Robin Mills: Syria’s gas pipeline theory is a low-budget drama
In May 2007, dark rainclouds collected over Palmyra in the Syrian Desert. Bored Syrian conscripts in ancient costumes stood around like extras in a low-budget historical drama. Bashar Al Assad was meeting the emir of Qatar, a meeting inconceivable today.
The clouds of war have since blown back and forth several times across the historical city of Palmyra and its surrounding gasfields. But even as Mr Al Assad and his Russian backers unravel Syria’s latest ceasefire, various conspiracy theorists persist in blaming this complex, multifaceted war on a single cause: a gas pipeline.
This theory has it that Qatar wanted to export its vast gas reserves to Europe via Syria. The US supported this project to forestall Iran. Iran itself encouraged Mr Al Assad to reject the pipeline in favour of its own plans to send gas to the Mediterranean; Russia, too, wanted to keep Qatari gas out of its plum European markets. Qatar then, according to the theory, turned to supporting the Syrian uprising to overthrow Mr Al Assad and remove the obstacles to its pet project.
Even Al Jazeera carried this story, in a 2012 piece by Pepe Escobar headlined “Syria’s Pipelineistan War”, which revealingly concentrates on Iran and Turkey, not Qatar.
True believers in such conspiracy theories are not deterred by logic. They can find the nefarious hand of oil and gas companies and the US government in any conflict from Mali to Gaza. As Alexander Cockburn wrote of The New York Times foreign correspondent C L Sulzberger, his role was “to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers”.
Any theory that links US hegemonic imperialism, “Big Oil” skulduggery and Gulf machinations is catnip to western leftist armchair analysts. The Syria gas notion is supported by enough scraps of evidence and half-truths to lend an air of plausibility. There were indeed discussions on an Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline, and Iranian exports to parts of Iraq are due to start shortly.
So the notion may have clouded the Syrian picture for serious analysts and casual observers, and it is still worth dispelling it.
Qatar has not even been able to export its gas to neighbouring Bahrain and Kuwait owing to Saudi opposition. What are the chances it could have constructed such a pipeline across 1,500 kilometres of Saudi territory to Jordan and on to Syria?
Qatar has no problem exporting its gas, in liquefied form, to Europe and the Far East, to a diversity of customers, with no dependence on risky overland pipelines. But if Doha had wanted that much to build its Syrian pipeline, it would have been easier to make the Assads an offer they could not refuse, rather than sponsoring an uncertain and ruinous uprising.
A quick look at a map demolishes the notion of Syria as a key gas nexus. Syria is a dead end: any pipeline to Europe would have to go onwards via Turkey. Iran has a border with Turkey and already sends gas there; it has no need to go via Syria, nor should US officials have had to devote much concern to blocking such a pipeline.
The supposedly competing Iranian route rose to prominence only in July 2011, with the Syrian revolt already under way, and seems more a gesture of Iranian solidarity to its allies in Baghdad and Damascus. The short length of its pipeline to Iraq has been repeatedly delayed by attacks in the volatile province of Diyala; a continuation through Anbar in western Iraq would have been even more vulnerable.
The theory, as with so much misinformation about the Syrian conflict, is dangerous. It turns Mr Al Assad from perpetrator to victim. It paints the Syrian opposition as unwitting pawns of foreign agents. And in simplifying the causes of a very complex war, it makes a diplomatic solution even less likely.
Robin Mills is the chief executive of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.
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Updated: September 25, 2016 04:00 AM