The official story about any intervention in Syria is that we are not after any benefit for ourselves. We are just appalled at the use of gas and feel ourselves to be the guardians of international law, freedom and innocent children. Yeah right!
In part One I took issue with this ‘Simple World’ narrative. In part Two I looked at how Qatar’s desire to export its gas to Europe via a pipeline across Syria and Saudi’s determination to stop it, had brought them both to support Syrian rebels but for entirely different end games.
Now let’s turn to Europe and the U.S. and see how they too have agendas which may, on the surface, appear to be aligned but are not. Specifically why, of all European nations, is France so keen to go to war in Syria? And what American strategic interest might be served by allowing or even helping money and arms to flow to Islamist fighters in Syria belonging to al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah?
European Energy dependence
Europe needs gas. Russia has it. Only Norway provides more gas to Europe (35% versus 34%). As Europe continues to rely more heavily on gas, as it will especially if Germany does phase out its nuclear reactors, then Russia will, unless something changes, become the number one supplier. Europe also depends on Russia for 27% of its oil imports, 24% of its coal imports, 30% of its Uranium imports and Russia is the third largest supplier of Europe’s electricity imports. (Figures are from Congressional Report – Europe’s Energy Security. Many thanks to reader Pamela Law for bringing it to my attention.) It is clear, Europe is dependent on Russia to keep the lights on.
That dependence and power is not, however, spread evenly. To understand who is dependent we need to see who imports how much and who from.
Using figures from 2012, Germany is the largest gas importer in Europe at 3065 billion cubic feet annually. Next is Italy with 2359 billion, then Britain with 1734, France with 1600 , then Spain with 1225 and Belgium with 1084 (half of which it uses itself and half it re-exports).
But this only gives you a partial picture because not all this gas comes from Russia. The chart below while a little confusing does give a clear general picture of who is dependent on Russia.
Spain, for example, though reliant on gas imports does not get its gas from Russia. Neither does Britain (at least not directly). While Austria, though its imports are small in volume, depends very heavily on Russia.
In fact the whole central block of Europe, from Greece and Cyprus in the South up to Germany and Belgium in the North depend on Russia. Austria is the most dependent of the ‘core’ nations. Austria’s weakness and Russia’s power were recently made very clear. Until recently Austria was going to be the European terminus of the newest Russian gas pipeline project – the Southstream. Southstream which is now under construction will run under the Black Sea into Bulgaria, pumping 2.2 Trillion Cubic feet of gas per year. To be the European terminus would have brought money and certain power to Austria. However, when the Russian gas giant, Gazprom’s purchase of a 50% stake in a the Central European Gas Hub (CEGH), which is in Austria, was blocked by the European Commission, Russia changed the terminus from Austria to Italy. Italy has traditionally had closer relations with Russia on energy. Divide and rule.
So much for the vulnerable.What about the powerful?
Germany is Europe’s paymaster and arguably its most powerful nation. However Germany also relies on Russia for 35% of its gas imports and is Russia’s largest client.
Russia has considerable power over Europe and has every reason to make sure it stays that way. No surprise therefore, that
Russia has not been idle when it comes to protecting its share of the European Natural Gas Market. Moscow, including the state controlled company Gazprom, has attempted to stymie, European-backed alternatives to pipelines it controls by proposing competing pipeline projects and attempting to co-opt European companies by offering them stakes in those and other projects.
It’s worth noting that Russia gets not only political power but also massive income from this arrangement. In 2011 Gas exports generated at least half of all Russian government revenue and half of that came from exports to Europe. Thus a full quarter of all Russia’s government income comes from being Europe’s gas supplier.
European nations have responded to this situation in different ways. Spain is lucky, it already imports most of its gas by pipeline from Algeria, so Russia has little leverage over Spain from gas sales at least. You might have thought Spain would join the US coalition against Syria and Russia. But then again Spain has little in the way of an armed force, so maybe not. Italy has a pipeline from Libya but hopes to remain the terminus for Russia’s South Stream pipeline. So no surprise Italy didn’t join the ‘bomb Syria’ chorus. Italy’s main energy concern recently has been to make sure that in a post Gaddafi Libya, Italy is still a preferred customer.
The UK has chosen to invest in LNG (Liquified Natuiral Gas as opposed to merely CNG, Compressed Natural Gas – the Russian pipeline variety). Britain is Europe’s leading importer of LNG, which you would have thought, might have given it considerable freedom from Russia. Must have been a surprise all round that GB didn’t join the USA.
France relies on Russian gas nearly as much as Italy does. However, unlike Italy, France has also been building LNG capacity like Britain. The largest supplier of LNG to Europe is Qatar.
For its part Germany has decided to get closer to Russia rather than diversity its supply. Germany supported the building of the Nord Stream pipeline which connects Germany directly to Russia via a pipeline under the Baltic. This direct connection means Germany is reliant on no third party’s relations with Russia. But those in Europe downstream do rely on Germany. This can only add to Germany’s pre-eminence.
Putting this together it seems clear to me we have most of Europe already considerably captured by their energy dependence upon Russia. Germany is not going to anger Russia because of Nord Stream and neither is Italy, because of South Stream. France is the only rebel.
