Pipes, Barrels, and Ports

September 2016 Geopolitical

A Passage to Syria

The last two paragraphs of a November article at Inspired to Change the World summarise the case for oil and gas in the Syrian war. We will begin there, to the effect that the war in Syria rests, more or less, on the following premise:

Because the West is eager to lessen the dependence [of] Russian natural gas to Europe and replace it with supplies from the Persian Gulf, the West wants to remove Assad [who politely declined the offer of an Arab pipeline through his backyard] from power. Because having a pipeline from the Persian Gulf that run through Syria to Europe is a major key to achieving energy independence from Russia and because Syria politically leans in favor of Russia and Iran, it was decided in the Western capitals that Assad needs to be removed from power. If this eventually happens, US would like to replace him with someone loyal to the US, Europe, Qatar and Saudi Arabia therefore work to get the Qatar-Syria-Turkey pipeline operational so that the Qatari Princes and Saudi Kings can finally begin to have access to the European energy market … While seeking this objective, the West also believes that Russia (and Putin) must be destabilized, kept occupied, removed and divorced from having control over the natural gas supplied to Europe. To the West, it doesn’t matter what they have to do to ultimately remove Russia’s energy out of Europe and replace it with Qatari / Saudi reserves. In August, 2013, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said: “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor.”

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A map of the oil-producing Middle Eastern countries and pie diagrams showing estimates of proven, recoverable, conventional oil and natural gas resources in the Middle East compared to the rest of the world. Source: Rasoul Sorkhabi, 2014. [Image and text: Geo ExPro]
The Progressive Review has a similar, if provocatively titled, article. (Pipelines and death, unfortunately, cover much of this month’s geopolitical wrap.) In general, the fundamentals of oil supply are much talked about while those of oil demand less so. But this article makes a separate and specific point about mechanisms for reducing a nation’s domestic oil demand without hurting its economy, using the Russian urban transit system as example:

There is strong circumstantial evidence that the Russian leadership learned in 2011 that their oil production and oil exports would start a long and cumulatively deep decline in 2015, with serious negative implications for their economy, finances and national power. [That was well before the recent oil price fall that has, with conspiring or not, already hurt the Russian economy]. Starting in 2011/12, Russia began a vigorous response to this looming threat.

The Arab Spring that shook the MENA nations of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen sent a rogue wave, in March of 2011, across the Syrian shore. A heavy government crackdown was itself met by retaliation — what started as defiant (but peaceful) protests escalated quickly and a rapidly convened rebel force began fighting back against the Syrian Arab Army. Within four months of the initial protests, army defectors had loosely organised into the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many civilians took up arms to join them.

Half a decade later and the world has caught on, largely because of Russian intervention. The Russian intervention has upped the ante and is now itself forcing the hand of an apparently reticent hegemon. (Some say the hegemon offered an enticement and that the Russians took the bait. Either way, Syria is now front and centre news. And not before time.)

But now what?

After five full years of fighting and the killing or displacement of 11 million — that’s every second Syrian — the media is finally giving due coverage to the catastrophe and UN delegates are finally lifting their voice. Why the delay? Was it primarily a delay in recognition, or a delay in intervention? Can we formulate a grand narrative to explain the West’s posturing rather than it purposefully acting? The situation in the Middle East is never straightforward. We must contextualise before answering these questions.

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Proposed trans-Syrian pipelines [Image: Asia Times]
 Like Ukraine further to her north, the Syrian civil war is a proxy-war in all but name. Both wars are about oil and pipelines, access and thoroughfare, to be sure. But unlike Ukraine, the proxies in Syria are more numerous, less visible, and far more complex. For her part, Ukraine is largely a campaign between East and West — between the NATO/EU/American behemoth and Russia. Russia is a huge landmass but a vulnerable one, and is uneasy at the speed of the erosion of the Ukrainian buffer at her underbelly (just as she was with Georgia in 2008). Syria, on the other hand, seems more complicated. While also a war between East and West, Syria appears far more a sectarian and regional conflict. The secular and ethnic tensions in Ukraine pale in comparison to that in Syria. Yet Syrian sectarianism is oft used as the validation mechanism and tool of motivation for the harsher and far less pious reality of two petro-states, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), vying for regional dominance of the Islamic world, and then some.

