The Great Game: Syria Edition

Shockingly, the American foreign policy establishment seems convinced the war in Syria is about freedom and democracy, despite the fact the rebels are probably worse than Assad. Those rebels would not exist without Saudi and GCC money and arms. On the other hand, Assad would be sleeping with Muhamar Qaddafi if not for Russian money and arms. There are reports that Iran has sent revolutionary Guard units to bolster Assad’s army. Out another way, there are no Jeffersonian democrats in the thing.

More important, the civil war in Syria is a proxy war. It is not about the specific events within Syria, but about the money men backing the actors. In this case, it is Iran and Saudi Arabia, Shia and Sunni, but also Russia, Europe and the United States.Like central Europe in the Thirty Years war, Syria is the chess board on which the game is played but the great power of this age. The fact that the most powerful player is the least realistic about what’s happening should be the great cause for concern.

This piece from the Financial Times goes into the other level of the game. The Euros, Russians and Chinese are not involved because they have an ideological interest. They are not there to promote freedom and democracy. The reason is for them to be involved is natural gas. The Russians, through Gazprom, control about a third of the natural gas supply to Europe. The Chinese have an insatiable appetite for natural resources, so they are involved. Europe, of course, is dependent on energy from the Middle East.

Iran shares an enormous natural gas field with the GCC countries. They would like to sell it to Europe. Building facilities to liquify it and ship it over sea to Europe is not practical for them. Instead, running a pipeline north through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Black Sea is a cheaper and faster option. Running through Iraq to Syrian ports on the Mediterranean would be even better. Russia would then have a customer for their arms, regain Iraq as a client and dominate the natural gas market into Europe.

Following the money makes it easy to see the Russian interests. On the other side, the Saudis have a similar set of interests. The Saudis understand better than anyone that oil is going to be replaced by gas as the primary energy source in the world. Within a decade refineries will be on-line that produce gasoline from natural gas at prices cheaper than crude. Therefore Saudi Arabia, along with the GCC countries, are looking to build their own natural gas pipeline to Europe.

Their pipeline could head in two different routes. One would lead from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq to Turkey. The other would go through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey. I don’t think you have to be that clever to see why the Saudis and GCC are invested in Syria. If their ideological buddies win then it makes building their pipeline a better option than the Iranian pipeline. Inevitably, money and resources would swing in their favor. It also has the benefit of cutting the legs out from under Iran too.

The one player not in it for geopolitical reasons is the United States. That’s because the American foreign policy elite is neoconservative nuttery. There are people like John McCain, their heads are full of fantasies about spreading democracy, demanding we support the Islamist rebels. John McCain has been wrong about everything in the last three decades, but he just waves his POW-MIA flag and everyone runs for cover. He has the full backing of the Israeli lobby, who support American war on their enemies.

The thing is, the rest of the world figures they can wait out the Americans, who will get tired of spending blood and treasure on pointless wars. Obama’s election was, in part, a reaction to the disasters of the Bush years. Americans figured out they were conned into pointless wars on behalf of Israel. They don’t think of it exactly that way, but that is the reality of it. At some level, white people have figured out that the neoconservatives don’t seem to have our interests in the front of their mind. It’s heresy, so it goes unsaid.

That means the rest of the world can safely ignore the US, while they sort the mess out themselves. This is not a terrible outcome. Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires and we have been mired there for a dozen years. The Levant was nothing but trouble for the Romans and the British. The lesson of history is to stay out of these tribal lands and do what is required to keep them in their own lands. If the great game in Syria restores the old order of aggressive containment, that would be a pretty good result.