France and Qatar – A New Alliance
Why has France chosen to be the rebel against Russia at this time on this issue? Because, I argue, it has seen an opportunity to build a new and powerful alliance with the rising power of the Middle East, Qatar.
Qatar has gas and could break Europe’s dependence on Russia. Qatar saw the Arab Spring was a perfect opportunity for them to build a regional power base and they seized it. While Saudi was afraid of change, Qatar supported it. In Yemen, in Libya and in Egypt Qatar has been the major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood faction within every uprising. All those countries are also gas producers and have stakes in gas pipelines. Qatar has built itself a sphere of influence in which it has cleverly fused its own economic future with the burgeoning popular desire for political change.
I think France saw this before any other nation. America, I think, was not alert to what Qatar was doing because the U.S. has been too aligned with Saudi, oil, Israel and ‘fighting terrorism’/being afraid of Islam. Of the other major European nations, Germany is aligned with Russia, the UK with America.
If Qatar wanted to have some major Western Power as part of its alliance then France was a good choice. France was unaligned and has armed forces it is not afraid to use. An alliance with France would give Qatar a strong voice inside Europe and on the UN Security Council. And the advantages run the other way as well. By being Qatar’s main European ally France becomes the favoured customer for a rising energy producing power. It would also be seen by those nations allied to Qatar as the most trusted of the European powers. In short France would set itself up as a major player in Middle East affairs in an alliance which rivaled the US/Saudi alliance.
As an aside, not relying on Russian gas via Germany would go a long way towards redressing the power imbalance between Germany and France within the EU.
It is interesting then that Qatar, already one of the largest investors in France, recently announced it would invest €10 billion in France and French companies, while for its part France smoothed the way for Qatar to become a memeber of the Francophone club of countries.
This is what I think, but is there any evidence that France has been working behind the scenes as I suggest? I think there is.
In Yemen, which is literally Saudi’s backyard, Qatar has replaced Saudi as Yemen’s major ally. And if you look closely at Yemen’s major LNG project you will find that France’s Total oil company is the majority shareholder owning 39.62%. Qatar, in turn, owns 3% of Total. In Libya, France was conspicuous along with the US and GB as the first to put planes in the air and Special Forces on the ground. In Egypt France called for Mubarak to talk to the protestors and as this rather good analysis of French foreign policy in the Middle East, from The Central European Journal of International and Security Studies says,
Learning from errors in Tunisia, Sarkozy expended tremendous energies attempting (partially successful) to promote France as an unflinching, unapologetic champion of democracy and inalienable human rights in the region.
As the analysis points out when the first Arab Spring uprising began in Tunis, France was still very much aligned with the regime in power. This was a result of the fact that since the days of de Gaulle France has been ‘pro-Arab’ even supporting the Arab countries during the 6 Day War. Let’s not forget from the end of WWI until 1943 France used to control both Lebanon and Syria when they were both part of what was called The French Mandate. Much as Iraq, Jordan and Palestine were the British Mandate.
France has had long, deep and quite complex relations with all the incumbent regimes of the region including Israel for whom it built its nuclear facility and its first bombs at Dimona. But France was quick to change when the Arab Spring erupted. After being on the ‘wrong’ side in the early days of the Tunisian uprising, caught supporting the government against the protestors, France was conspicuously on the side of the uprisings from then on. Which meant France and Qatar found themselves aligned. Whether this was deliberate at this point or happenstance it doesn’t matter. I think they recognized their confluence of interests and by the time Syria comes along I think they were aligned and cooperating.
France and the USA – an uneasy ‘alliance’
If I am correct about this then it says that France may appear to be standing shoulder to shoulder with America on Syria, but perhaps is not actually looking for the same outcome. France will, along with Qatar, wish to see a pro-Qatar pipeline regime installed. While Saudi will not. What America will opt for is, I suspect, not clear even in Washington. Should it side with its traditional ally Saudi and oppose Qatar and curb its pretensions? Or could the US force Saudi to share power with Qatar and support the sort of regime Qatar and France would like. After all, that option would help to further the US desire to see Europe not so dependent on Russian gas. Or would such a change in alignment destabilize the shaky Saudi regime and even cause the fall of the House of Saud? If it helped France and Qatar would it find it was helping an independent minded France become a rival to US power in the Middle East? I think the US powers, in Congress, the military, the intelligence agencies and on Wall Street are not all on the same page. I even wonder if Mr Obama is being played by one or more of those other US powers. It happened to Mr Carter.
What seems clear to me is that the regime change the US has said it is looking for, would not be the end of Syria’s troubles but their beginning. The ‘rebels’ being supported by Saudi and Qatar are not the same as the opposition in exile that the US and GB are supporting. Saudi and Qatar are supporting al-Nusra fighters who are radical and anti Western. Those fighters may or may not accommodate the conflicting wishes of either Saudi or Qatar after any regime change. Qatar is also supporting the Muslim Brotherhood with which it has long and region wide links. There are enough conflicts of interest here to make peace hard to come by.
