“One of the most important tasks is to broaden the energy supply … Energy determines today international security and social as well as economic development in many respects. In reality the well-being of millions of people is directly dependent in energy security.” – Vladimir Putin
“Qatar would like to see WJC (Bill Clinton) “for five minutes” in NYC, to present $1 million check that Qatar promised for WJC’s birthday in 2011.” – Amitabh Desai (Dir Foreign Policy – Clinton Foundation)
Russia has long supported Syria and the Assad regime – and has assisted Assad politically, financially and with military aid since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. On September 30, 2015, Russia officially joined the fight in Syria with a series of airstrikes. Prior to direct Russian intervention it had appeared the Assad regime would collapse. Fast-forward to the present. The rebel forces have lost and pro-Assad forces now control most major cities. ISIS remains in the less populated Syrian northeast.
So, why is Russia involved with Syria?
According to President Putin, Russia was acting “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupy, not wait for them to come to our house”. Note that Russian airstrikes did not target ISIS-held areas but instead concentrated on the coastal areas of the Latakia Province. Note also that the Syrian port of Tartous – sometimes called Tartus – is the location of the only Russian naval base in the Mideast – and is of significant strategic importance to Russia – sparing Russian warships a return to Black Sea bases for repairs and refueling.
Russia is largely landlocked. Russia’s northern ocean, the Arctic is frozen. To the East, the Pacific is largely ice-locked for much of the year. The Caspian Sea is closed. The Black Sea is open, but only through the smallest of passages at the Straits of Bosporus and the Dardanelles (or the Turkish Straits). The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union brought the loss of an immense amount of territory for Russia. But it also caused the loss of something with far greater strategic significance – ports and coastal access – and the resulting impairment of the Russian navy.
Russia lost the cold water ports of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on the Baltic Sea. But it was the loss of Ukraine that represented the largest setback. Russia lost all Ukrainian coastline, the commercial port of Odessa and the warm water naval port of Sevastopol on the strategically important Crimean Peninsula. Russia was now forced to lease the Sevastopol port from Ukraine. The lease ran until 2017 and then-Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko had notified Russia of his intent to terminate the lease upon its 2017 expiration. Ukraine also represented a significant transfer point for natural gas into Europe.
It was the pending expiration of the Sevastopol port that led Putin to turn his eye towards Syria and the Tartous port. The Tartous facility has been in place since 1977. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was used to resupply and repair Russian warships deployed to missions in the Mediterranean Sea, but did not serve as a permanent base for any of them. Tartous was classified as a supply point but not a base. Although it was a deepwater port it did not have the capacity to handle any major Russian warships – those in excess of 100 meters.
Assad visited Moscow in 2005 and succeeded in having three-fourths of Syria’s $13.4 billion in Russian arms debt erased by allowing Russia to become Syria’s primary arms supplier – and giving Moscow full access to the Tartous port with a 50 year lease. Since at least 2008, Russia has been dredging and upgrading the port’s capacity and facilities to allow for significantly enhanced capacity. As late as 2012, Russia was denying the Tartous port held any real significance for Russia, calling the port a “point on the map to replenish food and water and carry out some occasional repairs – a symbolic place after the collapse of the Soviet Union (in 1991), showing we still have somewhere to send our ships”. That formal tone changed in mid-2012 when the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov, was quoted by Russian news agency RIA-Novosti as saying: “This base is essential to us; it has been operating and will continue to operate.”
Around the time Assad visited Russia in 2005, Putin began to consider an invasion of Georgia. Of interest was the Abkhazia Province – with its large coastline and the former Russian port of Ochamchire. Transportation infrastructure was constructed and Russian troops were built up in Abkhazia in response to “threats” of an attack from Georgia. In 2008, during the Beijing Olympic Games, Putin struck. Abkhazia fell in a matter of days and Moscow had the Ochamchire port.
It was at this point in 2008 that Russia began its renovation of Syria’s Tartous port in earnest.
In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych won the Ukrainian elections. A pro-Kremlin candidate from Eastern Ukraine who had been twice jailed for corruption, Yanukovych immediately extended Russia’s Sevastopol port lease to 2047. Ukraine chafed under Yanukovych’s corrupt leadership and civil unrest increased. On February 22, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to have Yanukovych removed and he fled to Russia. Putin once again used the Olympic Games – Winter this time – as a cover for invasion. As the games ended in Sochi, Putin invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula “to put down the revolution” – and annexed Crimea from Ukraine – with its large coastal presence and treasured Sevastopol port – in the process.
