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US vs. Syria: Is This Another ‘Oil War’?

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With the United States military gearing up for a potential strike on Syria ahead of a Congressional vote next week, many activists are claiming that this is just another “oil war”. Many believe that both Gulf wars and other American actions in the Middle East have stemmed primarily over the battle for resources. Some now claim that the looming action against Syria has little to do with human-rights violations, but instead oil and natural gas interests in the region. Does this theory hold up to the facts on the ground?

US vs. Syria: Is This Another 'Oil War'?

Consequences on oil and gas

Oil interests would go a long way in explaining strong condemnations—and perhaps even stronger actions—now being bantered about by Western leaders. Why are world governments that previously ignored human rights violations suddenly taking such keen interest in Syria? What makes this particular country and this particular situation so interesting and important?

Oil and natural gas offers a convenient explanation. There is just one problem with the theory: While the Middle East is indeed rich in oil and natural gas, Syria received the short end of the stick in terms of resource allocation. Syria has substantial reserves of neither oil nor natural gas. Still, a lack of reserves doesn’t mean that oil and natural gas couldn’t be playing a role in the conflict.

In 2009, the Qatar government attempted to pursue a deal with Assad’s government to build a natural gas pipeline across Syria in order to directly supply Europe. Syria refused to negotiate the project, with many believing that Assad was moving to protect Russia’s interests. Since then, Syria has turned down overtures from the British and others to restart talks on building the pipeline.

Russia supporting Assad over gas pipeline

Some have also speculated that a potential pipeline from Qatar through Syria is also one of the reasons that Russia is so ardently supporting Assad. If a new regime were to come into power, they might green light the pipeline, and thus allow Middle Eastern gas to challenge Russian supplies to Europe. Most likely, the high degrees of mutual cooperation and mutual interests for Syria and Russia do play a role, however, Russia has not objected to a planned Syrian-Iranian pipeline. While Russia and Iran are distant allies, Iranian natural gas will challenge Russian natural gas sales just the same.

So, while oil and natural gas interests may be a part of the calculations, it seems unlikely that they are the driving force. For one, Obama and others have made it clear that no war is looming, only potential punitive strikes. As for now, no pipeline from Qatar will be built until the Assad regime is out of power, and Western strikes are clearly not being drawn up to bring about regime change. The United States has also declined to offer extensive aid to Syrian rebels and so far has largely remained on the sidelines.

Minor effects on global gas prices

Further, building a pipeline across Syria would have only minor impacts on natural gas prices. Global supply would remain essentially the same, and while there would be incremental savings in regards to delivery costs, these savings would not justify the costs of war. As the United States and its allies learned with Iraq, war is a messy and expensive endeavor. At least with Iraq, the United States government would have theoretically been able to increase the supply of oil to the market, owing to the fact that Iraq’s oil was previously cut off by sanctions. Increased supply generally means dropping prices, but even with a Syrian pipeline, natural gas prices will likely remain approximately the same.

Thus, it seems highly unlikely that oil and natural gas interests are playing any major role—if any role at all—in deliberations over whether or not to launch punitive strikes against Assad’s regime. Human rights violations, or other geopolitical interests, are more likely to be at play. The Obama administration itself has so far shown a more “idealistic” and ardent fervor for protecting human rights around the world. This seems to stem more from Obama’s world view than cold political calculations over natural gas and other resources.

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