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The Great Gas Game over Syria

September 09, 2013

Even as much has been written about the regional and global actors pursuing their pitiless agendas in Syria, one sub-plot in the vicious drama has remained relatively unexplored. And that is the gas resource and its routes from production to the market.

The past five years have seen discoveries of immense energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean; both the Levant Basin located along the shores of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza and Cyprus and the Nile Basin north of Egypt. According to preliminary geological surveys, the Levant Basin contains 3.5 trillion cubic meters (tcm) of gas and 1.7 billion barrels (bb) of oil. The Nile Basin contains 6 tcm of gas and 1.8 bb of oil.

The energy bonanza has predictably led to competitive resource scramble and its transport to the favoured customers. After all, the control of and access to the natural resources have been fundamental drivers of much of geopolitics. The roads, railways, ports, as also the oil and gas pipelines are the coveted objects of the powerful. The oil and gas have a three-fold merit: as the commodity inside, as the containers of that commodity and as the carriers of that commodity.

Syria alone is estimated to have discovered proven gas reserves of 284 bcm, oil reserves of 2.5 bb and shale reserves of 50 billion tonnes with the possibility of more findings. The production levels are, however, drastically falling. The pre-uprising level of oil was 380,000 barrels a day (bd), which fell to just 20,000 bd, a decline of about 95%. According to some estimates, the natural gas output has halved at 15 million cubic meters (mcm). A lot of gas is used for reinjection into the oil fields to improve the oil recovery. The unrest has not only disrupted the production, but has resulted in the withdrawal of foreign producers and financiers.

Almost the entire Syrian oil was exported to the European Union (EU). The sales have come to a virtual standstill after the European Union (EU) put an embargo on the Syrian oil in December 2011. In fact, in April this year, the EU has permitted imports from the rebel-held areas so long as the deals are approved by the Syrian National Coalition.

Within the country, there has been no investment in the refineries, energy pipelines or other infrastructure. Additionally, there is a constant fear of sabotage by the rebels. Since the diesel in the country has been subsidized and priced lower than in the neighbourhood, there has always been a smuggling of the oil, the levels of which are rising alarmingly.

On June 25, 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed in the Iranian port city of Bushehr to construct a gas pipeline from the Iranian gas field of Assaluyeh through Iraq and Syria. To be built at a cost of $10 billion, its projected capacity of 110 mcm per day was tentatively allocated among Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It was proposed to extend it to Greece through a submarine line and from there on to the markets in Europe. Named the “Islamic Pipeline”, it was to be supplemented by the export of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from the Syrian ports on the Mediterranean. Latakia and Tartous are two major Syrian ports. Russia has leased Tartous and constructed a naval base there.

In more realistic terms, the project is still-born. Even though the Syrian route makes sense in normal situation, the political circumstances are totally unfavourable at present. Both Syria and Iran are under sanctions eliminating the possibility of external funding. The civil war in Syria rules out pipeline construction over a long stretch of area for many years.

Qatar has the third largest reserves of gas after Russia and Iran. Estimated at 25 tcm, most of its gas exports are in the form of LNG. The shale gas production in the US will impact the sale of Qatari LNG, therefore, Qatar seeks to secure long-term contracts via pipelines to the European countries. The EU has secured its energy imports till 2030, and is looking for secure infrastructural investments for the future thereafter. The Nabucco pipeline project from eastern Turkey to Austria is stalled due to insufficient gas available.

It is in this context that a new pipeline for Qatari gas has been proposed. In 2009, during the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Thani’s visit to Turkey, it was agreed to build a pipeline and link it up with the Nabucco in Turkey. It is to originate in Qatar and move through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria reaching Turkey. The European markets would share the resource with an insatiable Turkey.

Syria is a key link in both the rival pipeline projects; the one originating in Iran and the one originating in Qatar. Whether the Assad regime survives or a change of regime happens there would determine the global gas system in a large way. Qatar will not be the sole beneficiary of the pipeline. There are three distinct calculations besides carrying Qatari gas. It would pry Turkey loose from dependence on Iranian supplies, it would severely curtail the Russian near monopoly as the gas supplier to Europe and it would facilitate Israel’s gas export to Europe.

There are many interesting conspiracy theories making rounds around this pipeline. One sees a clear connection in the timing between the signing of the memorandum on the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline and the beginning of violent uprising in Syria. The other notes a coincidence between the fiercest fighting in places inside Syria and the proposed route of the Qatari pipeline through its territory. Yet another explains the Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood among the Syrian rebels and beyond in the region in this context. After all, Qatar has sunk three billion dollars in the Syrian civil war. A small sum in Qatar’s wealth, but big in comparison to the Western handouts to the rebels. An additional consideration could be that Qatar shares its gas field, which it calls the North Dome with Iran, which calls it South Pars. Together it is the largest gas field in the world. The disputes of the past may flare up in future over the borders and extraction rights in the gas field.

Russia has high stakes in the Syrian developments. Its presence on the Tartous port is one of the important ones. Its warning to the Western powers against any military intervention in Syria and the imminent arrival of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in Tartous testifies to the Russian commitment to secure its present military presence there and future point of gas transit from there.

The West has high stakes too and not just to contain Russia. Europe has been struggling to break loose of the Russian near monopoly over its gas supplies. Azerbaijan has emerged as a partner of choice in an ambitious “southern energy corridor” which would transport ten billion cubic meters of gas from the newly developed Azeri gas fields to Europe via Turkey. The Azeri gas reserves are limited. The commercial viability of the corridor would depend on feeding additional gas into the supply chain. The Qatari gas is an indispensible component in the success of the venture – the gas that would traverse though Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Jordan-Syria and Turkey.

Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia was the country’s ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005. Since July 2012, he has been the Director-General of the Saudi Intelligence Agency. On 31 July this year, Prince Bandar made a hurried visit to Kremlin. He is reported to have pleaded his case for regime change in Syria and offered some incentives to Putin by way of fifteen billion dollars worth of arms contracts, security against terror attacks from Saudi-funded Chechens during next year’s Winter Olympic Games to be played in Sochi and more. He is also believed to have offered an assurance that whatever regime came after Assad, the Saudis would not sign any contracts damaging Russian interests by allowing Gulf countries to transport their gas across Syria to Europe. Yet another conspiracy theory? Who knows.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.