David R. Henderson  

Assad Pulls a Keystone

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Why has the little nation of Qatar spent 3 billion dollars to support the rebels in Syria?

Could it be because Qatar is the largest exporter of liquid natural gas in the world and Assad won't let them build a natural gas pipeline through Syria? Of course. Qatar wants to install a puppet regime in Syria that will allow them to build a pipeline which will enable them to sell lots and lots of natural gas to Europe. Why is Saudi Arabia spending huge amounts of money to help the rebels and why has Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan been "jetting from covert command centers near the Syrian front lines to the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Kremlin in Moscow, seeking to undermine the Assad regime"? Well, it turns out that Saudi Arabia intends to install their own puppet government in Syria which will allow the Saudis to control the flow of energy through the region. On the other side, Russia very much prefers the Assad regime for a whole bunch of reasons. One of those reasons is that Assad is helping to block the flow of natural gas out of the Persian Gulf into Europe, thus ensuring higher profits for Gazprom. Now the United States is getting directly involved in the conflict. If the U.S. is successful in getting rid of the Assad regime, it will be good for either the Saudis or Qatar (and possibly for both), and it will be really bad for Russia. This is a strategic geopolitical conflict about natural resources, religion and money, and it really has nothing to do with chemical weapons at all.


This is from "Is The United States Going To Go To War With Syria Over A Natural Gas Pipeline?" It's on the Alex Jones' Infowars website. Normally, I'm not a fan of that site but this article is pretty factual. Moreover, an economist friend who regularly deals with military people in the Middle East told me months ago, after returning from a trip to Jordan, that a huge part of the support of various outsiders in the conflict is over the protagonists' position on the pipeline.

I don't vouch for the last line in the quote above, and nothing in what leads up to the last line suggests that chemical weapons are irrelevant. But it is pretty clear that Putin does not want the new competition in Europe that a pipeline across Syria would create. It seems, therefore, that preventing the pipeline is one of Putin's main motives in supporting Syria's Assad.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)

Let's not forget that Syria is an ally of Shia Iran (developing nuclear weapons). So, Saudi Arabia has other reasons for wanting the Assads gone.

david writes:

Maybe it will be good for the Saudis or Qatar. Maybe it won't.

American involvement has hardly been stellar for its allies in Islamic Asia over the past decade - where is Musharraf now? - and America has been unable to install stable allied regimes in either Afghanistan or Iraq. People who trust in American supremacy in West Asia tend not to have good ends.

But the privilege of being a superpower is that even if you stick your hand in, you can afford to make mistakes.

Paul Bogle writes:

Ockham's Razor tells me pipelines are not the primary force driving the interests of the nations mentioned in this article.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Paul Bogle,
How does Ockham's Razor tell you that? You didn't say.

DH writes:

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Paul Bogle writes:

For starters the USA has a glut of natural gas that is finding its way to Europe so that puts the USA at odds with Qatar.

Second the Assad government has offered concessions to Iran to put a gas pipeline through Iraq to Europe putting the Assad regime at odds with the Russian monopoly.

Third anyone who thinks investing billions in a pipeline through the Levant needs to see me about some high yield mortgage backed securities and PIIGS sovereign debt I have available at bargain prices.

On those occasions when I agree with Alex Jones, I start wondering "What's wrong with me?"

MingoV writes:

Obama didn't understand that the President of the United States should not bow to dictators. I doubt he understands the geopolitical and economic issues related to Syria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and oil and gas pipelines. People are assigning complex motives to a simple case of sandbox bullying: "I'll punch you if you throw sand at my friend!"

David R. Henderson writes:

@Paul Bogle and MingoV,
What I took from the piece was not any particular insight about Obama: it was more insight about Putin and the Saudis.

RPLong writes:

The comment from "david" has me wondering how history might have changed if the US hadn't have been on the wrong side in the Bangladeshi liberation war of '71.