If only it were that simple: two petro-states vying for dominance?

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Enter a non-Arab yet third major Islamic nation and wild-card of the Middle East. Turkey, less petro-state than petro-hub (two images directly below), has the military prowess to make both Iran and the KSA come to heel. Turkey, now default Muslim Brotherhood champion of the region, is increasingly looking to gather the world of Islam (vis-à-vis its Ottoman legacy) under her wing, as “barriers” go up both to her northwest and her northeast. In this context, Turkey is regressing to prior (or primordial) behaviour — to her golden-age of Sultan rule when Byzantium cum Constantinople (now Istanbul) was heart and centre of the Eastern Roman and then Ottoman empires for 1400 years. Syria, the last bone of contention in a 1400-year-old sectarian conflict, and the entire Middle East, represent a glorious opportunity as much as they do a headache to the “Neo-Ottoman”.

While Ukraine is a nexus for Russian gas transit, it also harbours Russia’s only warm-water naval port — in Sevastopol on the Black Sea. This explains why President Putin did not tarry to take it, by hook or by crook, off Kiev’s Western hands. Sevastopol gives Russia its only direct access to the Mediterranean (via the Turkish Bosporus) and from there to the West, or,  south through the Suez Canal to the Arabian Sea, and the Persian Gulf. NATO-member Turkey’s neo-Ottoman instinct and her Euro-discord means that she is an unpredictable member as far as the North Atlantic Treaty is concerned. And so too the Russian navy is said to be “rebalancing to the Mediterranean” as the United States “pivots to Asia”.

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Sevastopol Harbour, Crimean peninsula [Image: Winter Republic]
What is the pivot to Asia? Essentially, it is nothing more than the United States retaining geostrategic relevance, if not hegemony, east of the historical epicentre of global power projection — which many feel has shifted from the Middle East to the Eurasian landmass.

This is a matter of US grand-strategy. Military dominance of West Asian energy resources gives the United States a ‘veto’ over its great power rivals that are dependent on access to these resources. It provides critical leverage against a rising China, as well as the original targets of this strategy, Germany and Japan. It is thus simply wrong to think that the US is leaving the Middle East.

It’s not that the United States is leaving the Middle East in as much as it is posturing to maintain itself as the centre of dialogue and the world’s great arbiter for the coming century, one which is predicted to see the rise of the East and a rebalancing of the East-West geopolitical global order.

Russia is a formidable military opponent for the US, where China is probably still a generation away from being that. Furthermore, China is contained toward the west by geography and socio-demographics — her only thoroughfare is the Pacific. Never mind those atolls in the Pacific, however; those waters remain firmly the purview of the American navy. Together of course, if Russia and China so decide, they would be a match to the United States.

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The Russian Black-Sea Fleet is housed at their warm-water naval base at Sevastopol. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
The Bosporus straight is near Istanbul.

Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, the Bosporus was deemed an international shipping lane with military restrictions. Under a 1982 amendment, Turkey now retains the right to close the Strait at its discretion in peacetime as well as during wartime.

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The Black-Sea fleet’s meander to the Aegean – an aerial view of the Bosphorus [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

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Bosphorus and Aegean Sea [Image: e360 Yale]
The Russian navy has its only Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s coast. This is a deep-water port — it can dock nuclear submarines. Originally used to receive Russian weapons shipments, the port began to be used in 1971 to house Russian naval ships and for their refueling and resupply.

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Satellite image of Russian naval facility in the port city of Tartus, Syria.

