The more deadly and confusing the situation in Syria becomes, the further away we travel from addressing the true reason the world’s superpowers have suddenly taken great interest in the safety and security of the Syrian people. Thus far, it has been estimated that more than 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives during this civil war and the refugee situation has become dire. Yet despite such heavy civilian losses, it wasn’t until the world learned of a chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013 that this war presented an imminent policy decision for the United States and other stakeholder nations in the Middle East.
The keen interest in Syria on the part of the U.S. that the mainstream media has largely overlooked has its roots in the unsuccessful occupation of Iraq. Chemical weapons might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but U.S. policy is being dictated by opportunities squandered over the past decade. Once again, all roads lead back to Baghdad.
As far as the attack itself, the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch released a report on September 10 concluding: “telltale evidence… suggests that Syrian government troops launched rockets carrying chemical warheads into the Damascus suburbs.” However, there have been conflicting reports from the region that indicate the weapons may have been of Saudi origin and deployed by rebel fighters.
The fog of war combined with limited access for journalists in the region and the subsequent jockeying for diplomatic supremacy between the U.S. and Russia will likely leave this question unanswered for quite some time. At a minimum, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was forced to admit that his government is indeed in possession of chemical weaponry, though it maintains that none was used in this conflict. And because it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who stepped in with the winning diplomatic solution of the moment, the American news cycle now is focused on whether or not the United States just lost a major psychological and tactical battle to Russia.
The chemical weapons debate and renewed tensions between Russia and the United States obscure the chemical war the United States truly cares about: the petrochemical war. Sarin gas might have been President Obama’s “red line” to intervene in the Syrian conflict, but natural gas is the underlying reason.
Taking a step back from Damascus reveals a much wider and more complicated picture with several important players. The U.S. and Russia are now primary actors in the Syrian conflict, but so too are Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Western Europe and China.
Consider this timing for a moment. Less than a month before the Assad regime purportedly employed the use of chemical weapons, it entered into a potentially lucrative contract with neighboring Iran and Iraq. OilPrice.com, an online trade publication for the energy industry, reported that a deal struck on July 25 between the three nations for “the construction of what would end up being the largest gas pipeline in the Middle East, running gas from Iran’s South Pars field to Europe, via Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.”
The economic importance of this potential transaction cannot be overstated for two reasons. The first is that oil and gas companies in the United States are preparing an intense push into the natural gas export market. And because Europe remains the largest trading partner of the United States and several European countries are aggressively converting to natural gas as the energy source of choice, any competition represents a significant loss of market share. A pipeline carrying oil and natural gas from both Iraq and Iran directly to the Mediterranean makes far more logistical sense than gas traveling across the Atlantic. The second reason is that the U.S.-based energy companies are no longer in the position to participate in any newfound profits in Iraq, as they ceded this advantage almost entirely to the Chinese.
Stony Brook professor Michael Schwartz, who authored the book War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, gave a lecture at this year’s Left Forum at Pace University, where he argued, “China is reaping the benefits of the new Iraq oil boom.” During his talk he described the frustrations experienced by U.S. oil companies that attempted to cajole the Iraqi workforce into complying with U.S. demands. In the decade that followed the U.S. invasion into Iraq, the historically strong Iraqi unions essentially beat American oil giants into submission. Chinese oil companies were all too happy to take advantage of this opening by agreeing to incredibly unfavorable terms in order to access Iraq’s abundant supply of crude oil and natural gas. As Schwartz explained, the U.S. government can no longer “get Exxon to take one for the team.”
In a 2003 article that appeared on CommonDreams.org, Schwartz highlighted “Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s pre-war prediction that the administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq would pay for itself.” But experts such as Schwartz knew then that the U.S. had greatly overestimated its ability to find a cooperative workforce and knew that the invasion would stoke ethnic and religious tensions in a way that we were unprepared for. Understanding the social, political and economic structure of Iraq, Schwartz concluded the article saying, “the Bush administration’s ‘capture of new and existing oil and gas fields’ is likely to end as a predictable fiasco.”
