate successors to the caliphate.
Perhaps we got a preview of what the ruling party of Turkey, the AKP, really wants in 2015. A party chief sent out a tweet stating, “Get Ready for Erdogan’s Caliphate.” The message may have been prophetic, because since then he has gained total control over the country. If Turkey does want to establish dominance in the Islamic world, as it believes it should, it certainly does not want a competing caliphate, or a Shia Crescent in Syria.
Getting involved in Syria, then, the U.S. is likely to step on somebody’s toes, potentially igniting a wider regional conflict, stretching from Libya to Tehran.
Do pipeline politics explain proxy war in Syria?
Is there a pipeline angle to what is happening in Syria? When you stack up the sides, they do seem to coincidently come down on the sides of pipelines. Pipeline politics is not what started the conflict, it may have fueled part of it, but it must not be ignored. Hundreds of billions of dollars and the ability to manipulate Europe politically, through the supply of energy is what’s at stake.
The world’s largest natural gas field, by far, just happens to lie between the territorial waters of Qatar and Iran. Iran calls their share South Pars, and Qatar calls their share the North Dome. Both nations have diplomatic ties, but support opposite sides of the conflict in Syria.
In 2009 Qatar proposed a pipeline from the gulf to Turkey. There were two possible routes, one going through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, while the other went through Saudi Arabia Kuwait and Iraq. Qatar wanted to get their gas to a European market that wanted to cut dependency on Russian gas.
In 2011, Iran proposed a similar project, but the gas would be emanating from their side of the field. Their pipeline would run through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. From there it would head to Europe via another pipeline.
It is key to remember, that Saudi refineries, Kuwaiti refineries, UAE refineries, and Qatar refineries cannot get their fossil fuels out of the gulf without tankers going through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has threatened to shut down the strait several times. Iran could easily lay mines in the strait. They could use their mini subs to sink a tanker in the right spot, and shut down traffic altogether. There are two lanes in the strait with no room for error. One lane goes in, the other lane goes out. Sinking a ship in one of these lanes would cut off access to 20 percent of the world’s oil, and four of the top ten natural gas reserves.
If tankers make it out of the gulf, to head to Europe and the U.S., they must then traverse another choke point, Bab el-Mandab. El-Mandab is only about 20 miles wide and connects the Gulf of Aiden to the Red Sea. On the African side, you have Djibouti and Eritrea, and Yemen on the Middle East side. You know, Yemen, where Iranian backed Houthis are fighting a civil war against the Saudi backed Yemenis government.
No one, except for Iran, Russia, and Syria want an alternate route away from the Strait of Hormuz.
Both possible pipelines would feed the European need for natural gas, currently being dominated by Russia. Russia is able to use natural gas as a weapon and has in the past. In 2009, Russia turned off gas supplies that flowed through the Ukraine, and sent Europe into crisis mode.
Europe has ignored the fossil fuel energy in its push for green alternatives that now threatens its economic security — a crisis of its own making. But now having seen the need for these fuels, France, the UK and Germany backing the anti-Assad forces have intensified the conflict.
Cambridge Economics released a study on “Oil Dependency in the EU” found that Russia accounts for over 30 percent of European oil imports. Gazprom, the Russian government owned gas company ranked 40th by Forbes, supplies 34 percent of natural gas needs to Europe. Europe is at the mercy of the Russians.
The pipeline that flows from Qatar is likely to lessen the influence Russia has on Europe. Once that pipeline is up, running and proven, a second pipeline for Saudi oil could easily be laid, taking away the two Iranian controlled chokepoints. The Russians would much rather have an ally, like Iran, supplying gas to Europe. Would Europe vote for sanctions against Iran or Russia if both had the ability turn off their gas?
Should the U.S. be funding with blood and treasure the European need for energy?
The Guns of July
Regardless if this is a religious conflict, a political conflict, pipeline politics, or more likely a combination of all three, President Donald Trump must weigh all options — and get authorization from Congress — before acting to get the U.S. involved with a civil war with so many possibilities to become a wider regional or even global conflict.
A student of history might look at the situation in Syria, and see Europe leading up to WWI. One misstep could trigger alliances and defense pacts that lead to all-out war.