Syria: The energy crossroads that never was

Bashar al-Assad once envisioned Syria as a future hub of oil transport in the region – a 'four seas strategy' to connect the region's major oil players to European markets. After two and a half years of civil war, that plan appears all but lost.

By , Staff writer

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    A satellite image shows a pipeline fire in Homs, Syria in February 2012. Conflicts have left plans for new oil and gas pipelines in the region in various states of disarray.
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Syria may not have a lot of oil, but it's in the middle of countries that do.

That's why the Bashar al-Assad regime worked for years to make it an energy transit hub, bringing oil and gas from the energy-rich Middle East to the fringes of energy-hungry Europe. But external politics and internal strife have rendered that vision moot. Whoever emerges to lead post-civil war Syria will have to resurrect some version of the idea, because the current energy landscape isn't fueling Syrian economic development – something Mr. Assad knew only too well.

"He understood that if he couldn’t make growth [happen] he was going to fail," Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said in a telephone interview. "He had a giant youth population, and a giant unemployment problem, and no growth."

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The Middle East is full of pipeline dreams that are announced with much political hope but little underlying support from the realities on the ground. Pipelines are expensive to build. They're hard to maintain, especially in volatile regions. Just because countries have lots of resources doesn't mean they have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of them. Despite all this, Syria does have certain geographical advantages that could make it a pipeline hub.    

In 2009, Assad unveiled a "four seas strategy" that would connect the Persian Gulf and the Black, Caspian, and Mediterranean seas via pipelines and other infrastructure through Syria. It was always a little grandiose. The land bridge to Europe is Turkey, not Syria. Iran, which doesn't share a border with Syria, already trades energy or has the capacity to trade energy with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, and Russia.

"[The "four seas" strategy] looks great on a map, but that oil would have to cross several ethnic and sectarian boundaries, including Iraq's insurgent Sunni regions," said Michael Nayebi, Middle East analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas, in a telephone interview. "It's not really a realistic ambition."  

Still, Syria's border with Iraq and sea ports on the Mediterranean make it a natural conduit for northern Iraqi oil to Europe. Its relatively flat geography makes it far easier and cheaper to build a pipeline than in mountainous Turkey. Plus, in 2009, Syria could boast that it was far more politically tranquil than several of its neighbors.   

The Assad government was able to negotiate deals with its neighbors in an effort to bring Iraqi and Iranian resources through pipelines to the Mediterranean Sea and on to European markets.

There were plans to repair the Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline, which once brought crude oil from northern Iraq to the Syria coast but was damaged during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In 2010, the countries scrapped those plans in favor of building three new pipelines between the two regions. 

There was also a plan to extend the Arab Gas Pipeline, which brought natural gas from Egypt to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Under the new plan, it would extend into southern Turkey and eventually on to Europe. Most recently, plans were unveiled for a $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline that would bring natural gas from Iran’s South Pars field to the Syrian coast. 

That plan rankled Qatar, which had already announced plans for a similar pipeline in the region. The competition for access to the Mediterranean has drawn Sunni-dominated Qatar and Saudi Arabia deeper into the Syria issue, some analysts say.

"The Arabs view this 'Islamic' or 'Shi'ite' pipeline as serving Shi'ite interests: originating in Shi'ite Iran, traversing Shi'ite Iraq, flows through Shi'ite controlled Syria to supply the large European market," Christina Lin, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Transatlantic Relations, wrote in an e-mail. "So Qatar and Saudi Arabia are responding in kind."

The 2011 Arab Spring, two and a half years of Syrian civil war, and outside geopolitical pressure have knocked our the supports for Assad's pipeline dreams. The Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline remains offline and the extension of the Arab Gas Pipeline is undeveloped. Officials have said the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline could be complete between 2016 and 2018, but many analysts have doubts given the circumstances.

"The Middle East is fully of politically motivated pipeline projects that make no commercial sense and never see the light [of day]," Giacomo Luciani, adjunct professor of international affairs at The Graduate Institute, Geneva, wrote in an e-mail. "The bottom line is: [don't] hold your breath, this won't happen."  

Why It Matters

Energy: Competition for oil and gas resources underscores Middle East politics.

Economy: Disruptions to energy transit systems have stymied Syrian growth. 

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