Schwartz was prescient to say the least. Dr. Naser AL-Tamimi, A UK-based Middle East analyst, wrote an article for Alarabiya.net in March 2013 describing the partnership between China and Baghdad. In the article AL-Tamimi notes that, “Iraq is estimated to have the fifth largest proven oil reserves and the 12-largest proven gas reserves in the world,” and that “current trends suggest that China will soon overtake America to become Baghdad’s top trade partner.” This prediction proved true as well, as Chinese oil companies continued to sew up contracts in Iraq over the summer and its government made the critical move of forgiving 80 percent of Iraq’s outstanding debt owed to the Chinese.
The U.S. might have fought the battles in Baghdad, but China won the war.
One can’t help but be struck by how the U.S. military, after wasting billions of dollars to secure Iraq’s most precious commodity and killing tens of thousand of Iraqi civilians in the process, was ultimately done in by unions.
With China ravenously gobbling up the remaining contracts for Iraqi oil and gas, America’s options in the region are closing off faster than anyone might have predicted. Russia and China clearly have the upper hand in the battle for fossil fuel hegemony in the next century, which brings our interest in the Syrian conflict more clearly into focus.
U.S. allies in the Middle East, specifically Israel and Saudi Arabia, can ill-afford a lucrative alliance between their major oil producing neighbors. The Russians have a significant stake, both militarily and economically, in the Assad regime staying in power. And because the Chinese have significant entrée into the Middle East oil and gas market, it does as well.
Now play the scenario out even further. If Russia and China are successful in negotiating on behalf of the Assad regime and the American and Saudi-backed rebels are ultimately defeated, an economic alliance will be forged between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Jordan, a barren nation dealing with much of the fallout from the Syrian refugee situation, will likely fall in line with this coalition. The United States and its corporate oil interests become the odd men out in this scenario.
Traditionally, the U.S. has been able to rely on ethnic tensions between the Sunni and Shi’a populations in these countries to level the playing field, especially when stoked by U.S.-supported dictators. But since the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein and Iran has since elected a reformist government, it has fewer options to wage proxy fights along ethnic lines. Ethnic and religious differences that might otherwise be an obstacle to an alliance between these nations would likewise become a unifying determinant in the face of military threats from the United States. It’s why the political calculus in Washington is so complicated and severe. And it’s also why an episode as dangerous and offensive as a chemical weapons attack is the only plausible case the United States could make for an intervention.
Further complicating the U.S. position on chemical warfare is the stubborn fact that the U.S. supplied Iraq with chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War and did nothing when they were deployed against the Iranian people. Moreover, the U.S. was forced to admit that it used both white phosphorous and napalm against Iraqis during the Iraq War. While napalm is clearly outlawed, white phosphorous is not banned because it is used to illuminate the night sky during battle. However, it has the same effects as a chemical agent when used as a weapon. It was the latter use that the U.S. military admitted to—after initial denials—in operations called “shake and bake” whereby white phosphorous was used to flush Iraqi fighters out of buildings and trenches.
These admissions are conveniently omitted from the U.S. narrative on chemical warfare, but are hardly lost on foreign nations. Therefore, President Obama’s chemical weapon “red line” is dubious at best, particularly when the use of it occurs in a civil war.
All of the above factors continue to demonstrate U.S. foreign policy ignorance with respect to the Middle East. U.S. occupations have been an unmitigated and costly disaster that have ultimately inured to the economic benefit of rival nations such as China and Russia. An Arab allegiance in the form of a pipeline from Iran to the Mediterranean would have been almost unimaginable only a decade ago. But it was made possible by the U.S. occupation in Iraq and its failure to seize upon the unwholesome opportunity the war created.
Ultimately, somewhere in the scorching desert sun of the Middle East, the world might be witnessing the rebirth of the Cold War.