Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the
round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're
not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify
them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change
things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the
crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs
US computer engineer & industrialist (1955 - 2011)

Monday, September 2, 2013

The War of the Pipelines: Russia vs US

The escalation of the Syrian conflict is about many things, but chemical warfare is not one of them. Primarily, the "proxy war" in Syria is about geo-economic control. Those that have, those that want to keep it, and those that want it. It's pretty much the same game that has played out through out history. The only real difference is the capacity of many sides to end humanity in the process - which makes the responsible use of the game's rules essential.

The Russians have the natural gas monopoly over Europe. They have a strategic and economic advantage they want to keep. It allows them to exercise extreme influence over countries that used to belong to the USSR or the Eastern Bloc - like Poland, the Ukraine and others. It gives them a strong hand in negotiating with other western European countries like Germany in particular. The Americans are in a different situation. Their geo-political interests are in weakening Russia and China's economic strength thereby maintaining their own international influence and control. They regularly "duke it out" in minor conflicts all over the world - most recently in Africa and of long standing the Middle East. Critically, in this international game of chess, they never make it between themselves - until now.

The region encompassing Syria, Iraq, and Turkey has historically been the land bridge between West and the East. That makes it strategically important to control, or at least deny to the other side. Qatar has a giant reserve of natural gas (at least 30 trillion cubic feet) that it wants to export by pipeline to Europe. The Saudi's want to do the same. In 2009 President Assad of Syria refused to sign a pipeline agreement to build a pipeline from Qatar to Turkey. Turkey's established goal is to be the centre of all pipelines between Europe and the Saudi area. Assad's established goal is the same for Syria. Assad is in control of Syria. Russia is in control of Assad. Russia doesn't want to lose control of the European gas market. It's using Assad to make sure any such proposal remains just that - a proposal. Instead, Assad signed onto an Iran, Iraq, Syria pipeline proposal. Iran is a minor natural gas producer and imports most of its gas from Russia. Such a pipeline then tends to be a regional pipeline that doesn't threaten Russia's position in Europe.

However, using that old slogan, it is not in the "national interests" of the US, or its Saudi allies, or even its Israeli allies, to allow this to happen. It’s also not in the interests of Russia, or its Iranian allies, or its Syrian allies to allow the Saudi-US challenge to be successful.

In fact it is so crucial to both the US, and some of its European and middle-eastern allies that an insurgency was propagated on Syria - to replace Assad's government. Here, so far, it has been Saudi Arabia vs. Iran as each camp’s local powers use their pawns to duke it out. Iran using its Shia alliances including the Alawites of Syria, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Iranian forces. Saudi using its Sunni allies in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and even Lebanon. In addition, Saudi has brought in Al-Qaeda forces and even Chechens that it finances. To underscore that point, Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan met with President Putin. He used a carrot/stick approach with him. On the one hand he was willing to offer Russia $15 billion in military contracts, and a new partnership in natural gas exports. On the other hand he made it clear that the "new Syrian" government would be under Saudi control and he controlled the Chechens meaning he could create peace for the Russian Olympics – or presumably the reverse. Putin was naturally infuriated by the stick approach, and the challenge to Russian influence and control in Syria and the European market. He turned it down.

Now we are left with the inevitable result of this poke in the chest game - war or humiliation. There is no more middle ground. One superpower or the other is going to lose and the result will effect the world. Already we have seen the US bring massive naval and air assets into the region. Today it was reported the US Sixth Fleet carrier task force is moving in to join the five to six ships already there, not including subs. Britain and France also have large air and naval presences there. Now we learn Russia is sending 12 ships into the region to join the fleet already there, and today a spy ship was added to the number. That does not include the air assets of Saudi or Israel, nor does it include the ballistic missile forces of Iran or Syria.

The US build makes a mockery of the US position that they are simply going to launch 100-200 cruise missiles into Syria. Their missile frigates already in place could manage that. No, it appears the US is going in to take control of the situation by destroying Syria's air defence forces, bombing Syrian military units, imposing a no-fly zone, and changing the regime just like Libya. No question. Nowhere near the force built up is required for a limited strike. In the last several months the US has also placed Patriot anti-missile batteries surrounding Syria in Jordan, Israel, and Turkey. The mission, obviously pre-planned, is to control Syrian airspace and destroy the regime militarily. As the Saudi prince said, Saudi Arabia will control the new government in Syria, and it looks as though the Saudi armed and funded militants on the ground in Syria are meant to be that force.

All this may just make most in the West roll their eyes and say "oh the US is thumping out another dictator, and who cares?" This time is different though. This time Russia sees its vital interests not just being threatened, but actually in danger of being destroyed. That us why Russia's navy are stepping in, and that is why things have never been more dangerous. The proxy war has had its mask removed; the players are now facing each other in a fight that could be disastrous for the world. Neither is prepared to back down for the same reason - national interest. It's fashionable to say religions cause wars, but in reality it is "national interests" as defined by those that define. In this case the national interests are pipelines and control. The suffering of the Syrian people has absolutely nothing to do with it.