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.”
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
- Why Is Access To Syria’s Port At Tartus So Important To Moscow?, June 23, 2012 – The Cutting Edge
- Russian Naval Base Tartus, Christopher Harmer – Institute for the Study of War
- Why Russia Aggressively Went into Syria to Support Syrian President Bashar Al Assad – Inspired to Change the World
- The oil connection: Give me a pipeline or give me death – The Progressive Review, September 2, 2016.
- A New Russian Revolution – Oil Free Transport, January 2014
- Turkey and the new energy politics of the Black Sea region – Black Sea News
- The Arc of Weakness, Anusar – Policy Tensor. September 2, 2016.
- Guide to the Syrian rebels – BBC. December 13, 2013.
- Merkel Doesn’t Blame the Voter, George Friedman – Real Clear World
- A Final, Farcical Footnote to Impeachment in Brazil, Colin M. Snyder – Americas South and North
- $195 Billion Asset Manager: “The Time Has Come To Leave The Dance Floor”, Tyler Durden – Zero Hedge, September 22, 2016
- Tartus is more makeshift port than true naval base, but nonetheless a crucial relay point for the Russian navy.