Our leaders would like you to believe that what is going on in Syria is simple – a bad man has gassed innocent victims and it is up to good people to punish him (take out his air defenses), prevent him from ever doing it again (regime change) and serve notice to other bad men (Iran) that doing really bad things (to be defined as and when) to people we like is verboten. In Simple World, the emphasis is on ‘what happened’. As if why things happen is unimportant or too obvious to be concerned about. It’s ‘watch the birdie’ politics. Please look right here – only here. Something pops out, you’re surprised, there’s a flash and we all enjoy the memories.
Or you can ask ‘Why?’ But asking ‘why’ confuses the simplicity.
A Partial analysis
Some of the questions I think any analysis of what is going on in Syria has to answer: Why is France so keen to get involved in Syria? Why are both Qatar and Saudi supplying and supporting the ‘rebels’ in Syria? Given that the ‘rebels’ which both Qatar and Saudi are funding are largely Jabhat al- Nusra who are seen as affilated with al-Qaeda, why are the US and the West happy to allow this?
My analysis involves Qatar, Saudi and gas.
Qatar and Saudi are rivals. Saudi is the old hegemonic Arab power allied to the West’s old hegemonic power, the USA. Qatar is a rising power, thoroughly fed up with being held down, as they see it, by Saudi. I first wrote about their rivalry in Qatar’s rising importance and power, back in Feb. 2011, in which I pointed out that while both Qatar and Saudi are Wahabi and ‘Wahabism’ is considered a very orthodox strand of Islam, Qatar, by comparison to Saudi is quite moderate, even liberal in a limited sense. For example Qatar funds Al Jezeera. Al Jezeera is much freer ro report on Arab affairs than any Middle Eastern state broadcaster, except that it refrains from reporting negatively on any Qatari affairs. The very existence of Al Jazeera tells you that Qatar is looking outwards and wishes to project political influence abroad.
The root of their rivalry is economic. Saudi is oil. Qatar is gas. For some time Qatar has wanted to be able to expand its gas supply to Europe, for which it needs a pipeline. In 2009 Qatar proposed building a pipeline across Saudi to link in to the Nabucco pipeline which runs through Turkey into Europe. Qatar, already in 2009, the world’s largest exporter of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) had just finished doubling its production capacity from the world’s largest gas field, North Field, and wished to export to Europe. Saudi said no.
That left Qatar looking towards the already existing Arab Pipeline which supplies Egyptian gas to Jordan, Lebanon and SYRIA.
Qatar suggested extending this pipe across Syria to Kilis in Turkey. In 2006 Syria had in fact signed an agreement and the Russian company Stroytransgaz had got the construction contract. Suggesting that in 2006 at least, the Russians were OK with Egyptian gas coming to Turkey. But in 2009 the agreement was annulled. I can’t help but wonder if Russia felt Egyptian gas to supply Turkey – which relies on gas imports – was one thing, but the prospect in 2009 of Qatar joining the party to export huge quantities of gas to Europe was quite another. Russia is the major supplier of gas to Europe and as Syria’s main protector in a position to tell Syria yes or no. I think Russia had a word with Assad and suddenly Qatar was again blocked.
Qatar can’t hope to change Saudi’s mind or its regime, but Syria? In 2009 perhaps that too seemed remote, but then along came the Arab Spring. And Qatar had not been idle. While Saudi has been visibly and publically cool to the popular calls for political change, greater freedoms and democracy, Qatar has been very busy placing itself as the champion of change. But not just any old change.
As The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi put it in an article in May 2012,
Qatar’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood affect entire region
The alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar is becoming a noticeable factor in the reshaping of the Middle East. There are several striking aspects to this evolving and deepening relationship…There are strong indications of media help, political training and financial support.
The article details how Qatar has trained, promoted and funded numerous influential Muslim Brotherhood figures many of whom have been prominent in the Arab Spring’s calls for change in their own countries. It is worth noting that as a formal organization the Muslim Brotherhood does not exist in Qatar because the Qatar branch dissolved itself. It is thus very like Al Jazeera in that it is active in every other Muslim country but refrains from agitating in Qatar.
