Intervention in Syria and Putin’s Strategy by Moiffak Hassan
Intervention in Syria and Putin’s Strategy
Article publish on Souria Houria 2 april 2017 by Moiffak Hassan
Today Syria is a country occupied by 60 thousand Iranian revolutionary guards and their cronies, an armada of the Russian air and naval forces and Jihadists from the four corners of the earth. Does maintaining the Assad regime in power merit hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, sectarian massacres, millions of displaced and refugees, and dismantling entire populations in a country that is already largely destroyed. What precisely are the belligerents seeking?
The simple answer is that Moscow seeks to consolidate its position on the international scene and asserts its place in Europe. Its intervention in Syria is entirely consistent with the geopolitical strategy that Putin has implemented since his arrival to the Kremlin in 1999, through wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea.
The Russian intervention in Syria targets several objectives: Locally, Moscow has managed to maintain, at least temporarily, the regime in Damascus whose sole purpose is to legitimize its intervention and to strengthen its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. The so-called war against terrorism in Syria is a narrative primarily intended for Russian domestic consumption.
From a regional and international perspective, Putin’s intervention in Syria targets the European Union, which is viewed by Moscow as the bloc that prevents Russia from attaining the dominant position it seeks. To effect this strategy, he employs two highly efficient weapons: Destabilise and divide the European Union and increase its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Destabilize and divide
The Kremlin, through its well-lubricated propaganda machine, supports all ultra-nationalists, sovereigntists, and anti-Atlantic Alliance or anti-European movements operating in the various countries of the European Union. Its rapprochement with Turkey, a country exasperated by western countries’ open support of Kurdish combatants, is part of the same strategy. This rapprochement widens the fracture between Turkey and NATO, while it protects Russia’s 60% market share of Turkish gas imports, and also establishes a solid Russian presence along the Turkish energy road to Europe. Equally important, the rapprochement aims to marginalize the role of Iran in the Syrian conflict.
Increase the dependence of the EU on Russia
Since his arrival at the Kremlin, Putin endeavours to make Europe even more dependent on Russian oil and gas, which in 2016 already represented more than 40% of the European Union’s imports. This well-calculated chess game positions Putin to control the supply of gas to Europe and place Russia at an implacable strategic advantage. This objective is accomplished through a variety of mechanisms: by flooding the EU with Russian gas, by controlling gas supply routes to Europe and through shared investments in newly discovered gas fields in the countries neighbouring to Europe. Such investments give Russia both rights of access to resources and important decision-making powers for their development and utilisation.
Flood the EU with Russian gas
Russia has supplied 55 billion m3 per year of gas to Germany since 2012 through the Baltic Sea pipeline route “Nord Stream,” and has been negotiating with the EU to construct a second pipeline “Nord Stream II” which would double the annual capacity of gas deliveries to northern Europe to 110 billion m3. On the southern flank of Europe, Putin has succeeded in 2016 to seal an agreement with Turkey’s President Erdogan for the construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline, a sub-sea gas pipeline through the Black Sea to Eastern Thrace, which is designed for an annual capacity of some 60 billion m3. This project will deliver to the southern borders of Europe adequate quantities of gas supply needed to effectively stifle competition from sources outside of Russian control, such as the Caspian Sea basin (Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan). In this way, Russia aims to place Europe in the centre of a pincer movement, and thereby reduce its opportunities for gas supply diversification from other sources.
A Russian military presence in Syria will make it difficult, if not impossible, to supply Qatari and Iranian gas to Turkey and Europe, by pipelines, through Syria without Putin’s blessing. It’s worth noting that that Qatar, alone, has a larger gas export potential than Russia and could constitute a rival of size.
It equally worthy of note that Putin’s « pacification » of Chechnya aimed in particular at ensuring sustainability, security and control of the Northern Caucasian Corridor in order to secure the passage of pipelines to Russian oil export terminals bordering the Black Sea. The Russo-Georgian wars of 2008 and 2010 were driven, among other things, by a Russian reaction to the decision of Western companies which operate in the Caspian area to build pipelines that deliver their oil and gas production to international market, not through Russia, as Putin would have preferred, but instead via Georgia and Turkey.
On the occasion of these wars, Putin seized the Black Sea Georgian coast of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which threatened to stifle Georgia and to render the south Caucasian corridor unsafe for the passage of pipelines. In this light, is not the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 simply one step further in Putin’s Reconquista of the Black Sea, which is today an inevitable transit route for oil and gas exports for the whole region?
The large discoveries of gas in the marine economic zones of Israel, Cyprus, Egypt and Libya, have increased the geostrategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean region to Russia due to the size of its gas resources and its proximity to the European and Turkish markets.
While all minds were focused on military operations in Syria, Russia concluded a series of strategic agreements with these Eastern Mediterranean countries. The Russian company Soyuzneftgaz, had already signed a production sharing agreement in 2013 to explore the Syrian offshore.
Gazprom, the right arm of Putin, has been negotiating since 2013 with the Israeli Government for a 30% equity participation in the Israeli gas discoveries made between the Israeli coast and Cyprus. Russia has also proposed its technical and financial assistance to the Government of Cyprus for the exploitation of its gas field “Aphrodite,” and the establishment of a Russian naval base on the southern coast of the island. A naval base in Cyprus alongside that of Tartous in Syria would ensure a hegemonic presence of the Russian navy in the Eastern Mediterranean, which would immediately constitute a provocation to the western world.
Not surprisingly, the reaction of the United States was swift. John Biden visited Israel in March 2016 to convince Netanyahu to abandon Gazprom’s proposal in favour of an agreement with Turkey’s Erdogan. Such an agreement would reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas, and implied that the United States would also support the sales of sophisticated Israeli arms to Turkey.
Anticipating difficulties in finalizing their proposed agreement with the Israelis, Putin pushed in December 2016 that Rosneft, another Russian giant, to conclude an agreement with Egypt for an equity participation of 30% in the giant « Zohr » gas field discovered offshore of Egypt by ENI in 2015.
Various indications suggest that Russia is preparing its return to Libya, a country that has considerable oil and gas reserves and viable production potential, and is already a gas exporter to Italy by pipeline. Because the country is already destroyed and divided, it would be an easy target for Russian interests. General Haftar, the current strong man in the eastern part of Libya, has already had several discussions with Putin. One can safely conclude that such discussions would focus on helping Hafter market oil under his control, in order to generate the revenues needed to finance his armed struggle against the Libyan coalition in Tripoli, which was put in place by the United Nations.
Despite the official discourse of Assad and Putin, which criticize Qatar for its support to the “terrorist » opponents of the Syrian regime, Putin has actually authorized Qatar to acquire a 19,5% stake in the Russian company Rosneft in October 2016, for an amount of $11.5 billion USD. This agreement is highly strategic: It injects fresh funds into the Russian budget, which has been significantly weakened by western sanctions and recent drops in oil and gas prices. In addition, the agreement would facilitate access to new markets, while potentially boosting Russian oil exports, all to the detriment of Saudi Arabia, the main oil exporting rival of Russia. Beyond this partnership, it’s quite possible that Russia could be preparing the grounds for the reconstruction of Syria with the financial participation of Qatar and other Gulf countries.
Through shared investments and well targeted alliances, Putin’s Russia clearly seeks to become a common denominator in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean and gain the dominant place it covets in Europe. In Putin’s mind, the intervention in Syria is simply a variable in the larger Russian equation, whereby the ends always justify the means. Yesterday it was Chechnya; today it is Syria. Where tomorrow?
Moiffak Hassan – Petroleum Consultant