Putin then turned his sights to Southeastern Ukraine – a lengthy tract of land that that would have given him complete terrestrial and coastal access to the full of Crimea. Putin had already warned Ukraine against increasing economic ties with the EU in 2013. But here he met his first failure. The Ukrainian army stood ready and the Russians lost any element of surprise. The International Community finally reacted to Putin’s strategic coastal reclamations and applied economic sanctions which were inadvertently timed with falling oil prices. Russia’s oil revenue was impacted severely and the Southeastern Ukraine held. Russia still eyes this portion of land – a quick look at a map will explain why this area is so strategic. I do not think this particular story is over.
Note also, that Russia continues to look for additional ways to bypass Ukrainian pipelines as a means of transporting its natural gas into Europe.
Despite his setback in Southeastern Ukraine, Putin had regained coastal and port control of much of the Black Sea – from the Western side of Crimea down to Turkey’s border – and had established what is becoming a major military port in the eastern Mediterranean with Syria’s Tartous facility. Putin had regained Russian naval presence and port access in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
And this gives Russia shipping access to Western Europe.
It was around this period that Putin found Assad in desperate need of Russian assistance.
Prior to Russian involvement, it appeared all but certain that Assad would fall – a nudge was all that was needed. And yet the United States held back – reluctant to get involved. Why? I direct you to the list of Assad’s middle east allies – Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. Iran, as a Shiite-based regime, was deeply concerned over the prospect of Sunni rebels winning the Syrian conflict and establishing a Sunni government in Syria – which would then be aligned with the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia. A Sunni government in Syria would also have made Iran’s ongoing transfer of arms to Hezbollah much more problematic.
And this is why Obama held back in Syria – despite his famous Red Line comment. As I noted in The Syrian Cost of Obama’s Iran Deal, Obama was so focused on achieving a nuclear deal in Iran that he feared upsetting the Shiite Iranian regime with any support – implicit or explicit – for the Sunni rebel forces of Syria.
Obama failed to act. Putin did not. Assad was saved. And so were Russian interests.
Russia’s economy is predominantly dependent on exports of oil and natural gas. More than two-thirds of Russia’s foreign income is derived from oil and gas exports. “Russia became the world’s leading oil and natural gas exporter last year , according to BP’s annual statistical review of world energy. The country has overtaken Saudi Arabia in crude exports, and retained the top spot in exports of natural gas. Three-quarters of Russia’s oil production went for export in 2015. Exports of Russian gas reached 33.7 percent of overall production. The country also exported 41.8 percent of its coal. Russia is the leading oil and gas supplier to Europe, accounting for 37 percent and 35 percent of European respective consumption.”
At this point, let’s take a brief look at the European Union.
The European Union is the world’s largest importer of energy. According to the European Commission’s Website:
“The EU imports 53% of all the energy it consumes, at a cost of more than €1 billion per day. Energy also makes up more than 20% of total EU imports. Its import dependency is particularly high for crude oil (more than 90%) and natural gas (66%). Specifically, the EU imports:
- 90% of its crude oil
- 66% of its natural gas
- 42% of its coal and other solid fuels
- 40% of its uranium and other nuclear fuels.
About one quarter of all the energy used in the EU is natural gas, and many EU countries import nearly all their supplies. Many countries [within the EU] are also heavily reliant on a single supplier, including some that rely entirely on Russia for their natural gas. This dependence leaves them vulnerable to supply disruptions, whether caused by political or commercial disputes, or infrastructure failure. For instance, a 2009 gas dispute between Russia and transit country Ukraine left many EU countries with severe shortages.
A key part of ensuring secure and affordable supplies of energy to Europeans involves diversifying supply routes. This includes identifying and building new routes that decrease the dependence of EU countries on a single supplier of natural gas and other energy resources.
Many countries in Central and South East Europe are dependent on a single supplier for most or all of their natural gas. To help these countries diversify their supplies, the Southern Gas Corridor aims to expand infrastructure that can bring gas to the EU from the Caspian Basin, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean Basin.
The EU wants to create a Mediterranean gas hub in the South of Europe to help diversify its energy suppliers and routes. To this end, the EU is engaged in an active energy dialogue at political level with North African and Eastern Mediterranean partners.
Taking into account the huge potential of Algeria, both for conventional and unconventional gas resources, as well as the new gas resources in the East Mediterranean and the associated infrastructure development plans, the Mediterranean area can act as a key source and route for supplying gas to the EU.
Liquefied natural gas (LNG) imported to Europe through LNG terminals is a source of diversification that contributes to competition in the gas market and security of supply.