That Qatar’s growing regional influence is seen as a direct challenge to Saudi is clear in an article in Al Monitor, (which calls itself the Pulse of the Middle East),
Qatar Encroaches on Saudi Influence
It is worth noting that Al Monitor was founded by a Syrian born American millionare Jamal Daniel, who now lives in Texas and has close ties to former US Presidents, George Bush Sr and George W Bush. Al Monitor is liked and quoted by many mainstrean American media outlets.
According to the Al Monitor article,
Qatar’s role in Yemen can be likened to breathing air. Its effects are visible without it being palpable. Yet, it sometimes gains exceptional prominence such as when Qatar funded the establishment of a Yemeni television station affiliated with one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s factions in Yemen: the Yemen Youth Channel.
In keeping with Al Monitor’s political leanings towards the America and Saudi axis, the article warns,
…Qatar succeeded in penetrating Yemeni political affairs, disregarding all previously established rules of political action there, and giving itself the ability to greatly and dangerously affect Yemeni and Saudi affairs.
Qatar has been a major funder and supporter of The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) not only in Yemen but in all the uprisings across North Africa from Tunis, to Libya and Egypt. In Libya the Muslim Brotherhood was fairly small and not, at first, in the van of the revolution. But once Qatari money began to flow the MB’s influence has grown. Much to the concern of the US and Europe. In Egypt, Qatar has backed the Muslim Brotherhood from the start and was instrumental in their electoral organization and victory. A victory which did not please the Americans or the Saudis.
Qatar has helped make the Muslim Brotherhood a powerful force for change across the Arab world, which in return has given Qatar huge influence and real power to rival Saudi’s. Saudi has not been happy with that and the US has not been enrirely comfortable with the Muslim nature of the change envisioned by the MB. This, as the Al Monitor piece puts it, has led to,
…obvious differences in opinion it had with Riyadh concerning the current events in Egypt, which led to the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow.
An interesting sentence you have to admit.
The Arab Spring has been a gift to Qatar. As the Muslim Brotherhood has made its power felt in every uprising, so Qatar now has influence in every country. And unlike Saudi it is largely seen as a progressive power. Of course there is opposition to its power from those who say it is meddling. As Middle East Online reports, Anti Qatar groups have sprung up in most of the countries I have mentioned. I strongly suspect the US and Saudi have been frantically funding and building those anti-Qatar groups. They are still small but expect to hear more about them in our press. The legend being put about is, ‘Never Mind the Muslim Brotherhood connection, Qatar is too closely aligned with the US and Israel.’
Let’s now combine the politics with the gas. Qatar has worked to become a power in its region. Which is great, but Foreign Policy tends to need more immmediate and tangible goals, not just getting nice nation of the year award.
Gas and Politics
Libya has untapped gas reserves, possibly very large ones. Qatar was a financer of the uprising and of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has gas and the Arab pipeline. Qatar was and is a major funder and supporter of the Egyptian MB. The Arab pipeline was built and supervised largely by Egyptian construction companies largely owned and controlled by the Egyptian army. In Egypt the real business of the army is business. It is Egypt’s largest and most powerful business conglomerate. Qatar would like the MB in power but also needs the friendship and cooperation of the army. It will be interesting to see what compromise can be reached. Qatar will surely be pushing for one, even as the US pushes against it.
So Qatar has now got major influence across its region, on the side of the vocal and ascendant forces for change and can offer those forces something valuable. Qatar is rich and has gas it wants to sell. Egypt would profit from helping Qatar to shift it. In fact anyone aligned with Qatar could profit.
Which brings us to Syria.
Assad, possibly with Russian persuasion has said ‘no’ to Qatar’s pipeline connection to Turkey and from there onwards to Europe. It’s easy to see why Russia would object. Russia’s Gazprom makes lots of money and Russia itself wields enormous power over Europe because so many European nations rely on its gas. I’ll come back to Europe and its gas needs in part three.
To make matters worse just after Assad’s government refused the Qatar/Turkey plan (which Turkey was very keen on), as The Guardian reported,
Assad pursued negotiations for an alternative $10 billion pipeline plan with Iran, across Iraq to Syria, that would also potentially allow Iran to supply gas to Europe from its South Pars field shared with Qatar. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the project was signed in July 2012 [My emphasis]
This was a deal almost designed to start a war. It scuppers Qatar’s hopes. So cue Qatari interest in removing Assad. The deal would give Iran a direct line to Europe to sell its own gas. Cue American anger at Iran (axis of Evil) getting a crowbar of energy needs between America and Europe which would torpedo America’s ‘isolate and destroy Iran’ policy. And finally, since the outlet for this ‘Islamic’ pipeline was supposed to be in Lebanon NOT Turkey, cue Turkey to split with Assad who until that time it had been supporting. So now you have Turkey agitating for war and for removing Assad.
