Syria Intervention: For Human Rights or 'Pipelinestan'?

Remember Hama? Hama is Syria’s fourth largest city. In 1982, in a military conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al Assad (Bashar’s father) destroyed the city by indiscriminately launching aerial and heavy weapons strikes against it. In Hama, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, everyone was considered an enemy. The exact number of dead is unknown, but 25,000 is a reasonable guess.

Those who were wounded or simply hidden in the rubble were alleged to have been eliminated by heavy mechanized use of cyanide gas. The world could barely contain itself to say nothing about the wanton slaughter.

Between 1964 and 1969, in the civil war in Yemen, the Egyptian army used poison gas in support of the rebel militias against the monarchy. The world was outraged to the point of deafening silence.

Then there was the nasty business of combination gases that the United States used  in Vietnam to clear Vietcong tunnels. Although the United States claimed the use did not violate the Geneva Conventions, many nations saw it otherwise, especially with regard to DM gas, which can kill, although not designed to do so. When the Ford administration signed the Geneva Protocol on the use of chemical weapons, the previous use of gas in Vietnam was prohibited.

The Saudis brought in French troops who used poison gas to clear the tunnels of the Grand Mosque after it had been seized by militant fundamentalists generally believed to be the precursors of al-Qaeda. The world was silent.

To date, Bashar Assad has used poison gas fifteen times against Syrian militants and civilians. And yet, there was no demand by the international community or the Obama administration to employ military retaliation against the regime. So, why now?

The party line is that now there is clear evidence. But it is difficult to believe that the other fourteen times were vague, especially since the administration has said repeatedly that only the regime has the access and capability to deploy chemical agents. (An allegation Russian scientists, incidentally, strongly dispute.) If that is true now, it certainly was equally true before.

When the world of diplomacy is ambiguous and every Obama lemming is quoting administration talking points as if they were facts, then it is time to follow the money or, in this case, the pipelines.

The first thing that is vital to understanding the Middle East under Obama is that Obama has bet on Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan as our man in the region. The second thing to note is that Turkey is Russian Gazprom’s second biggest customer, right after the European Union.

Gazprom owns the world’s largest network of pipelines and, in Eastern Europe, is often the sole distributor of gas and oil.  As Belarus learned, Russia has no problem using Gazprom to apply political pressure. Fail to do what Russia wants and your energy supplies will be cut off or your prices will be raised.

For the EU, Gazprom is a potential nightmare, even though the EU gets energy elsewhere.  For Turkey, Gazprom is both an asset and a liability.  Turkey dreams of becoming the China of the Middle East and a terminus for Gazprom transmission to Europe. But Turkey is also aware that to run afoul of Russia is to run afoul of Gazprom.

Enter Bashar Assad and his Four Seas policy of using oil-poor but geographically rich Syria as a conduit for two pipelines -- the planned pipeline from the Gulf states to Europe and an existing one from the Caspian Sea to Europe.  Syria might not have oil, but it has geography.

Turkey and Syria integrated their pipelines, giving Turkey another play, besides Gazprom,in the pipeline game. But this is the Middle East and a deal is just never quite a deal.  Syria then cut a separate deal with Iran and Iraq for a pipeline (the Islamic gas pipeline, IGP) terminating in Syria that went nowhere near Turkey.

Asad, in a stroke of the pen, foiled Turkey’s economic dreams and potentially brought Iranian oil and gas into the European market by an estimated increase of thirty percent. From a policy perspective, Bashar Assad upset American policy to both isolate Iran and to create a NATO ally, Turkey, as the major crossroads for oil and gas pipelines feeding Europe.

With Syria in turmoil, Turkey becomes a more likely terminus for oil and gas from Iraq,  Iran, and the southern tier of the former Soviet Union. Moreover, Turkey becomes an equal to Iran in the race for political and economic hegemony in the region. Turkey needs to undo Assad and his IGP deal. Russia needs to resuscitate Assad. For Russia, it is better to have a new Iran/Iraq terminus at the leased Syrian port of Tartus than anywhere in NATO-aligned Turkey.

Nothing of strategic interest takes place in the Middle East without a concern for energy.

What is happening in Syria may have nothing to do with poison gas, overlooked in other conflicts, but a lot to do with where “pipelinestan” ends up before feeding Europe.

After all, for years American oil companies, especially Unocal -- viewing a route through Afghanistan to feed southern Asia -- openly courted the Taliban before September 11, 2001  Pipelines make for all sorts of strange bedfellows.

Bashar Assad figured that two new pipelines, one carrying oil and the other carrying gas, running to Syria from Iraq and Iran would promote the only economic course open to Syria. Assad needs to defeat the militias at any cost, and China, Iran, and Russia need for him to achieve that.

Human life, regrettably, is not important. Pipelines are.  If you do not believe that, look at the history of British imperialism or at the Iranian coup that pushed the British and French out of the oil business and brought American oil interests to power with the shah.

So, is the administration’s outrage about gassing civilians, or is it more concerned with where the Islamic gas pipeline is going to go to deliver oil and gas to energy-starved Europe?  I am betting on the pipeline.