Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Kurdish Question and the New Great Game for Oil and Gas in the Near East.

The siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria demonstrates the futility of thinking air strikes alone could decisively make a difference to the war on the ground. Sunni jihadists are advancing as opposed to retreating in the absence of any coordinated political response to defeating 'Islamic State'.

The US was prepared to launch air strikes in Syria because it regards defeating 'ISIL' in Iraq as the overriding priority. Britain, however, has been reluctant to because, far more than Washington, London is very anxious about pleasing Qatar and so its main regional ally in Turkey.

The US is mostly concerned with ensuring Iraq does not collapse because that would endanger Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well as defeating the main strategic aim and gain of the Second Iraq War in ensuring increased Iraqi oil production, stable oil prices and relatively cheap consumer goods imported from Asia.

While most western states share US energy interests in this regard, Britain and France are far more beholden to Qatari-Turkish geopolitical strategies which seek to rival Russia and Iran in Iraq and especially Syria where there is competition for influence over the gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Discovered in 2009-2010, the Levant basin has led to renewed regional rivalries which cut across the old Cold War lines and led Turkey into increased hostility towards Greek Cypriot claims to the Aphrodite gas fields lying off the coast of Cyprus as well as the enmity shown towards Israel.

Turkey has clashed with Israel over its wars against the Sunni Palestinian Muslims of Gaza, one which is crucially concerned with protecting Israeli gas interests as well as over the way Israel has shown interest in cooperating with Russia to exploit its gas and pipe it via Cyprus and so by pass Turkey completely.

Turkey and Qatar from the outset of the conflict in 2011 between Assad and Sunni rebel groups backed the latter so as to realise such designs such as a Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline and to exert more control over the development of Syria's offshore gas against Russian influence and domination.

Turkey has developed what Norman Stone calls a 'neo-Ottoman' policy, one in which Sunni Arab and Sunni Muslim interests are courted by Erdogan to win domestic support and that of regions with the oil and gas resources Turkey lacks and would like to control from Lebanon to Syria and into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yet Ankara, in fact, has shown reluctance to be involved in any military effort to defeat ISIS that would empower the Kurdish YGP fighters in Syria. Yet it is courting Barzani's Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq so as to draw it into an economic partnership based on Turkey becoming an major energy export route.

The double game played by Erdogan is about benefiting from Kurdish oil while trying to keep a lid on moves for independence to the west in Syria, where the YGP is in battle with ISIS over border regions with oil, and southern Turkey, where there is little oil and every benefit in unifying with regions which have it in abundance.

The worst scenario for Turkey would be that their support for Barzani in Iraqi Kurdistan and the fate of the Kurds in Syria fighting ISIS along with the US could lead to demands for a Greater Kurdistan, one reason Erdogan and Turkish government officials have compared the terrorist threat of ISIS with that of the PKK.

Kurdish Iraq with its capital Erbil has become one of the globe's most lucrative oil regions and the increased wealth it has developed and its ability to defend itself against ISIS is bound to be regarded as an indication of the sort of security and prosperity the Kurds in Syria and Turkey could have as well.

Already Kurdish Iraq is moving ever closer towards independence from Baghdad and wanting something in return for hosting western multinational oil corporations such as Exxon Mobil and beating back ISIS from the Mosul Dam and so saving the Iraqi state from potential destruction.

The Kurds consist of up to thirty million people spread across the Middle East from Turkey, through Syria and Iraq into the western parts of Iran. They could well be regarded as the world's largest ethnic group without a state in an age when the West has supported self-determination in places such as Kosovo.

As the states of Iraq and Syria created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War by France and Britain disintegrate, Turkey has moved towards asserting its influence in both in opposition to ISIS which has countered the neo-Ottoman strategy with its own version of the Caliphate.

While Turkey's claims as a regional power depend upon retaining a 'state-nation' based on ethnic and religious diversity, ISIS detests the Ottoman Empire as a fake usurper of the caliph's position which became an office absorbed into the Sultan's power when it the 'real' Islamic empire was essentially a Sunni Arab one.

The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 but for Sunni Arabs in Iraq who lost out to the Shia and the Kurds after Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, the symbol of lost unity and the fact ISIS is using oil revenues to fund welfare for Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq is giving it some appeal.

Saddam's regime was one dominated by the Sunni Arabs. ISIS is ruled and run by former members of the secular Baath Party who converted to radical jihadi-Islamist in American prisons where the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdad was also detained. In a sense, ISIS is the expression of a radical Sunni Arab nationalism.

The Kurds are Sunni Muslims but would prefer the promise of self determination to be realised in their case as one of the USA's most steadfast allies in the region, one reason Israel as a non-Arab state has gone further than America in calling for Kurdistan to be a made an independent republic.

Turkey, however, has little interest in supporting any western military effort that would end up empowering the Kurds in Syria such as arming or training their troops. Arming them would mean the weapons could be turned against Turkey. But Kurdish fighters are the only force that could defeat ISIS in northern Syria.

