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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 / September 10, 2013

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.

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Staff Writer

David J. Unger is a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, covering energy for the Monitor's Energy Voices.

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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."

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."  

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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