According to Sputnik:

More than ten warships and supply vessels are now on duty in the Mediterranean as part of Russia’s permanent naval task force in this area. The group of warships led by the guard’s missile cruiser Moskva of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is currently carrying out a number of tasks in the South Atlantic. Russian naval ships in the Gulf of Aden and near the Horn of Africa, where they are tasked with ensuring civilian navigation security. Two diesel-electric submarines (of Project 636), the Novorossiysk and the Rostov-on-Don, entered service when they joined the Russian Black Sea Fleet late last year. A new generation of ships is being built for the Black Sea Fleet; they will include six patrol ship class units capable of escorting ships, containing sea pirates and maintaining stationing site safety. Moscow will also take appropriate technical retaliatory measures (modernisations) to the Pentagon’s purchase of 250 interceptor missiles since 2010. Washington … builds roughly eight new warships a year, including a brand-new nuclear carrier every four or five years.

To the Gulf and beyond

Entering the Suez Canal, the Russian fleet can sail down the Red and across the Arabian Seas and into the Persian Gulf, where it will find a recalcitrant United States’ Navy present on its friend’s doorstep.

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Ports at Sevastopol and Tartus make feasible Russian naval excursions from the Mediterranean Sea and onto the Persian Gulf: 1. Sevastopol, Crimea (warm-water port). 2. Bosporus strait, Turkey. Between the Bosporus and Aegean Sea is the Sea of Marmara. 3. Aegean Sea. 4. eastern Mediterranean Sea (Tartus on Syrian coast). 5. Suez Canal. 6. Red Sea. 7. Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Between the straight and the Arabian Sea is the Gulf of Aden. 8. Arabian Sea. 9. Strait of Hormuz. 10. Persian Gulf

The Strait of Hormuz, between the UAE and Iran is potentially an Iranian-controlled choke point to passage to and from the Persian Gulf, out of which floats a third of the world’s oil. 

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Image of the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf region Taken from the International Space Station on Sept. 30, 2003. United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia at left, Iran at right. Credit: NASA [Image and text: Universe Today]
In Russia, ‘nyet’ still means ‘nyet’.

These conflicts are all about mindsets — about appropriations and misappropriations. America, of late, has preferred the “bait and bleed” approach. The Russians, always guarded and ever wary, seem to have bought in — both in the Ukraine and in the Middle East. Russia prefers to defend herself by having a buffer zone of allied states, particularly around her underbelly in the Caucasus. The Russians have been happy to tolerate encroachments, but only so far. Once a critical limit has been reached (or breached) Russia generally, and President Putin particularly, become impetuous. This impetuousness leads to overreactions and, true to style, the Russians are now looking to be a bit heavy handed in Syria as they make the most of the moment — to entrench a position and cement an early advantage before the opponent mobilises. The response is often overwhelming, but usually rather short lived. The further danger here, however, is that President Putin will continue to overplay his hand, in this high stakes match-play, to drive home this early advantage.

And briefly, further afield …
Europa and the Mood of the People

As with Brexit, the leading politicians did not realize that the situation was out of hand. The one thing a politician should understand is the mood of the people. But the politicians in Europe and the United States had not only lost touch with them, but regarded them, as Romney and former British Prime Minister David Cameron did, as the problem.

Brazil’s Senate impeaches President Rousseff

Colin Snyder notes the farce:

Dilma Rousseff, who was removed from the presidency over poorly-defined and unsubstantiated allegations of “corruption,” can run for office in 2018, but Michel Temer, who is now actually serving as president in the wake of Dilma’s removal, cannot run for office in 2018 because he actually has had his political rights stripped due to his own corruption.

For a gist of just how convoluted and messy Brazilian politics can be, see this short piece over at Americas South and North. But it’s nothing that a Caipirinha won’t fix. [Ed: better to avoid all alcoholic drinks.]

Money: it’s murder on the dance-floor

US corporate debt has gone from just over $2 trillion at the time of the financial crisis to almost $6 trillion currently — almost 2.5 times collective earnings. With the end of the Jubilee only three sleeps’ away, I’m just going to take a couple of quotes out of a recent Zero-Hedge article and leave it at that:

Over the course of the past 25 years, the traditional business cycle has been replaced with an asset price cycle. Rather than let recessions run their painful but necessary course, central bankers move forthwith to dispense the monetary morphine.

