The world’s major superpowers are converging on Syria, the centre of a new Cold War between America and Russia, and a significant source of conflict over a natural gas pipeline connecting the Middle East with Europe and their respective trading partners, the outcome of which will dictate the structure of the next century’s ‘new world order’.
The proposed Qatar pipeline would run from Qatar into Saudi Arabia, (an ally), through Jordan, Syria, Turkey and onwards into Europe, the major market for natural gas.
The proposed Iranian pipeline would run from Iran into Iraq, (a Shia ally), from Iraq into Syria, (also a Shia ally), crossing directly under the Mediterranean Sea, into Europe, bypassing an understandably perturbed Turkey.
Fadhel Kaboub, Associate Professor of economics and international studies at Denison University, tells Renegade Inc. that countries like Germany are interested in the Qatar pipeline because they want to limit dependence on Russian natural gas. Russia having threatened to ‘turn off the tap’ to Europe during the Ukraine crisis.
“It’s a major source of anxiety for the Europeans,” he says.
Syria and Iran signed a deal for a natural gas pipeline in 2010. The Qatari government showed up a week later hoping to sign a deal, only to be told it was too late.
“The Qataris were really upset by this because it’s a question of life and death for their economy,” he says. “Oil and gas is Qatar’s only source of wealth. If they lose access to the European market, they lose a lot”.
A pipeline would transport natural gas directly to and from Qatar. Without it, its only option is to access the European market through LNG, a much more expensive process, because it means having to liquify the natural gas, load it onto ships, send it across the ocean, and build physical infrastructure at the destination ports to turn the LNG back into natural gas.
Russia has been trying to establish an OPEC equivalent of natural gas countries in Europe for some time. Iran, the world’s third largest source of natural gas, agreed to join, but Qatar, the world’s second largest reserve, refused. Iran and Qatar share the same natural gas field in the Gulf. Rising tensions between the two over the competing pipeline projects is a significant contributing factor in the ongoing conflict.
“You can’t have a cartel like OPEC if the major producers are not part of the game,” says Professor Kaboub.
Russia would rather compete with an ally like Iran, than an adversary likely to side with Europe and America when it comes to global economic and geopolitical preferences.
“It explains why, from day one, the Qatari government, along with Britain, France, America and Saudi Arabia poured millions of dollars into funding rebels – any kind of rebels – that would overthrow the Syrian regime” he says.
Realising there was no good alternative to support, the UK and France began pulling out of Syria just as ISIS was taking over masses of land, performing its most outrageous public executions in Iraq and Syria, influencing sympathisers in countries such as France, the UK and Germany.
That was up until a few weeks ago, when they returned to Syria, rejoining Israel and the US following the Salisbury poisonings and unconfirmed reports of chemical weapons attacks, launching air-raids without Congressional or Parliamentary approval, or even any evidence the Assad military was responsible, knowing that it was on the verge of liberation from the extremist ‘rebels’ that had been holding the country hostage for almost seven years.
“Not with a desire for regime change, necessarily,” he says, “not with the echoes of the mess they made in Iraq and Libya still ringing in their ears, but trying to respond in some way.”
The professor says the allies are in a ‘doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t’ type scenario.
The ‘best’ they can do is try to destabilise the region by arming Islamist rebels in the hopes it will bring Syria back to the bargaining table, supplementing its own needs and desires for trade and resources, with its need to avoid another global confrontation.
“There is no good outcome,” he says.
The West, ISIS & al-Qaeda: strange bedfellows
Charles Shoebridge, former British army and counter terrorism intelligence officer tells Renegade Inc. that the US, UK and France have long provided substantial overt and covert support to Islamist rebels to destabilise Syria and, ideally, to overthrow Assad.
“This policy was marketed as being in the name of promoting freedom, human rights and democracy, despite that from the outset, there was very little evidence of the overwhelming majority of such rebels ever having embraced such western concepts,” he says. “In reality, this policy of supporting the rebels was driven by geopolitical reasons related to the West’s hostility to Iran and support for close, wealthy allies such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and particularly Israel, for whom a strong Syria – as also Libya and Iraq – posed a genuine existential threat.
“It is with this aim then, that the US, UK, and France have backed an armed Islamist rebellion that over the last seven years has caused the deaths of some 400,000 people, resulted in millions of refugees, and created vast areas of ungoverned space that acted as an incubator and temporary safe haven for groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS who, as yet another example of western policy blowback, now regularly attack European cities.