The Free Syria Army is, as Patrick Cockburn has pointed out, nothing more that a CIA led group since Sunni militants splintered off from it to fight against both it and Assad and the Kurds. The idea it could act as a 'third force' to destroy ISIS or Assad's military is a piece of abstract geopolitical fiction.

The only way to defeat ISIS has to involve a truce between Assad and the FSA and Syrian National Council or else, by default, ISIS and Sunni militants such as Al Nusra are bound to be the only powerful ground force in northern Syria apart from the Kurds whose fighters are deeply distrusted by Turkey.

Indeed, in the summer of 2013 the FSA and ISIS were aligned in fighting against the Kurds as the YGP had gained strength from Assad's decision to withdraw government forces from the north as part of a strategy to divert Sunni forces away from advancing on to Damascus-and it worked.

Consequently, the YPG and the FSA regard each other as enemies. The Syrian National Council and its backers regard all oil and gas resources in Syria as theirs to develop. They have no interest in either the Kurds or ISIS gaining the Rumelian oil field both are battling to control.

Moreover, neither Qatar nor Turkey have any interest in ISIS being destroyed if Assad benefits because of the ongoing proxy conflict between them and Iran because it seeks a rival pipeline route from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean and then on to global markets to export gas.

Britain and France, the two foremost military powers in the EU, would still prefer Assad to be overthrown. They have lucrative arms deals with Qatar and would benefit from a gas route which avoided the export of LNG via the Iranian controlled Straits of Hormuz and reduced EU dependence upon Russia gas.

That threat of dependence has increased since the fall of Tripoli in Libya into the hands of Islamist militants. It was increased also by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the potential break away of the eastern regions of Ukraine which has removed from potential western control a major east-west transit zone.

Turkey's attempt to become a southern energy corridor, now that Ukraine has descended into conflict is, however, endangered by a similar problem of ethnic irredentism among the Kurds who are fleeing into Turkey in large numbers from Syria as ISIS drives them from their villages and towns.

The Kurds are growing increasing outraged at Ankara's double standards in having allowed jihadists as violent and fanatical as those fighting for Al Nusra to enter Syria from Turkey but trying to prevent Turkish Kurds fighting in support of those being menaced by ISIS in Kobani. This has caused riots on the border

So the west is hamstrung by Turkey being a NATO member which has no interest in the Kurds gaining the upper hand in Syria over ISIS. At the same time it remains the only military force in practice which could repel the jihadists back away from the border with southern Turkey.

One reason why Turkey created a 20km security zone in Syria was to protect a NATO border from Sunni Islamist militants and be in a position to defend the highly symbolic tomb of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire, from being destroyed by ISIS which have threatened it several times.

However, Kurdish factions, especially the PKK with whom Turkey had a conflict with from the 1980s until recently, regards the Turkish security measures as an attempt to create a 'buffer zone' between Turkey and the Islamic state at the expense of the Kurdish people who they are allowing to be ethnically cleansed.

As a consequence, if the Kurdish enclaves fall, not only would NATO and the west be seen as 'doing nothing' about the slaughter of Kurds in northern Syria while arming them in Iraq. ISIS could well advance up to the border with Turkey and try to provoke the ground jihad with the west they want in Syria and Iraq.

The sad reality is the suffering of civilians in Syria has always been a secondary consideration to geopolitical energy interests on all sides in this conflict. The emergence of ISIS would have led all external powers to unite in defeating it if a ruthless geopolitical competition over access to resources were not at stake

All these factors have made for a protracted multi-faceted conflict in which the most brutal and effective force can win out if it controls Syria's resources and finance itself to get the weapons and recruits that it needs to have towards fighting towards that end. There is no end to the bloodshed in sight.


  1. Just discovered you via Tom Englehardt. We actually have been working along parallel tracks regarding the "New Great Game". My interests have focused on Central Asia, the US stakes in that region, and the "New Silk Road" energy circuits. Keep up the excellent work!!

  2. Thanks Allen. There is an important work by Lutz Kleveman on the New Great Game in Central Asia which back in 2003 had Afghan officials on record as stating how important the Trans-Afghan pipeline was to the US's geostrategic designs in Central Asia and the Greater Middle East. Much of it is part of a plan to contain Iran and the spread of its regional influence. The same is true in Syria. None of this gets anywhere near enough mention in the media, though in reality it is this struggle which explains 'contemporary history'. The next interesting place to watch, apart from.the Greater Middle East and Central Asia is more specifically the Eastern Mediterranean and the scramble for the oil and gas reserves there since 2010. Not only has this intensified the Israeli-Palestine conflict with Gaza, it has rekindled tensions between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus and divvying up the oil reserves of the Aphrodite field. Turkey is hostile to Israel and Egypt with Russia also having a revived role in the region as the US has sought its 'Pivot to Asia' . The second region to look out for is Asia-Pacific as the US tries to contain China through building up an alliance network of states through weapons sales and bilateral naval ties, including even Vietnam. The goal one more is control over sea lanes from the Middle East to China which supply China with oil and gas. This complements the overland rivalry in Central Asia and pipeline routes there.