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22 December 2016, Gateway House

Syria: energy battles to regional alliances

Aleppo is back under the control of the Syrian government, the Russian ambassador to Ankara is assassinated for his country’s role in Syria, and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump wants to cooperate with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria. These momentous events in modern history compel an assessment of the geopolitics surrounding Syria.

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The following article is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by Gateway House with Huricihan Islamoglu, Visiting Fellow at Gateway House. She has been a Professor of Economic History at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey and is a Senior Fellow, Institut d’Etudes Avancées de Nantes, Nantes, France.

Virpratap Vikram Singh (GH): Popular Western discourse views Sunni-Shia sectarian differences, and a race for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as the root of the conflict in West Asia, more specifically in Syria. Is this so?

Huricihan Islamoglu (HI): The conflict is often wrongly represented as a sectarian one, between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. More often than not, conflicts in West Asia have their roots in competition for control over natural gas and oil supplies and access to distribution networks or pipelines. For instance, Syria’s position at the crossroads of the pipelines to Europe, with the Syrian government holding the power to decide who has access to the European and Turkish export markets, has been a major factor in triggering the conflict in Syria in 2011.

One issue has been the proposed pipeline from Qatar to Saudi Arabia through Jordan into Syria, and from Syria to Europe and Turkey. At first, Turkey supported the Qatar Saudi and Western Alliance because it wanted to break its own dependence on Russia for gas and oil. Turkey gets about 80% of its natural gas from Russia. It does not use as much coal as India or China do: that’s how it keeps at bay high levels of pollution, but this comes at the cost of high levels of import dependence.

Initially, relations between the Turkish government and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were cordial, Turkey enabling Syria to access global markets, starting with its own. Then, rather abruptly, the relationship broke down.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkish prime minister, tried to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to sign a contract for the pipeline from Qatar into Syria. But instead Assad signed one with Iran, whose pipeline was proposed to run through Iraq into Syria and on to Europe and to Turkey. He did this possibly because he wanted to sustain Syria’s ties with Russia, which has been an important part of its nationalist history under the statist Baath Party.

The pipeline from Qatar into Syria would also have broken Europe’s dependence on Russia (nearly 40% of natural gas imports). This was an issue that reached a crescendo when Russia invaded Crimea (in the Ukraine) and established its presence in Eastern Ukraine. Russia, in controlling Ukraine, which is on the pipeline route into Europe, would be able to hold the key to natural gas supplies, especially in Eastern and Central Europe.

GH: Where does Turkey stand in a region of such huge geo-strategic importance, especially with the United States and Russia now fierce rivals?

HI: The West–especially the U.S.–misread what was happening in Turkey. When the party with an Islamist orientation, the Justice and Development Party or AKP, came to power in Turkey in 2002, the West was looking to create a moderate Islamic zone, especially after 9/11, a place it could negotiate with and influence the radical Islamic elements beyond.

The U.S., the CIA had largely contributed to the making of Islamic fundamentalist groups, most importantly, the Taliban, in the resistance against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The leadership of Al-Qaida, responsible for 9/11, can also be traced back to the promotion of fundamentalist Islam in the Afghan context, and later, in Kosovo, in former Yugoslavia.

Following the 9/11 attacks, American policy in the larger Middle East region (extending from Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran, Iraq Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, Turkey, and the Muslim North Africa, including Egypt) shifted away from a support of Islamic fundamentalism to a search for moderate Islam.

The Turkish government, democratic and loyal to the Western Alliance and to Nato, initially played the role that the U.S. had envisaged for it – Erdogan was received like a rock star in the U.S. when I was there in the mid-2000s! At the same time his government had initiated a course of development that was taking the country towards being a regional economic power.

The Turkish project eventually came into conflict with the western vision embodied in the ‘Greater Middle East Project’. The latter vision, under the rhetoric of bringing democracy to the region and promoting human rights (as the American administration of Iraq showed, following the country’s occupation in 2003), was essentially limited to ensuring the presence of major western corporations, most importantly, major oil companies (or foreign investors), in the region. Dividing Iraq so that there would be no power that could oppose their activities was a corollary to this approach.

GH: How did such an approach originate?

HI: It should be seen against the region’s history. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein nationalised the oil wells. Similarly, in Syria, Assad’s father, Hafiz Assad, nationalized the pipelines passing through his country. These were powerful governments in the region–and posed hurdles from the perspective of western oil and gas interests.

In Iraq, for instance, the elimination of Saddam’s government signaled the end of the unitary state, heralding division of the country that saw the installation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the north, an area of substantial oil reserves. In the 1970s, Saddam had tried to appropriate Kurdish lands, settling Sunnis on them. The Coalition Provisional Administration, following Iraq’s occupation in 2003, attempted to restore these oil-rich lands to their ‘original owners’, the Kurds. This also entailed the displacement of a second or third generation of Sunni settlers in the north, contributing to their alienation, and ultimately, the rise of extremist movements, including the Islamic State.

In northern Iraq, support for the Kurds, has been a consistent aspect of the West’s policy. The thinking was that the Kurds, a non-Arab people, would, as custodians of rich oil wells, be an island of western loyalty and a guarantee of oil flows to the West. The fact that currently, the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, as well as in Iraq are fighting America’s war against the Islamic State both in Iraq and Syria, is an extension of such a policy.

