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Russia’s belligerence in Syria has renewed debates about Russian motives. James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, and Xenia Wickett, project director for the United States at Chatham House, probably put it best in their recent article: “Why, ‘logically’, would a country buckling under the strain of a crippled economy and which has itself been a recent victim of extremist terror, open up a second front of military operations far away from its traditional theatre of military engagement in the former Soviet space? And what else, other than ulterior motives to those officially stated, could explain Russia’s targeting of Syrian groupings other than ISIS strongholds?”
One answer is natural gas. Specifically, most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe. In short, as Iran emerges from international sanctions and its massive gas reserves become available for export, Syria’s gas war is heating up.
In 1989, Qatar and Iran began to develop the South Pars/North Dome field, which is buried 3,000 meters below the floor of the Persian Gulf. With 51 trillion cubic meters of gas and 50 billion cubic meters of liquid condensates, it is the largest natural gas field in the world. Approximately one-third of its riches lie in Iranian waters and two-thirds in Qatari ones.
Since the discovery, Qatar has invested heavily in liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants and terminals that enable it to ship its gas around the world in tankers. Yet liquefaction and shipping increase total costs and, particularly as gas prices have slipped, Qatari gas has remained easily undercut in European markets by cheaper pipeline gas from Russia and elsewhere. And so, in 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey, an investment of billions of dollars up front that would reduce transportation costs over the long term. However, Syrian President Bashar al Assad refused to sign the plan; Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined, put him under intense pressure not to.
At the same time, Iran, sensing an opportunity, and lacking export infrastructure for its own massive gas reserves, proposed an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would pump Iranian gas from the same field out via Syrian ports such as Latakia and under the Mediterranean. Moscow apparently blessed this project, possibly believing that Russia would have an easier time dealing with Iran (unlike Qatar, not home to a U.S. base) to control gas imports to Europe from Iran, the Caspian Sea region, and Central Asia. The announcement of the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline deal came in 2011. The parties signed the documents in July 2012. Construction was slated to be finished in 2016, but the Arab Spring and ensuing chaos in Syria interfered.
Since the start of the fighting, Iran has provided extensive support to the Assad government. By some accounts, it is more or less running the Syrian army, as well as supplying it with weapons and now even troops from its Revolutionary Guard and Quds forces. Tehran has numerous reasons for supporting Assad—Damascus has been a reliable ally and channel for sending arms to Hezbollah—and Syria’s status as a potential transit route for Iran’s vast natural gas reserves surely figures in.
Qatar, meanwhile, began working to oust the Assad regime by funding rebel groups to the tune of an estimated $3 billion between 2011 and 2013. It even offered a $50,000 reward to defectors from the Syrian regime and their families and hosts a base from which the CIA has trained Syrian rebels. Qatar’s relations with Syria had previously been cordial—that is, until Qatar’s Al-Jazeera played a vital role in supporting the Arab Spring revolts and gave a voice to the protests in Syria. Qatar also sought to isolate Assad diplomatically by handing Syria’s seat in the Arab League to the opposition. In doing so, Qatar endangered its previously close relations with Iran.
The Russian intervention adds a new layer. Russia would rather see the Iran–Iraq–Syria pipeline built or no pipeline at all, so that it can best control gas supplies to Europe, its main market. For Qatar, Syria represents an opportunity to transport its gas to market cheaply or block Iran from dominating pipeline exports from a jointly-owned field. The United States, meanwhile, supports the Qatari pipeline as a way to balance Iran and diversify Europe’s gas supplies away from Russia. And Turkey, likewise, believes that the Qatari pipeline would help it diversify its own gas supplies away from Russian energy and further its ambitions to be a gas transit hub between Asia and Europe. Russian state media has, in recent days, reminded Turkey that it is “unlikely to manage without Russian gas” and that Turkey’s other major supplier, Iran, is aligned with Russia in Syria.
In other words, any political settlement of the Syria crisis must also reconcile competing gas interests. One way to do this would be to enable both pipelines to be built, so that Qatari and Iranian gas can be brought to market cheaply. That would resolve at least one driver of the conflict. In fact, it would serve the interests of all actors reasonably well, except for Russia.
Indeed, the dual pipelines would be a disaster for the Kremlin. Russia has a vital interest in controlling gas supplies to Europe, where Gazprom sells 80 percent of its gas. The European Union has succeeded in diversifying supplies in recent years (in part through LNG imports) and seeks to develop additional pipelines from Central Asia and the Middle East to further reduce its reliance on Russian gas. New pipelines from Qatar and Iran could take away market share from Russia, but more importantly reduce prices below what the Russian state budget needs to survive.
Russia has shown a willingness to go to war over such issues before. It fought the war in Georgia to frustrate Western plans to export gas from the Caspian Sea region to the West via Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey. It went to war in Ukraine in order to control a vital transit state between Russia and Europe. And it is reasonable to expect that Russia will go down fighting to prevent a Qatari pipeline from crossing Syria on its way to Europe and to make Iranian exports reliant on Russian support. It also explains why Russia has chosen to target Qatari- and Saudi-funded rebel groups in Syria in its bombing campaign, and why Russia’s involvement has only bolstered the Gulf States’ resolve.
When such energy considerations are taken into account, it seems clear that surrendering Syria to Iranian and Russian interests, as some have recommended in recent weeks, would be a disaster. But negotiating a solution will be very difficult with Russia when U.S. and Russian interests are so sharply opposed. The United States must stand firm and use the crisis to begin to mend relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other traditional allies in the Middle East, with which ties have been frayed by the tumult of the Arab Spring. Turkey, at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, stands the best chance of playing an honest broker role in gas transit and ensuring, with U.S. support, that all gas suppliers in the Middle East have the ability to freely export and transport their valuable commodity.