New LNG supplies from North America, Australia, Qatar, and East Africa are likely to increase the size of the global LNG market, and some of these volumes should reach the European market.”
The European Union has made natural gas a focus due to its “clean energy” status. As noted, Russia is the EU’s largest supplier of energy – and the largest supplier of natural gas. In 2015, Russia accounted for 35% of the EU’s natural gas imports. And this reliance has the EU worried.
Which brings us to Qatar. According to the Gas Exporting Countries Forum:
“Qatar holds the world’s third largest natural gas reserves and is the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas. Qatar proven natural gas reserves stand at approximately 25 trillion cubic meters. Qatar holds almost 14 percent of total world natural gas reserves and is the third-largest in the world after Russia and Iran. The majority of Qatar’s natural gas is located in the massive offshore North Field.
The State of Qatar is located on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia. It is approximately 160km long and 50-80km wide with a total land area of 11,586 sq km.”
Qatar would love nothing more than an access route to the European Union’s vast market. In fact, Qatar had proposed just such a project in 2009, with a pipeline that would have run from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan then Syria, into Turkey – and on to Europe.
It was Syria’s ruler, Assad, who turned the proposal down. Note that Assad is effectively controlled by Russia – which is the largest supplier of natural gas to the EU.
Now, let’s make matters slightly more complicated. The world’s largest natural gas field sits in the Persian Gulf. Half of it – known as the North Dome Field – belongs to Qatar. The other half – known as South Pars – belongs to Iran.
In July 2011, Iran signed an agreement with Iraq and Syria to run a pipeline from Iran’s North Pars through Iraq, across Syria – to the Russian-controlled Syrian port of Tartous – and through the Mediterranean to Europe.
Let’s step back for a moment. Assad’s government is essentially secular (not concerned with religious matters) but when internal tensions boiled over, Syria began to fall into civil war along religious and sectarian lines. Assad belongs to the Alawite Muslim sect which is most closely aligned with Shia Muslims (or Shiites). The majority of Syria, interestingly, is Sunni. In fact, approximately 80% of the Syrian Government Army is Sunni. It was army defectors who formed the original core of the Sunni Rebels – the Free Syrian Army. In late-2011, when civil war erupted in Syria, Assad was supported in the middle east by Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah. The rebels, primarily Sunni Muslims, were backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia – and Qatar.
The matter became more convoluted in 2013, when forces of the Islamic State used the civil war as an opportunity to invade Syria – less formal incursions had begun in late 2011. The Islamic State ended up occupying about one-half of Syria – and became known as ISIS. The rebel fighters, meanwhile, saw their ranks swell exponentially with foreign fighters comprised of varying factions with differing ideologies and backgrounds.
Iran, as a Shiite-based regime, was deeply concerned over the prospect of Sunni rebels winning the Syrian conflict and establishing a Sunni government in Syria – which would then be aligned with the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia. A Sunni government in Syria would also have made Iran’s ongoing transfer of arms to Hezbollah much more problematic.
Russia – rightly in many respects – blames the U.S. for destabilizing the Middle East with our actions in Iraq and Libya – actions that provided an opening for Islamic extremists.
The two-front war that faced Assad ultimately led to Russian involvement in 2015 – with Putin directly saving the Assad regime. In doing so, the Russians maintained control of the strategic Tartous port – and Syrian pipeline access.
A quick recap:
Qatar holds the world’s third largest natural gas reserves and is the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas.
Iran ranks first in the world in terms of natural gas reserves and third in terms of oil reserves.
Qatar and Iran “share” what is by far the world’s largest gas field – North Dome/South Pars Field.
Russia became the world’s leading oil and natural gas exporter last year.
Russia is currently the largest seller of natural gas to the European Union.
Saudi Arabia is the second largest producer of oil – just behind Russia.
Qatar houses significant U.S. and British military presence – the command node of the Pentagon’s Central Command of the U.S. Armed Forces, the headquarters of the Head Command of the U.S. Air Force, the No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group of the British Air Force and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the U.S. Air Force.
Two significant pipeline proposals have been made. One by Qatar in 2009, that would run from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and into Europe. The other by Iran in 2011, which would run from Iran, through Iraq, across Syria to its Tartous port and across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Russia holds the strategic port of Tartous in Syria. Tartous is a Russian naval base but also has significant pipeline access and infrastructure.
In 2009, Qatar was rebuffed by Syria for their pipeline proposal that would have allowed Qatar access to the EU market.
In 2011, Syria accepted Iraq’s proposal for a pipeline to the EU market.
