This is a war of deals, not bullets.
Deep beneath "Damascus volcano" and "the battle of Aleppo," the tectonic plates of the global energy chessboard keep on rumbling. Beyond the tragedy and grief of civil war, Syria is also a Pipelineistan power play.
More than a year ago, a $10 billion Pipelineistan deal was clinched between Iran, Iraq and Syria for a natural gas pipeline to be built by 2016 from Iran's giant South Pars field, traversing Iraq and Syria, with a possible extension to Lebanon. Key export target market: Europe.
During the past 12 months, with Syria plunged into civil war, there was no pipeline talk. Up until now. The European Union's supreme paranoia is to become a hostage of Russia's Gazprom. The Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline would be essential to diversify Europe's energy supplies away from Russia.
It gets more complicated. Turkey happens to be Gazprom's second-largest customer. The whole Turkish energy security architecture depends on gas from Russia -- and Iran. Turkey dreams of becoming the new China, configuring Anatolia as the ultimate Pipelineistan strategic crossroads for the export of Russian, Caspian-Central Asian, Iraqi and Iranian oil and gas to Europe.
Try to bypass Ankara in this game, and you're in trouble. Until virtually yesterday, Ankara was advising Damascus to reform -- and fast. Turkey did not want chaos in Syria. Now Turkey is feeding chaos in Syria. Let's examine one of the key possible reasons.
I went down to the crossroads
Syria is not a major oil producer; its reserves are dwindling. Yet until the outbreak of civil war, Damascus was making a hardly negligible $4 billion a year in oil sales -- a third of the government budget.Syria is way more important as an energy crossroads, much like Turkey -- but on a smaller scale. The key point is that Turkey needs Syria to fulfill its energy strategy.
Syria's play in Pipelineistan includes the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) from Egypt to Tripoli (in Lebanon) and the IPC from Kirkuk, in Iraq, to Banyas -- idle since the 2003 US invasion.
The centerpiece of Syria's energy strategy is the "Four Seas Policy" -- a concept introduced by Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, two months before the start of the uprising. It's like a mini-Turkish power play -- an energy network linking the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Black Sea and the Gulf.
Damascus and Ankara soon got down to business -- integrating their gas grids, linking them with the AGP and, crucially, planning the AGP's extension from Aleppo to Kilis in Turkey; this could later link to the perennial Pipelineistan opera, the Nabucco, assuming this fat lady ever sings (and that's far from given).
Damascus was also getting ready to go one up on the IPC; in late 2010 it signed a memorandum of understanding with Baghdad to build one gas and two oil pipelines. Target market, once again: Europe.
Then all hell broke loose. But even while the uprising was underway, the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria Pipelineistan deal was clinched. If finished, it will carry at least 30 per cent more gas than the bound-to-be-scrapped Nabucco.
Aye, there's the rub. What is sometimes referred to as the Islamic Gas Pipeline bypasses Turkey.
The verdict is open on whether this complex Pipelineistan gambit qualifies as a casus belli for Turkey and NATO to go all-out after Assad; but it should be remembered that Washington's strategy in south-west Asia since the Clinton administration has been to bypass, isolate and hurt Iran by all means necessary.