The US has been a part of too many tragedies. It's sullied our history. What a shame.

Finch writes:

For Obama, this is all about a stupid mistake (drawing a line in the sand with respect to WMD) and credibility with Iran. If he doesn't attack Syria, Iran will probably go ahead and assemble nuclear weapons thinking Obama won't follow through on that threat either. Obviously the consequences of an Iranian nuclear arsenal are far worse than the tragic-but-small-scale Syrian chemical attacks.

The right answer is probably to ignore Syria (make up something about overzealous generals acting without Assad's authorization) and just attack Iran instead. At least attacking Iran serves an important goal of the United States, and it takes care of the credibility problem. And it was probably going to happen in a couple of years anyway. It would have taken a deft hand to avoid it, and as this whole mess has made clear, Obama is either not interested in foreign policy or is unusually clumsy at it.

Gas is a sideshow. The issue is a nuclear Iran.

Finch writes:

> Iran will probably go ahead and assemble nuclear
> weapons thinking Obama won't follow through on
> that threat either.

Iran was probably going to do this anyway, eventually, so I don't want to heap _all_ the blame on Obama. He made things worse, but he didn't cause the problem.

MikeDC writes:

At least attacking Iran serves an important goal of the United States, and it takes care of the credibility problem.

Could you explain this? Specifically, what "important goal" is reached by attacking Iran? And how does attacking Country B after the leadership of Country A ignored our threats enhance our credibility?

To me, failing to follow through on a threat obviously harms our credibility, but attacking some other country than the one we initially threatened only further harms it. Irrationality might be scary, but it is not credible.

Now, as to Iran in general, we've already attacked them using espionage and electronic warfare, but beyond that, why would a the minimal sort of strike being contemplated by the administration do anything to deter Iran?

Yancey Ward writes:

I find it unlikely any pipeline would be built through Syria, even if the rebels manage to depose the Assad regime. The chaos of such an event would simply make the pipeline a bombing target like no other.

Finch writes:

The important goal is preventing, or at least deferring, nuclear war in the middle east and nuclear attacks on US assets. It's unlikely a minimal strike would do that, but I don't think people are talking about a minimal strike. I think people are talking more about a Kosovo style air campaign over a period of time. Maybe you could have gotten away with a more minimal strike if you'd acted earlier, but for various reasons we didn't do that.

Everybody seems to think Obama misspoke, or was overzealous, or otherwise got ahead of his thinking on Syria. People don't know how seriously to take that threat. But it really is important that the threat to Iran be serious and credible. If it turns out that the threat to Syria was unserious and not credible, people should update their beliefs about the threat to Iran.

Sunil writes:

I think the pipelines theory is far fetched. For Saudi & Qatar to lay pipelines thru Syria they need to go thru unstable countries in Jordan and Iraq before reaching Syria. Its much cheaper to reach Europe thru Suez canal than spend billions towards building a regime which itself is going to be unstable. Why did Qatar & Saudi not offer Assad few billions to grant access to lay pipelines?

Mark Bahner writes:
If he doesn't attack Syria, Iran will probably go ahead and assemble nuclear weapons thinking Obama won't follow through on that threat either.

I think Iran will complete development of nuclear weapons regardless of what happens in Syria.

Mark Bahner writes:

One aspect that makes it seem to me like chemical weapons are not so important is that no one seems to be saying Assad should be captured and put on trial in Syria or the the ICC in the Hague for war crimes.

Finch writes:

> I think Iran will complete development of nuclear
> weapons regardless of what happens in Syria.

That may be.

But then a US attack is probably inevitable, and we might be better off doing it sooner rather than later. I _think_ the window has closed on an Israeli non-nuclear attack, and that they would be very reluctant to conduct a nuclear attack.

It's also conceivable Obama sees a future middle east in a cold-war style standoff between a nuclear-armed Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran, but that seems extraordinarily risky. And I think the present crisis provides strong evidence that he isn't thinking that far ahead.