GH: Then how was the Turkish project different from the West’s?

HI: It had a developmental twist. For instance, in return for oil imports from the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq (the source of about 25% of Turkey’s oil imports), the Turkish government’s idea was to introduce – investments, create jobs and wealth in the region. These activities were also expected to create export markets for Turkish industry. Hence, the Turkish government allied itself with the autonomous region, providing an outlet for the region’s oil, while also enlisting the support of its leadership in the peace process with the Kurds in Turkey in 2013.

It was the first time that the PKK or the Kurdish guerrilla organization known for its terrorist activities was sitting at the negotiating table with a Turkish government: this was a revolutionary move for Turkey. But here, the government also wanted to have a reliable source of oil in the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

There were other aspects to the Turkish project in West Asia, like the government allying itself with Hamas to help the people in Gaza, and Erdogan expressing strong criticism of Israel and its position vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

A third aspect was Syria, softening the borders between the two countries to create a zone of economic unity.

The fourth leg was related to Egypt. The Turkish government strongly supported the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the new Freedom and Democracy Group within it, which was inspired by Erdogan. Until the Erdogan revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood had stuck to a policy of victimhood. Islam in North Africa—in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, the post-colonial world in North Africa—were all cases in point; Muslims viewed themselves as victims. In such a scenario, Erdogan came in as a democratic force associated with development. Islam as a voice for development became a very important platform throughout this region.

But Erdogan lost nearly on all counts with his project. With Israel, diplomatic and trade relations were suspended, only to be resumed recently. Developments in Syria didn’t go the way the Turkish government would have liked. Weak as it may be, the northern Iraq leg of the project is still delivering, at least in terms of oil exports.

GH: Is there any post-conflict institution-building taking place in West Asia? Do you foresee any actual change in the region wherein all parties unite to rebuild a post-ISIS Syria?

HI: It doesn’t seem likely because society has been fundamentally damaged. First of all, a large percentage of the population, the wealthy and the middle class, have left. There are nearly 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey alone, of the nearly 5 million who have fled abroad. In the south east part of Turkey, and in Istanbul, for instance, Syrians are starting their own businesses. Small craftspeople in Turkey, such as tailors and shoe makers, had disappeared. These vocations are now coming back with the Syrians.

When we speak of refugees—and they are an undeniably tragic part of the crisis–we only see the numbers, but not who they are nor where they are coming from. What is overlooked is that substantial part of middle classes which  formed the backbone of Syrian society, left or  are leaving Syria.

I’m unable to be optimistic about a post-conflict vision for the region either, but there will be a new alignment of powers, with the U.S. and the Western Alliance no longer being the main game makers.

The Russians now hold important cards, and this will play a part in determining the future course of events. The Turkish government is trying to join the Russian bandwagon. Perhaps to prevent this, the Western Alliance initiated the bringing down of a Russian airplane for border violations in Turkey leading to a disruption in Russian-Turkish relations in 2015. Possibly the Turkish government didn’t have much to do with the plane incident but disruption of relations with Russia led to a major crisis in the Turkish economy because Turkish exports to Russia—besides imports of natural gas–are important for the agricultural and construction sectors. So now, Turkey is trying to reconstruct relations with Russia.

GH: How does Turkey position itself in this emerging power equation?

HI: In a regional framework. New power equations point to the strengthening of a trend towards regional collaboration schemes. P’Politically, Turkey, once a pivotal force in the eastern flank of the Western Alliance,  is seeking to diversify its alliances in the region, even as the U.S. and Europe, most notably, France and Germany, are desperately clinging to their foothold in oil-rich regions. In doing so, they provide covert and overt support to Kurdish groups, such as the PKK movement, which is conducting terrorist activities within Turkey, the most recent one being in Istanbul on 10 December 2016, killing 44 persons.

In response to this, and seeking to restore peace in Syria, which remains at the heart of the turmoil in Turkey, Turkey turned to form an alliance with Russia and Iran. There is political will behind the effort towards regional collaboration, evident in its allying with Russia to evacuate the Syrian opposition from Aleppo thus saving them from the bombs of the Assad regime. Also, the Astana meeting of the three regional powers–Russia, Turkey, Iran—was held on December 20 only hours after the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara. Both the Russian and Turkish presidents denounced the ambassador’s assassination as an attempt to sabotage the Russian-Turkish collaboration in Syria and agreed to form a joint commission to track down the perpetrators of the crime. Russia also pledged to take the matter to the UN Security Council.

On the economic front, in the face of a rising dollar and local currencies losing value to it, a regional monetary union has been proposed. Earlier this month, the Turkish government signed an agreement with China to carry out trade transactions between the two countries in local currencies. Russia and Iran also responded to the Turkish government’s call for trading in local currencies, using the China-promoted Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as an intermediary in such transactions.

Finally, the Turkish government’s recent attempt to mobilise the population to convert their dollar holdings into local currency may be considered part of the trend towards regionalisation.

All this suggests that ‘the times they are a-changing’– and that is where our hopes lie.

Huricihan Islamoglu is a Visiting Fellow at Gateway House. She is a Professor of Economic History at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey and a Senior Fellow, Institut d’Etudes Avancees de Nantes, Nantes, France.

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Figures at a Glance, <> (Accessed on 20 December 2016)

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