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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.

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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.   

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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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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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