Friday, 20 June 2014

Iraq: ISIS, Turkey and Western Oil and Gas Interests

President Obama's decision to send 300 “military advisers” to help Iraq's army to drive back ISIS is primarily concerned with preventing the Sunni jihadists from advancing too far into Iraq and endangering the interests for which the US invaded Iraq in 2003, most obviously the oil.

No Great Power has an interest in ISIS menacing the oil fields in and around Baghdad or to the south in the highly unlikely event that ISIS would be able to overthrow the Maliki government. But the surge southwards of ISIS was made possible by the tacit acquiescence of the Kurdish militias and other Sunni groups.

The reason is that the authorities in the Kurdish region wanted to seize Kirkuk and hasten the break up of Iraq into three separate regions the better to control its great oil wealth. This policy has been backed by Turkey which has connived with the Kurds to sell crude oil without Baghdad’s authorisation.

As for the Sunni tribes in the north and east of Iraq, they are prepared to use any means of getting rid of a Shi'ite government viewed not only as apostates in league with Iran but of monopolising the oil wealth and revenues of an Iraqi state they have had no particular interest in defending.

The capture of Mosul and Tikrit by ISIS could only have been possible not only with a nod from the Kurdish militias but from Sunni militants and the tribes that supported Saddam Hussein. Yet back in January 2014 the US was advocating 'restrained approach' towards ISIS when it took Fallujah.

One reason is the Obama administration started to see the benefits of greater Kurdish autonomy from Baghdad and so lobbied and showed support for a new oil deal that would allow the Kurds to export 300,000 barrels a day along pipelines leading from the Kurdish region through Turkey.

When Washington and London calls for Maliki to rule in a 'non-sectarian' manner as a condition for military assistance, the unspoken agenda is to push Baghdad towards scrapping the de-Baathification program and to be reach out to those who supported Saddam Hussein.

From that perspective, the surge of ISIS provided an opportunity for the US and its Turkey to push for greater Kurdish autonomy and crude oil exports not only to US oil refineries but also to Israel which all sales of oil to are officially banned by the Iraqi government.

Despite accusations that Turkey turned a blind eye to ISIS, in so far as it has caused havoc for a Shi'ite government supported by Iran it has proved beneficial in furthering a reapprochement between Ankara and the Kurds after decades of hostilities with the Kurds now regarded as 'our Iraqi brothers'.

Apart from the flow of oil through Turkey and on to Europe, Turkey has profited from growing construction and trade links in Kurdistan and Erdogan announced he is "open to a divided Iraq" and his advisers claim that ISIS is a 'product' of Maliki's sectarianism as opposed to it and its Sunni allies foreign policies.

While Washington and London claim that ISIS could threaten not only Iraq but also the US and Britain, the fact is that both the Obama administration and the Cameron government were prepared to view Sunni jihadist groups as also somewhat useful in checking Iranian regional interests.

The truth that the public in Britain and the US are not being told is that whatever terrorist threat ISIS poses is a consequence of Washington and London ignoring its allies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar bankrolling it in Iraq against Shi'ite militias and Sunni jihadists in Syria to overthrow Assad.

The reason for this failed foreign policy and the threat of terrorist blowback is the pathological struggle for control over oil and gas export routes. The tacit backing for Sunni jihadist fanatics in Syria from Washington and London lies ultimately in energy geopolitics. 

The readiness to support Sunni jihadists in northern Syria against Assad in a way that spawned ISIS's power base has its origins not in the policy of containing Iran but of removing a government prepared to co-operate with Russia in the exploitation of the gas of the Levant basin. 
In December 2013, Russia’s SoyuzNefteGaz signed a $90 million deal to support Syria’s first offshore drilling attempt. Not only did that outrage the Syrian opposition but it also poses a threat to the interests of their backers and US and Britain's allies- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan.

Turkey took Ukraine's side after Russia's annexation of the Crimea which threatens its role as a predominant NATO power in the Black Sea region. In turn, this has driven Iran closer to Moscow and led to fears of a Russia-Syria-Iraq-Iran axis of influence to rival Western alliances in the Middle East.

While ISIS's surge south raises nightmare concerns of a global oil price spike, its threat offers the opportunity for the US and Turkey to detach the Kurdish region further from Iranian influenced Baghdad, though Washington has so far pulled short of demanding Maliki's departure as the condition for military assistance.

The US is hardly likely to want to join Iran in rolling back the threat of ISIS even if domestic hawks are demanding greater military action and the need to remove Maliki. Such a policy could only be enforced by committing itself to increased military intervention that could draw it into conflict with Tehran.

On the other hand, if Iran commits to a military intervention, then Turkey would be bound to back Sunni militants and its Kurdish allies as a counter measure and with the support of Qatar and Saudi Arabia which have both warned the US to stay out of Iraq and that shoring up Maliki would be seen as a 'hostile act' against Sunni muslims.

The appalling danger of the Syria and Iraq conflict is that it is is drawing in the regional powers further into a clash  which could drag in those global power players that are vying for access to the oil and gas that drives their economies and is causing collisions of interest and growing insecurity.

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