In 2011, civil war broke out in Syria during the Arab Spring.
Syria’s allies in its civil war are Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah (Lebanon-based) and Russia. Russia – a long-time strategic supporter of Syria – did not enter the conflict until it appeared Assad would fall.
The rebel’s (fighting in Syria at the onset of the initial conflict) allies were Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Assad is an Alawite and is aligned with Shiites (Shia) while the majority of Syria is Sunni.
Turkey is 70% Sunni. Saudi Arabia is roughly 90% Sunni. Qatar is primarily Sunni.
ISIS is comprised of Sunni fundamentalists.
Iran is over 90% Shia. Iran is about 70% Shia. Hezbollah is a Shia militant group.
Assad is finished in a practical sense. He may survive as a de facto leader while he continues the fight against ISIS in the near-term. But there is simply no way Assad can lead Syria on a long-term, ongoing basis. Russia will almost certainly continue to support an Alawite-led government in Syria but Assad will not be the one leading that government. But that should matter little to Putin. He has what he really wanted already. Now it just needs to be protected and preserved.
Russia has carefully expanded its coastal presence and now controls much of the Black Sea coastline – from the Western edge of Crimea down to Turkey’s border. Russia has also gained a highly strategic Mediterranean position with the acquisition of Syria’s Tartous port. With the acquisition and development of Tartous comes control of the pivotal transfer point for natural gas into Europe. Russia’s position as the largest supplier of natural gas to the EU appears to be protected. It will become more problematic for Europe to make material progress in their diversification efforts going forward. The only significant piece remaining is the Southeastern portion of Ukraine that Putin attempted to gain prior to his intervention in Syria. As I noted earlier, I do not believe that story has yet played out.
Why would Russia be willing to share the European natural gas market with Iran but not Qatar?
One way or the other, natural gas from the middle east will make its way to the EU eventually. Syria is a likely crossing point for any middle east pipeline access into Europe. If the lines go through Syria and the Russian-held port of Tartous, the Russians have a significant measure of control. All the more so if the natural gas supplier is Iran. Importantly, Russia and Iran are already allies and have long-standing ties and trade agreements. They partnered together in Russia’s push to save the Assad regime. Russia would also be able to gain economically via arms sales to the Tehran Government – funded with Iranian gas revenues. Russia is already Iran’s primary arms supplier. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and Russia continually vie for the top oil producing spot and are direct competitors. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, is the world’s second largest oil producer – just behind Russia. Qatar, also a Sunni country, is the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas. And Saudi Arabia is no friend of Iran. A Saudi-Qatar alliance makes economic and political sense – although relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also tense. Meanwhile, Iran’s internal needs for natural gas are growing swiftly and infrastructure is not adequately built up – so Iran will likely not be exporting significant amounts of natural gas in the immediate future. Russia and Iran likely want to join forces to create their own version of OPEC. Together, Russia and Iran control roughly 40% of the world’s supply of natural gas reserves. Iran may also first target Pakistan and India for natural gas sales – followed by moves into China. In short, it makes economic sense for Russia and Iran to partner in the natural gas market – thereby controlling prices and targeting specific regions. Qatar does not have the same incentives, politically or financially – their partnership might ultimately lie with Saudi Arabia. Qatar represents competition to Russian gas sales. Iran represents a partnership.
Russia is the European Union’s largest supplier of energy – in particular natural gas. Natural gas is the fuel of choice for Europe going forward due to its “clean energy” status. Europe would dearly love to diversify away from Russia, which is the EU’s largest – and for certain EU countries – only supplier of natural gas. Russia’s economy is predominantly dependent on exports of oil and natural gas – and as such is incentivized not to see its dominant position as the largest supplier of energy to Europe upset. Qatar and Iran share ownership – but do not share alliances – of the single largest natural gas field in the world – the North Dome/South Pars Field. Currently, the bulk of Qatar’s natural gas exports goes to Asia by LNG tanker – but Qatar wants to increase its sales to the vast EU market. Iran, while notably behind Qatar in development and infrastructure capability, would like to do the same. In order to accomplish this goal, pipeline access to Europe is necessary. Syria represents an attractive point of confluence – or crossing – for a supply route of natural gas to Europe. Syria is now controlled by Russia and to a lesser extent, Iran. And Russia controls the strategic Syrian port of Tartous. In doing so, Russia holds a significant geographical key to middle east flows of natural gas into Europe. Which is precisely what Putin wanted all along.
With this stage as a backdrop, is it any surprise that our new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is a world class oilman?
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