Now let’s add in the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC). They are the voice of international money. But if the US does go for and get regime change they are the ones the US will want to fly in to assume power. The SNC is thoroughly wrapped up with the Washington and London power elite and to some extent French elite power also. A very good Guardian article by Charlie Skelton details who the SNC are and to whom they are connected.
In short the SNC is connected to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) think tank in the US and in Britain the Centre for European Reform (CER). The Centre for European Reform is overseen by Lord Kerr who is Deputy Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell. While on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations we find Robert Rubin, former US Treasury Secretary and arch Free-Marketeer, David Rubenstein, MD of the Carlyle Group, Madeleine Albright (well known peace activist – I jest), Colin Powell (another peacenik) and a gallery of Wall Street CEOs and assorted heads of financial and investment companies.
It could be that the US and France feel they can compromise on an SNC puppet government. Though I strongly suspect France and the US would be at loggerheads when it came to key appointments in any puppet, sorry, technocratic government of National Unity and loveliness.
A dark thought
Or – and here I want to end on a darker peice of speculation – some within the US machinery of power may have a more realpolitik option in mind. This is speculation but I think worth keeping in mind. I think certain parts of the US military and intelligence have learned a lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan; that imposing stability is not as easy as they once imagined it might be. Instead Iraq and Afghanistan showed them how a country riven with factions, some of them violent and fundamentalist, can, given enough arms and encouragement, keep a country in a state of barely contained anarchy and chaos for years on end. Just enough order to extract wealth but not enough to ever unify.
Add to this the lesson which I call the Algeria lesson. Algeria was perhaps the first, certainly one of the first, Muslim countries in which radical Islam took up arms. There was a period when radical factions begot even more radical factions each more certain of its right to kill than the one it split from. I am simplifying I know, but eventually it ended with factions content to murder whole villages. In the end people became tired of the terror and despite some of the armed groups saying it would shoot anyone who voted (their slogan was the catchy “One Vote, One Bullet”) people did vote.
The lesson I have in mind is two fold: you can create a place where you can suck in all the radicals to slaughter each other and should you need radicals for any reason – such as justifying an endless War on Terror with its necessary curbs on freedom – then it is a good place to incubate them where you can see them if not even inflitrate them.
I wonder if some see this as a possible and acceptable strategy. If you have a strategy for anarchy then you don’t mind starting a civil war. It doesn’t matter too much to you if it all ends in carnage. It could be helpful carnage, a sort of ‘Win/Win Slaughter!’
In case you think this is just too outrageous and I am slipping in to conspiracy territory – this was written by Daniel Pipes for The Washington Times under the headline, ‘The Case For Assad’,
…Evil forces pose less danger to us when they make war on each other. This (1) keeps them focused locally and it (2) prevents either one from emerging victorious (and thereby posing a yet-greater danger). Western powers should guide enemies to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing, so as to prolong their conflict.
The Washington Times is mainstream. Daniel Pipes is a well known neo-con whom President Bush (the W version) nominated to be on the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist telling you that.
The quote was picked up along with others, by Press TV which is Iran’s version of al-Jazeera, under their headline of, Israel and client states want nobody to rule Syria, in which they blame the whole thing on Israel – as is their habit.
The idea also appears in a US military funded study done in 2008 by the Rand corporation called ‘Unfolding the Future of the Long War’. This document was quoted by another good Guardian article this one by Nafeez Ahmed in which he too argues that oil and gas are what is being fought over in Syria. This, from the Rand document,
“Divide and Rule focuses on exploiting fault lines between the various Salafi-jihadist groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts. This strategy relies heavily on covert action, information operations (IO), unconventional warfare, and support to indigenous security forces… the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists in the eyes of the local populace…
So could it be that some in the US and perhaps among the international elites think a controlled decent into civil war in Syria might not be such a bad thing? Create a sort of jihadist sand pit where they can all be so busy killing each other none of them will have the time to get on a plane to New York.
I leave you with this headline from the Times of Oman,
Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda lock horns over Syria Crisis
And these quotes from the article,
…Hezbollah is facing an existential threat — the gravest ever.
Its establishments, office in particular, are coming under rocket attacks; its strongholds in Lebanon are increasingly being invaded; people, known to be its detractors, are raising their voices to marginalise the organisation politically….Sectarian division in Lebanon is complete.
And who are these ‘detractors’? Guess who…
… Al Qaeda has found more than what it had ever aspired in Lebanon — a firm foothold. The ABC News reporter Alexander Marquardt says, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda fighters are edging closer to full scale confrontation. And in this many are seeing a tacit support of the United States and its allies. Of them a sociologist thinker and a research associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG) Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya is the most explicit. He says, the US and its allies are working to open a new front of the Syrian conflict inside Lebanon. The plan is to sow the seeds of sedition in Lebanon, destabilise the country and foment yet another bloody sectarian conflict like what we have seen in Libya and Syria.
Turn this around slightly and you can perhaps see a policy of turning Syria into what Lebanon/Beruit has been, what Algeria was briefly.
Such an outcome, if indeed there are those contemplating or already instituting it, would have nothing whatsoever to do with concern for the use of chemical weapons, caring for Syria or its children, or peace in general. Nothing at all.