Time to pipe up

Competition over energy resources has played a major role in the power struggles of the Middle East over the last half century. However, its importance in the Syrian conflict remains difficult to adequately assess.Syria lies at a crossroads of energy export routes and various pipelines, existing or under plan, across its territory. The most significant of these projects involve countries such as Iran, Iraq, Qatar and Turkey.

One of the pipelines being planned is the Islamic Gas Pipeline (IGP), which should see the transport of gas from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and from the port of Tartous in Syria to European markets. The agreement over this project was signed in early 2011 by the four countries. In its first stage leading it to Tartous, the pipeline will be 2,000-kilometers long and will cost $2.5 billion to build. When completed, it will have the capacity to transport 110 million cubic meters of gas a day from Iran, including 20 million cubic meters that will be sold to Syria and 25 million to Iraq. This pipeline would bypass Turkey.

Interestingly, the gas is supposed to come from a field shared by Iran and Qatar — named South Pars in Iran and North Dome in Qatar — that is considered to be the largest gas field in the world.

Qatar, which has developed its side of the field much more rapidly, is also reported to have a project to build a pipeline that will transport its gas through Turkey and from there to European markets. The pipeline will have the advantage, for Qatar, of bypassing the Strait of Ormuz. However, Qatar is considering two options, one that would run through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and then Turkey, while the other would go through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq to Turkey.

Although these facts point to strong competition between the two countries, it is difficult to draw from them clear conclusions as to their impact on the struggle in Syria.

Iran, for instance, is not yet a serious competitor for Qatar because, for obvious political reasons, European countries have refused to sign any long-term contracts with Tehran. In the absence of purchasing contracts from the EU, which is by far the largest market for natural gas, Iran will be unable to be a serious competitor. Also, the capacity of the pipeline will be relatively small compared to the consumption of the European Union, which is currently at 1.5 billion cubic meters a day, set to grow rapidly in coming years.

Meanwhile, the Qatari pipeline will not necessarily use Syrian territory and Doha would first need the approval of Saudi Arabia — never too enthusiastic when it comes to helping its small neighbor and rival — for either of the two options it considers. It is also worth noting that in the years preceding the conflict no negotiations were reported to have taken place between Syria and Qatar on the project, in spite of the very good relations existing at the time between the two governments.

There are also two arguments that diminish the importance of the energy geopolitics in the Syrian conflict. The first is that if Iran were to develop an important gas export capacity, its first and main competitor would be Russia. Indeed, Europe is currently highly dependent on Russian gas and Moscow uses this as a lever of power in its relations with the EU. Russia was actually one of the main opponents to the defunct Nabucco pipeline, which would have transported gas from Iran and Azerbaijan through Turkey to Europe.

Also, if energy had such importance in the conflict in Syria, one would have expected the Syrian regime to highlight it much more frequently. In the two years of the uprising, the Syrian authorities have almost never mentioned the issue of the gas pipelines as a reason for the involvement of regional countries in the conflict.

There is little doubt that the Syrian conflict will have consequences on regional energy projects. It is difficult, however, to make the case that this issue is the main reason for the regional competition over the struggle in Syria.

 

Note: This article appeared first in the November 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

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