Face it: the central banking Emperors have no clothes… when the supposed solutions to the Fed’s dilemma are merely new ‘problems’, you know you are approaching the cycle’s end… successful, long-term investing is predicated on not just knowing where the happening parties are during the reflationary parts of the cycle but, even more importantly, knowing when the time has come to leave the dance floor. In our view, that time has already come.

Artificially ‘stimulated’ credit creation means marginal or even unprofitable enterprises are being fed when they should actually be starved

[Ed: It would be a sin of omission to neglect to now say that, one day in the future, September 2016 will be looked upon as the unofficial start to World War III. Things will still take time to unfold and evolve, often in fits and starts, but the start nonetheless.]

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  • Tartus is more makeshift port than true naval base, but nonetheless a crucial relay point for the Russian navy.
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Sūrīyah

The Syria and Iraq mega-crises, the multiplication of new crises, and the old crises that seem never to die have created the worst displacement situation [13.6 million] in the world since World War II.     —UN High Commissioner for Refugees

The 2014 Body Count was astonishing: 76,000 Syrians (3,500 of whom were children); and 17,049 Iraqi civilians.

With its sweet little spot on the map, too many nations are all-too invested in the outcome of this Syrian crisis — all the MENA nations, and then some. The conflict is both regionally sectarian and more broadly geopolitical, inclusive of gas thoroughfare to Europe.

The situation in Syria teeters on the proverbial knife’s edge. The air force has pulled out of Deir ez-Zour, the third Syrian air base to surrender to ISIS. And the Syrian army is gradually in decline. This means that Iran, already burdened with fighting ISIS in Iraq, may soon be forced to utilise more of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Syria.

August 2015 Syrian Conflict map [Wikimedia Commons]

All of this is playing out on Israel’s border, primarily around the Golan. An increasingly desperate situation in Syria may prompt Russia, who has just unloaded 32 tons of aid there, into more concrete action.

Al-Monitor reported President Assad as saying that the “Russian presence in different parts of the world, including the Eastern Mediterranean and the Syrian port of Tartus, is very necessary, in order to create a sort of balance, which the world has lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago.”

Of course the Gulf Arabs support the Syrian rebels, as do the U.S. and Turkey.

And in the latest development, Russia has allegedly delivered six MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ interceptors to the national army suggesting that it is not ready to abandon the regime and the Mediterranean naval port at Tartus.

Getting the Borders Right

Nearly a century ago, two Americans led a quixotic mission to get the region’s borders right.

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched a theologian named Henry King and a plumbing-parts magnate named Charles Crane to sort out the Middle East. Amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the region’s political future was uncertain, and the two men seemed to provide the necessary combination of business acumen and biblical knowledge. King and Crane’s quest was to find out how the region’s residents wanted to be governed. It would be a major test of Wilson’s belief in national self-determination: the idea that every people should get its own state with clearly defined borders. Read entire article at  The Atlantic

Going in circles

NATO continues to push east, Russia is moving south, China is sweeping across to Africa, as central and south America press north into mainland United States. This is manifestly a clockwise rotation in the regional geostrategic. Are we, then, going in circles? And, as some have suggested, do all roads lead to Washington?

Destabilising the nations of the Middle East, upsetting a Sunni-Shiite status quo, and exploiting sectarian rivalries, it can be argued, is modus operandi of the West, from Arab Spring to eternal discontent. Sykes-Picot, Bernard-Lewis, Brzezinski, and Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters are all names in the step-wise progression from post-WWI to neo-colonial Middle East, the roadmap for its ‘Balkanization’ and ‘Finlandization’ laid out (see map below).

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Map of New Middle East (Credit: Global Research)

Yet U.S. foreign-policy focus has moved steadily northeast, from the Middle East into Eurasia. Fuss not over the ‘bit-player’ (or even the moderate power) to concentrate efforts on the big players — Russia and China, and remaining ‘BRICS‘ nations.