If nothing were done about Assad, his Russian allies and their decision, Qatar would be stymied while Russia for its part would have ensured that any gas coming in to Europe, not belonging to them, was coming from one of its allies which also happens to be the major thorn in the side of America’s neo con hawks.
So time for a revolution. Which requires Assad to show his true evil..ness. Cue chemical attacks. As I said in part one it could be someone from Assad’s side using chemicals but it makes very little sense. Assad gains nothing and potentially loses everything.
Supporting Syria’s rebels
So what does all this mean for Syria? As far as I can see it means half a dozen countries have huge and conflicting financial and political interest in trying to make sure whoever is governing Syria in a year’s time is pro their particular needs. Whatever else, Simple World it is not.
Russia wants Assad to stay. Qatar would like him replaced with a pro-Qatar pipeline government. While Saudi doesn’t really like democratic rebels of any stripe, but if Assad does go, they do NOT want Qatar to run the show and thus are trying to ensure an anti pipeline government. I do not believe anyone is primarily moved by humanitarian interests, or particularly concerned with the fate of Syrian civilians, nor particularly outraged about the use of gas. None of the countries in the region shouted loudly when Iraq used gas.
Qatar was the first country to ‘champion’ the uprising and has been the major funder of rebel forces in Syria from the start. According to the FT quoted by Zerohedge,
The tiny gas-rich state of Qatar has spent as much as $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebellion in Syria, far exceeding any other government,…
Three billion dollars buys a lot of influence and can create quite a network of support. I think Saudi woke up to this idea a few months ago and recently started to buy its own influence. As the FT notes, Qatar
…is now being nudged aside by Saudi Arabia as the prime source of arms to rebels.
The Saudis will obviously want a post Assad government to be anti the Qatar pipeline. What is emerging in Syria is what we had in Lebanon – a boiling pot of conflicting and shifting allegeance. What we can be sure of is that in Syria the ‘rebels’ are not one group and not fighting shoulder to shoulder for the same outcome. We know already there are ordinary Syrians who have taken up arms, plus a large Muslim Brotherhood and then of course foreign Islamists radicals, the largest group of whom are known as Jabhat al-Nusrah which is affiliated with al-Qaeda.
A vivid example of the real nature of the West’s mythic ‘rebels’ was apparent in a story run by MintPress News a week ago, about who might have supplied the chemical weapons that killed so many people in the attacks last week.
“My son came to me two weeks ago asking what I thought the weapons were that he had been asked to carry,” said Abu Abdel-Moneim, the father of a rebel fighting to unseat Assad, who lives in Ghouta.
Abu Abdel-Moneim lives in Ghouta, so he is a Syrian. But who had supplied the weapons his son was asked to carry?
Abdel-Moneim said his son and 12 other rebels were killed inside of a tunnel used to store weapons provided by a Saudi militant, known as Abu Ayesha, who was leading a fighting battalion. The father described the weapons as having a “tube-like structure” while others were like a “huge gas bottle.” [My emphasis]
Now we have Saudi paid ‘rebels’ who are calling the shots because they are the ones who have the weapons. Are they all rebels together in one happy, peace seeking opposition?
“They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them,” complained a female fighter named ‘K.’ “We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”
“When Saudi Prince Bandar [Saudi Arabia’s Intelligence Chief] gives such weapons to people, he must give them to those who know how to handle and use them,” she warned. She, like other Syrians, do not want to use their full names for fear of retribution.
A well-known rebel leader in Ghouta named ‘J’ agreed. “Jabhat al-Nusra militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said.
“We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” ‘J’ said.
Even if you chose to believe the story itself is fabricated I think the picture it paints of the real nature of the ‘rebels’ is accurate. The ‘rebels’ are divided against each other serving different paymasters intent on quite different outcomes. Regime change will rid Syria of one unpleasant man only to open the door for a whole group of similarly unpleasant men.
That is my partial analysis of the interests of Russia, Qatar and Saudi. In part three I will wrap it up by looking at what Europe, the USA and Israel hope to get out of Syria.