This same policy of supporting Islamist rebels was also, of course, pursued by the US, UK, and France in Libya, with similarly disastrous results – albeit not disastrous for those states that had considered Syria and Libya as enemies.”
Professor Piers Robinson, propaganda researcher and chair of politics, society and political journalism at the University of Sheffield tells Renegade Inc. that the west wound up in Syria supporting “implicitly or explicitly, intentionally or unintentionally”, extremist groups.
In 2016, the US backed the Nour al-Din al-Zenki group, a Sunni Islamist terrorist faction, beheaded a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee on camera, where they are seen laughing about it.
But when the State Department was challenged on whether the US administration would continue funding the jihadist group, the press was told it would reassess its support if the allegations were proven.
“The official claim was that America doesn’t support extremist groups, it only supports the moderates,” he says. “But what does a group have to do not to be defined as extremists? This whole episode is deeply worrying.”
Climate for change
All of this is hampered by a pre-existing internal crisis caused by climate change and the worst drought in Syrian history, between 2006 and 2011.
“Climate change didn’t cause the crisis but it created additional social and economic tensions that made the situation much more explosive,” says Professor Kaboub.
Syria is one of the few self-sufficient countries in the region when it comes to food production, but the drought all but decimated its agricultural industry.
The country’s livestock declined by 85%. More than 1.5 million people were displaced internally from rural to urban areas, and around 2008, Syria became a net importer of wheat and major food items.
“Coincidentally, this happened at the worst time possible because commodity prices started to increase dramatically,” he says. “Not only did Syria become a net importer, but it became a net importer at the most expensive time.
“This is when we see the confrontation between the Free Syrian Army and the military in 2011 when money began pouring into Syria and militants from all different parts of the world descended on Syria.”
Fighting for survival
The conflict in Syria is also a proxy battle over control of the world’s major resources.
“The west is fighting for influence, possibly with Iran as its ‘final destination’, and toppling governments along the way whose foreign policy doesn’t suit its objectives,” says Professor Robinson.
“As such, Syria is fighting for survival”.
“Many Syrian people, not all, but many, probably the majority but certainly many, are fighting against being taken over by militant extremists. So those countries, and Iran, are fighting, actually, for survival.
“Russia is asserting the need for international law to be upheld, for countries not to be invaded. Iran and Syria are trying to stand their ground.”
Geopolitically, US hegemony is diminishing in the face of a rising China and a more assertive Russia.
“You have a real shift in the balance of power,” he says. “But it is very important that we don’t allow the West to try to hold onto its influence using military force, which is what it has been doing.”
How to kick-off WWIII
Professor Robinson says the west must recognise the mess it has gotten itself into, and how far our foreign policies are from our basic democratic principles and norms.
“We are potentially at point of confrontation with Russia,” he says. “We had air strikes last week. There could be another chemical event and then an even bigger escalation. This could, arguably, get us to a point of major military engagement in Syria and, at least potentially a much wider war, a WWIII.”
Once upon a time, war was economically devastating and something to be avoided, but Ali Kadri, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore tells Renegade Inc. that in 2018, war has become an end in itself.
“It has become the most important pedestal of developed economies.
“War is the biggest waste element. The destruction and production of waste are big business. Human and environmental waste, and the destruction of physical environments have become big commodities.”
“Bombing is actually the slavery of capitalism.”
And Theresa May would know. Her husband, Philip May, profited handsomely from the Syria bombings. He is the largest holder of arms manufacturer, BAE System, whose share price has soared since the air-raids.
Professor Kadri says World War III has already kicked off in Syria.
“It will be difficult for America to lose,” he says. “I hope it will not take the planet with it.”
The most galling of all, is that exacerbating the Middle East conflict is somehow considered preferable to hashing out mutually agreeable trade deals. But instead we have Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and no financial disincentive for war.
These are the leaders of some of the most powerful governments and institutions in the world. Men and women who have experienced great success in the private sector and who have dominated so-called ‘leadership positions’ before moving into government or diplomacy. Yet between them, there seems not a single person capable of negotiation.
Syria is a powder-keg waiting to explode. It will take the work of statesmen to prevent WWIII kicking off.
Those with ‘waged war’ on their resumes need not apply.
Specialising in economics, technology and policy, Connelly is working on her first book due out in 2018.
With more than a decade of experience under her belt, Claire has written for leading publications including The Australian Financial Review, The Saturday Paper, ABC, SBS, Crikey, New Matilda, VICE & others. She is the co-host of The Week In Start-Ups Australia, and features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio shows including Radio National's Download This Show, ABC's The Drum, Ten's The Project, and more.