Monday, 8 September 2014

The Third Iraq War: Continuity and Change between 2004-2014

“This is a galvanizing moment for NATO and our partners”-US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel

President Obama is finalising plan to 'degrade and destroy' the Islamic State which he and other leaders refer to as ISIL in Iraq. However, there are hawkish voices demanding that air strikes should be broadened out into Syria and that would not mean involving Assad's permission though he is still officially head of state.

The call to go in and bomb IS in Syria where it has its base in and around Raqqa reflects the fact that despite the emergence of IS out of the Sunni militant groups, which were being backed until late 2013, the aim of US strategy in the longer term is to remove Assad in continuity with the demand made by early 2012.

The goals of the Second Iraq War in 2003, launched by the Bush administration, were energy security and to create a domino effect of democratisation across the region from Iraq into Syria so as to reduce US dependence upon Saudi Arabian oil in the period before the shale oil revolution in North America. 

Needless to say, the democratisation of Iraq by 2005 had got under way but in the context of a collapsed state. Sectarian and ethnic tensions shattered Iraq and the created chaos and conflicts that have gone on ever since: IS in Iraq could only gain ground in 2014 as Sunni Arabs were prepared to align with it.

Sunni Arabs were marginalised by the dominance of the Iraqi Shi'ites in Baghdad, who lean towards Iran, and the development of an ever more autonomous Kurdish region prepared to sell oil and strike oil contract deals with global energy giants ( such as ExxonMobil ) without the permission of the central government.

Yet the energy security issue remained unsolved because IS has gained what Obama euphemistically termed 'resources'. That means, of course, oil. From oil revenues IS could sustain attacks on the Kurdish oil rich region or even to surge south towards Baghdad or around it down further.

Such a disruption to the oil supply would create a severe increase in global oil prices at a time when the US and especially other NATO nations are experiencing very slow economic growth or have had stagnating economies in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

One reason the US is going in with air strikes, and is due to step them up with NATO nations playing a possible auxiliary role, is to give NATO nations a new sense of mission against a threat to the southern border and to gear it towards the main challenge of the 21st century: resource wars.

Such air strikes would be partly about showing NATO 'credibility' on the borders of southern Turkey and starting to recreate NATO definitively into an organisation that could use military power to defend energy interests and uphold its alliances in the Middle East by protecting Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Even though both these energy rich Gulf states could defend themselves with the state-of-the-art military equipment sold to them by the US, Britain and France, these powers are reluctant to be seen attacking other Sunni Muslims in lands not so far away lest it cause resentment among the people. 

Islamic State is a primarily a regional threat. Though the gory spectacles, mass killings of minorities and ambition to expand the Caliphate is real, the US and other western powers only started to act when it was clear IS posed a threat to the oil producing regions of Kurdistan, hitherto thought of as relatively secure.

That strategy against Islamic State mean rolling back IS in Iraq and broadening strikes into Syria too if necessary because the 'game plan' as regards it is still as it was before to impose a 'moderate' Muslim Brotherhood government on Damascus, overthrow Assad and check Iranian and Russian influence.

The last thing the US, Britain and France would want is to destroy IS only to empower and embolden Assad and Iran so they could realise the plan to build the 'Shi'ite Islamic' gas pipeline from the South Pars gas field to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Already Russia has a naval presence at the Syrian port of Tarsaus and permission to drill and exploit the gas reserves in the Syrian part of the Levant Basin. A gas pipeline linking Iranian gas through Syria as an alternative to the Qatari -Turkish one to the EU is this to be blocked off and thwarted at all costs.

In this sense there is a certain connection between the conflict in Ukraine and in Syria. If the US or NATO were to bomb positions in Syria, even if held by IS, this would be a violation of sovereignty by NATO far more than Russia's incursions into Eastern Ukraine and the backing given to "pro-Russia rebels".

Yet Syria's territorial sovereignty was effectively violated when Turkey started arming and training Sunni jihadists to go across the border to overthrow Assad and there is evidence Turkish forces in March 2014 had planned military incursions into northern Syria to protect the tomb of Shah Suleiman.

The protection of the site where the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire was under threat by ISIS was important to Erdogan who has pursued a neo-Ottoman strategy towards both Syria and Kurdistan, both former provinces before World War One and valuable for recreating Turkey as an east-west energy hub.

It is is clear, therefore, that energy security and control over oil and gas transit routes are the predominant factor in  contemporary geopolitical struggles in the Greater Middle East and the quest for both regional and global hegemony. Any account which omits mention of these factors ignores reality.

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