Enter, … stage West, NATO. Enter, stage South, ISIS and a disintegrating Middle East. And, enter stage East, Pacific nations and Japan. Encirclement —to the point of choking— is the name of this game, and it is being played at the highest level and for the highest stakes — and highest risk.

Aim to have positions —achieved already by NATO in Poland and Czechoslovakia, for instance, and those in planning for Ukraine and others— to nullify any potential for an immediate response to an American pre-emptive nuclear strike on Russia. More specifically, widespread loco-regional full spectrum dominance aims to re-exert hegemony by restraining opponents through minor skirmishes and forced resource bottlenecks and controls, without a resorting [hopefully] to tactical nukes and ICBMs.

That is, in effect, a global “Check-Mate” strategized for the prolongation of Anglo-American dominance of this Asian century, by applying a ‘choke-hold‘ to opponents, to forestall collapse of the USD as global reserve currency. Empire does not die wandering.

Consider the effect of the Libyan crisis on not just Middle-Eastern but the (obvious, yet less spoken of) north and central African geopolitic (take a moment to look at the image below), at a time when an emergent China is licentious in its courting of Africa for resources and economic cooperation.

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But to achieve this the West will need also to keep China busied closer to home — from unrest in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan [“check”], uprisings in Xinjiang province [“check”], and disputes with its Pacific neighbours [“check”], for which the basis for significant local disruptions has been fomented. And add to this now also Hong Kong.

Russia will need to be preoccupied too. This is where the Middle East comes in. Flaming the Shiite-Sunni fire and keeping the likes of Iran and Turkey embroiled, using the ISIS mercenaries to run amok not only in the Middle East but spread and foment unrest at the Caucasus and up into Russia’s soft underbelly. (Many people are unaware of the number of Chechen and fighters of Central Asian origin recruited to ISIS ranks).

In this respect it has been said, by Zbigniew Brzezinski no less, that the Middle East is the lever through which to exert indirect control of the resource-rich crossroad and transportation hub that is Eurasia, with its geographic intimacy to the emergent eastern power base. Such a, albeit fantastic, scenario shines the spotlight onto the ISIS mercenary force (funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, aided and abetted by arms transfers through Turkey as well as Libya, via the proxy-war in Syria). How else to explain the dog-and-pony show otherwise known as the war on ISIS? Everywhere these Western-trained slaughterers turn, it seems, they stumble upon munitions, armour, or cash.

And all the while we have the Saudis playing oil games — flooding the OPEC market and plunging the price of a barrel to below the critical USD90 level, at which point it starts becoming uneconomic for Russian miners [much to U.S. delight], but also paradoxically to the U.S., ensuring ongoing political leverage in Washington by way of Saudi oil.

An LNG pipeline from the Pars field in Qatar through Syria, bypassing the Ukraine [Russian gas] pipeline to Europe, was blocked by President Assad. Qatari gas is significantly more profitable than Russian and consequently can be offered at a discount to the Russian. Aside from upsetting the delicate balance within the critical ‘Shiite crescent‘, this is a major reason for U.S. posturing against Assad. Obviously this would be detrimental to Shiite Iran, an ally of Russia whom the U.S. is also courting, in the potential for exchange of sanction relief and freedom to enrich uranium. Southern Europe’s Gas Wars confirm only that every man has his price.

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Map of New Middle East [Image credit: Global Research]
Unlikely as it may seem — but short of crossing the Rubicon into conspiracy theory — perhaps Colour Revolutions, Arab Spring, Euromaidan, Sudanese fighting, civil war in Syria, and the crescendo in Israeli-Palestine unrest are, after all, more interwoven issues than is apparent at first blush. Eschatologists will think so. And the same eschatologists will also be interested to know that “D.C.“, as Rome (and Jerusalem for that matter), is a city that sits on seven hills …

This alternative [and at times compelling] counterpoint to the main news narrative is one of a fault line, where East meets West, and in which West is not necessarily best. And we are left going in circles.

Featured Image: Istanbul observatory, 1577 [Wikimedia Commons]