NATO: Is Syria about the oil?

A Point of View, Middle East & North Africa, Syria, Syria | | August 12, 2012 at 10:10

Updated! Is so much Potential Oil and Gas: So Close & Yet So Far Away! How much does access to oil resources in the region influence NATO’s decisions about direct military intervention in Syria?
contributed by @PicoBee

Figure1: Existing oil and gas pipelines transiting through and near Syria. Figure 2: Projected OIl production from Iraq.

Pipelines, Pipelines, Pipelines and New Discoveries off Israeli and Lebanese Shores

Although many analysts note that Syria itself does not produce a large amount of oil, it is critically located for the transit of oil and gas out of both Iraq and Iran via 2 pipelines. Currently, the Kirkuk-Baniyas (Fig. 1) pipeline transits through Syria and ends at the Port of Baniyas which happens to be a mere 30 minutes North of the Port of Tartus, site of Russia’s sole Sea Port in the Mediterranean This pipeline is currently closed, but presumably could be reopened. And the Iraq-Turkey pipeline passes just North of Syria’s border with Turkey (1,2).

Securing these two transit routes for oil and gas out of Iraq would both give the West (i.e. NATO and European countries) improved reliable access to oil and gas resources as well as reduce their vulnerability to the political climate in Iran and any threats to oil and gas flow through the Strait of Hormuz (3). Indeed, according to Business Week, oil production from Iraq is set to increase dramatically, and Iraq is on-track to becoming the second largest oil-producing country in OPEC (Fig.2: 4,5).


Figure 3: The Levantine natural gas field off the shores of Israel and Lebanon (9). Figure 4: South Stream Pipeline (blue) through the Black Sea (14).

Although the security situation in Iraq is still somewhat unstable, it should be noted that Internet access throughout the country is also set to boom due to the recent completion of a sub sea cable by Gulf Bridge International. Internet
access, long below 5% for most of the country, is expected to rise to 50% within the next two years (6,7).

Second, Syria is near the Levantine basin (Fig. 3), a relatively newly discovered massive natural gas field off the shores of Israel and Lebanon, as well as Cyprus. This field has recently reported to contain some 8 Trillion cubic feet of high-grade natural gas (8,9,10). President Putin is currently visiting Israel, Palestine and Jordan (11). Was development of the Levantine Basin among items he discussed with Israel’s leadership? Both the European Union and Russia are reportedly actively competing to secure investment in this region (12,13).

Third, in December Russia announced it has secured a deal with the Turkish government, and it is moving forward with the construction of the South Stream Pipeline (Fig.2) to transport gas to Europe under the Black Sea. Europe currently depends upon Russia to supply ~50% of its energy needs, and that number is predicted to rise to some ~70% within the next 15 years (14,15).

All of these potential resources, none fully realized, are located in an area in which the security situation is currently abysmal. Obviously, their future development depends upon a stable security environment. Pipelines and oil fields surely are acutely vulnerable to sabotage by bombing. Also, as has been pointed out repeatedly, aggressive military action risks further destabilizing Syria’s near neighbors Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. At a time when Iraq is finally perhaps beginning to turn a corner and look forward to its future economic development – evidenced by a recent public auction of access to development of oil and gas fields – it would be a major setback should the horrific violence in Syria spill over and further disrupt whatever fragile stability may be taking hold there (16,17).

The presence of existing pipelines so near Syrian territory argues against aggressive military intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is anybody’s guess, however, what weight the potential risk of damaging or disrupting oil and gas projects located in and near Syria have had on NATO’s decision not to directly intervene militarily in Syria, i.e. bring in the big guns. This consideration adds to the potential risk of backlash against NATO/Western assets across the globe; the repeated objections by several Arab League States to any military campaign directed by NATO forces; and the reality that should NATO intervene directly, it would be responsible for the consequences (18). Also, given Russia’s continued strong support of the Assad regime, aggressive military action in Syria by the West risks putting NATO in direct conflict with Russia. It should also be noted that NATO found itself short of munitions during its air campaign in Libya (16).

NATO’s secretary general has been consistently adamant that it will not intervene militarily in Syria (20). Rather, if a military option were being pursued by NATO, it would possibly be two-fold: 1) containment of conflict within the region and 2) support of a low-grade resistance, directed by the “Free Syrian Army,” with the support of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. On the containment front, for example, NATO has moved a significant number of troops to Jordan and has held joint military operations with the Jordanian Army in an exercise called “Operation Eager Lion 2012” involving some 12,000 troops (21). NATO also declared that its radar station in Southern Turkey is fully operational in February (22). As a counter perhaps, Russia announced it had upgraded a radar station in Syria just South of Damascus (23). With respect to support of a low-grade resistance movement, this plan was publicly ‘telegraphed’ by none other than Zbigniew Brzenzinski just before the first “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia in February (24). And clearly Saudi Arabia has announced its willingness to provide materiel support to the Free Syrian Army (25).

There are several outcomes for the people of Syria. The resistance will prevail, and the Assad regime will be toppled. The Assad regime will retain power over the whole country. Or last, Syria will become “Balkanized,” partitioned into Alawite and non-Alawite regions (26,27). Whatever the outcome, what is certain is that the horrific violence roiling through Syria for over a year now will claim many more victims.


(1) Guardian: Iran Oil Exports: Where do they go?
(2) Asia Times Online: Is a Post-Assad MegaPipeline in the works? The Oil Road Through Damascus.
3) HaaretzOnline: Iraq approves Hormuz oil exports contingency plan
(4) Bloomberg Businessweek: Again a power in OPEC, Iraq could shift landscape- on track to become 2nd largest producer of oil from OPEC
(5) Iraq’s Oil and the Future
(6) New York Times: Iraq Emerges From Isolation as Telecommunications Hub
(7) Iraq Business News: Undersea Cable to Boost Iraq’s Links
(8) Oil and Gas Journal: “Noble group drills sixth Levant basin gas discovery”
(9) The Santos Republic: Add OIL & GAS Context: The Levantine Basin, A Geopolitical Curse of Israel-Lebanon-Syria-Greece-Turkey-Cyprus Part 1
(10) New Mediterranean Oil and Gas Bonanza
(11) New York Times: Iran and Syria discussed in Putin’s visit to Israel
(12) Offshore Magazine: Countries Jostle for Investment as Deepwater Gas Play Builds
(13) EU Institute for Security Studies: Russian Policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Implications for EU External Action
(14) BBC News: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the move after Turkey gave permission for the South Stream gas pipeline to be built under its waters.
(15) Rethinking Russia: Russia and Europe’s Mutual Energy Dependence
(16) Oil and Gas Journal: Valeura gets Turkish licenses Near Iraq and Syria
(17) Fox Business: Iraq to Hold New Energy Licensing Auction 2012-13 – Oil Official
(18) France24: The Interview: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Former US National Security Advisor
(19) New York Times: NATO Sees Flaws in Air Campaign Against Qaddafi
(20) National Post: Intervention in Syria ‘not the right path:’ NATO Chief
(21)  CNN: Thousands Amass in Jordan for Major Military Exercise
(22) US has missile radar site in Turkey
(23) Washington Times: Russia Upgrades Radar Station in Syria to Aid Iran
(24) CBS News: Brzezinski concerned about American ignorance
(25) The Independent: Exclusive: Arab States Arm Rebels as UN talks of Syrian civil war
(26) VOA News: Britain Warns Syria Follows Path of Balkans
(27) AL Monitor: “As Times Runs out for Syrian Regime, Assad Poised to Establish ‘Alawite Enclave’”

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