Finch writes:

> I think Iran will complete development of nuclear
> weapons regardless of what happens in Syria.

I might add that we don't really know what's going on behind the scenes. We don't know what bargain Obama struck with Israel. We don't know how effective Stuxnet was. We don't know if Iran has secretly allowed American inspectors in and lies about it to save face. We don't know how good foreign intelligence on the Iranian program is. We don't really know Iran's goals.

There's a lot we don't know. All we on the outside really know is capabilities, and even there we're necessarily imprecise.

Mark Bahner writes:
But then a US attack is probably inevitable, and we might be better off doing it sooner rather than later. I _think_ the window has closed on an Israeli non-nuclear attack, and that they would be very reluctant to conduct a nuclear attack.

I don't see how a U.S. military strike would keep Iran from completing the building of nuclear weapons.

Mark Bahner writes:
We don't really know Iran's goals.

I would say that building enough nuclear weapons to destroy essentially all cities in Israel is a reasonable guess.

Kyle Walter writes:

This is truly a fascinating perspective on Putin's motives; thanks for posting it. It reminds me of Churchill's famous statement from the early days of the second World War: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

Finch writes:

> I don't see how a U.S. military strike would keep
> Iran from completing the building of nuclear
> weapons.

I don't understand this comment. It seems straightforward (which isn't the same thing as easy) and has worked with Iraq and Syria in the past. It would have to be a somewhat bigger campaign, but I think the Kosovo strikes are about the right comparison. This isn't some defuse insurgency - it's a bunch of big industrial facilities, mines, a reactor. There are many papers about this in the public domain if you go looking.

Obviously your statement is literally false, or you have no imagination at all. We could use nuclear weapons; we could invade Iran; we could sustain an around-the-clock bombing campaign indefinitely. The U.S. military lives in a world made of cardboard. But a more appropriate question is "would a U.S. military strike keep Iran from completing the building of nuclear weapons with the application of a reasonable amount of force at a reasonable cost and without bad strategic consequences?" There too, I think the answer is "yes." But I think the question of whether it's really necessary probably can't be answered with public information. And you'd surely want to avoid attacking if you could.

Mark Bahner writes:

I wrote:

> I don't see how a U.S. military strike would keep Iran from completing the building of nuclear weapons.

"Finch" responds:

I don't understand this comment...
Obviously your statement is literally false, or you have no imagination at all. We could use nuclear weapons; we could invade Iran; we could sustain an around-the-clock bombing campaign indefinitely.

My comment that I didn't "see" how a "military strike" could prevent Iran from "completing the building of nuclear weapons"...was based on the world as it exists, not a hypothetical world.

As I practical matter, I don't "see" a U.S. President ever using nuclear bombs on Iran, or any country that is not an immediate existential threat to the U.S.

And I don't see invasion of Iran or around-the-clock bombing carried on indefinitely as being a "military strike."

Finch also writes:

This isn't some defuse insurgency - it's a bunch of big industrial facilities, mines, a reactor. There are many papers about this in the public domain if you go looking.

Yes, if I go to wonderful Wikipedia, I see things like this:

Natanz is a hardened Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) covering 100,000 square meters that is built 8 meters underground and protected by a concrete wall 2.5 meters thick, itself protected by another concrete wall. In 2004, the roof was hardened with reinforced concrete and covered with 22 meters of earth. The complex consists of two 25,000 square meter halls and a number of administrative buildings. This once secret site was one of the two exposed by Alireza Jafarzadeh in August, 2002. IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei visited the site on 21 February 2003 and reported that 160 centrifuges were complete and ready for operation, with 1000 more under construction at the site.[30] Under the terms of Iran's safeguards agreement, Iran was under no obligation to report the existence of the site while it was still under construction. There are currently approximately 7,000 centrifuges installed at Natanz, of which 5,000 are producing low enriched uranium.
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