Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Battle Against IS: Why Iran and Assad's Syria are not part of a Diplomatic Initiative.

'A rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would help to ease conflicts and tension across the Middle East. The US and UK are now tentatively reaching out to Iran, and should use their influence to facilitate Saudi-Iranian co-operation', The Guardian.
Drawing in Iran into diplomatic negotiations on Syria is vital. It's unlikely though as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are rivalling each other for influence in any post-Assad future and the US and Britain have backed them because of lucrative arms deals and the fact Saudi Arabia provides 10% of US crude oil imports.

The two main European military powers, Britain and France, increasingly rely upon liquefied natural gas imports from Qatar and have strong bilateral trade relations with the gas rich emirate. If Qatar decides Iran and Assad would not be part of negotiations for a political settlement, then it would not happen.

The Qatari position is that Iran has a 'role to play' but still that 'Assad must go', as if it was only the leader alonne and not the coalition of interests that back him and the degree of support he is bound to have from minorities in the south in and around Damascus as a bulwark against IS.

Iran, on its part, maintains that it is through Assad that democratic reforms could be put forwards as part of a transition process and this had been scuppered by mistakes made by Assad's police back in 2011 and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel for trying to make Syria’s government collapse.

The rivalry between Iran and Qatar is not merely about sectarian differences or regional influence out of insecurity and misunderstandings but about the geopolitics of economics and energy. These were factors of vital importance in the continuation of the Afghanistan War and in the Syrian Conflict.

Put simply, Iran and Qatar share the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf and have sought the possibility of constructing a gas pipeline westwards towards Europe as part of a geostrategic attempt to consolidate regional influence; in Iran's case it would increase its diplomatic bargaining power.

Qatar wanted a Qatar-Turkey pipeline as early as 2009 via Syria but Iran has sought a pipeline via a Shi'ite dominated Iraq towards the Eastern Mediterranean where Russia has both a naval presence and Gazprom has sought to develop Syrian offshore gas fields with Assad's permission.

The West is hostile to Iranian ambitions for a 'Shi'ite pipeline running through a Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad and a Syria run by Assad, who signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2012 with regards realising the construction of the pipeline with Iran which was joined in early 2013 by Iraq.

Britain, France and the US, 'Friends of Syria' since 2012, regard that strategy as hostile to its interests in the Middle East. Qatari gas is regarded as essential to make up an important and growing part of the EU's gas imports so as to diversify suppplies away from Russia as made clear during Kerry's visit to Doha in April 2014.

The geopolitics of energy, not least in light of the collapse of Libya and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, has raised the stakes over Syria. With sanctions on Iran and the attempt to thwart the export of Iranian gas east through the IP pipeline, Iran has a vital interest in Syria that the Gulf states oppose completely.

From the perspective of both Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, it is better that the proxy war goes on in Syria and Iraq than either side gets the upper hand: the only reason both resource rich Sunni states have started to regard IS as a threat is the fear of blowback affecting their own lands.

From Saudi Arabia's perspective, it has no interest in peace in Syria if it means either Qatar or Iran gains a dominant influence because it fears Qatar and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, though not quite as much as it fears Iran and its backing for Shi'ites, many of whom live in the kingdom's oil producing zones.

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