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first published in Oilprice.com
By Claude Salhani -
What exactly is at stake in the battle for control of the Middle East, other than the obvious — the region’s abundant oil and natural gas? And why is it coming to a head now?
There are two aspects to what is currently transpiring in the Middle East: the battle for the region’s natural resources and the battle for the region’s human resources.
The region’s natural resource wealth has long been both a blessing and a curse. It has helped countries like the United Arab Emirates and Oman achieve amazing progress in a relatively short time and make the leap from societies that not long ago were comparable to medieval times into the 21st century.
But as one learns in the study of conflict resolution, change – any change – brings with it a certain amount of conflict. And the changes that oil and gas money brought to the Middle East were phenomenal. In turn, they upset more conservative elements of society who were unhappy to see the “natural order” of things – i.e., the old ways – disrupted and replaced with modern ways.
At the same time, the region’s resources have been a curse because it gave dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad the ability to squander billions of dollars on arms and weapons systems, to wage wars on its neighbors, and to threaten regional security. Syria, for example, with far less revenue from oil than Iraq, invested its modest revenues on increasing internal oppression rather than investing in the country’s future — its people.
Just how rewarding is it for Assad to look at his country today, utterly destroyed, more than 190,000 killed according to the United Nations, many more maimed both physically and psychologically, the infrastructure totally devastated? Yet he remains at the reins. He is now president of parcels of territory eroded by war.
Oil wealth has also allowed tiny counties, like Qatar, to assume an outsized role in the region and meddle in its neighbor’s politics, certain that its money can buy it anything, including influence. But what money cannot buy is critical thinking, which is what appears to be lacking most in the region.
The second aspect of why the Middle East is going bonkers today is that the existing borders are based on Western colonial thinking. In many places, one country ends and another begins at a line in the sand drawn by a Frenchman and a Brit who divided up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I.
This is why, for example, the Islamic State (IS) became so powerful in Syria and in Iraq — for them and the fighters who join them, there are no borders, no demarcation lines and no frontiers.
Why is IS so powerful, yet so little is known about who they are? From the little we know about them is that that the core of the officers corps comes from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s army that went underground when the U.S. invaded in 2003.
Professor Amazia Baram, chair of Arab studies at Haifa University and an expert on Iraq under Hussein, explains that when the late dictator was still a lower echelon thug working for his cousin — who took power in a military coup – the family was overthrown but managed a comeback.
Once back in power, Saddam was given the task of setting up an underground system of operations from which the regime could recover in the event of a future coup. Saddam, according to Baram, excelled in securing back-up plans and in the process got rid of the top man and placed himself at the head of the state and party. Saddam never forgot the importance of maintaining the emergency fallback protocol and although he is now gone, his former generals have, by all appearances, taken over the network and placed it at the disposal of IS.
As the United States and its Western allies again get drawn into a Middle East war, this time it might be more constructive if they went in with something more than shock and awe.
Eliminating the IS threat militarily alone will not suffice. What is needed here is a viable “Marshall Plan” adapted for the Middle East where reforms are made in the education sector, where democratic principles are gradually introduced, and where the people are given voice in participating in the affairs of state and invited to join in governance, rather than being locked out of any decision making process.
As the map of the Middle East is being redrawn, so too must change be introduced into the very core of the region’s socio-political system.
You can follow Claude on Twitter @Claudesalhani
By Claude Salhani
As the war against Islamist terror begins to gather momentum, forging new alliances and accentuating older ones while questioning others, now that the Obama administration appears to have a policy of sorts, some pundits are beginning to ask if this conflict qualifies as a world war?
Indeed, when does a war rank as a “world war”?
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a world war as “a war involving many nations of the world.”
Judging by the scope of the current conflict one could well argue the point that this war falls into the category of a world war. If nothing else due to the number of countries involved and the theatre of operations covered should be enough to justify calling this a world war.
The countries involved includes all 28 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and several others, who may not be NATO members, but are assisting the war effort in one way or another. These include former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. In sum, this conflict concerns nearly every country on the planet.
Pope Francis said on Sept. 12 the spate of conflicts around the globe today were effectively a “piecemeal” Third World War. The pope condemned the arms trade and “plotters of terrorism” sowing death and destruction.
“Humanity needs to weep and this is the time to weep,” Pope Francis said in the homily of a Mass during a visit to Italy’s largest war memorial, a large monument dating back to the fascist era where more than 100,000 soldiers who died in World War One are buried.
“War is madness,” the pope said in his homily before the massive, sloping granite memorial.
“Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction,” he said according to a Reuter’s dispatch.
In the past few months, Pope Francis has made repeated appeals for an end to conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and parts of Africa.
“War is irrational; its only plan is to bring destruction: it seeks to grow by destroying,” he said. “Greed, intolerance, the lust for power. These motives underlie the decision to go to war and they are too often justified by an ideology … ,” the pontiff said.
Last month the pope, who has often condemned the concept of war in God’s name, said it would be legitimate for the international community to use force to stop “unjust aggression” by Islamic State militants who have killed or displaced thousands of people in Iraq and Syria, many of them Christians.
Indeed, quite a few voices are echoing that of the Bishop of Rome, calling for a “justifiable war”.
It is perhaps a difficult concept to visualize that we might be on the verge of a world war, or yet still, well within one. There can, however, be no doubt that the perils represented by a culture of hate – irrespective of its name, uniforms, fancy banners, remains very real and that we are well on the road to WWIII.
The march to forge this new Islamic caliphate is not geographically limited to any single country, region, or state. The ultimate goal of such a group is to conquer, subjugate and dominate.
Many people were quite probably thinking along the same lines before WWII was officially recognized as such. Yes, regretfully, this is WWIII.
Claude Salhani is a senior editor with Trend Agency. You can contact him via Twitter @claudesalhani.
by Claude Salhani
For the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq were a good place to start their campaign, but in order to survive and prosper it knew from the outset that it had no choice but to set its sights on the ultimate prize: the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
It is in that direction that the battle for control of the world’s largest oil fields is currently heading.
Islamic State — which has its origins in al-Qaeda – knows fully well that in order to sustain itself as a viable and lasting religious, political, economic and military entity in the region, it has to follow the same objectives established by al-Qaeda when Osama bin Laden broke off his relations with the Saudi monarchy and vowed to bring down the House of Saud.
Bin Laden’s ire at the Saudi monarchy stemmed from the fact that Saudi King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud invited the American military to use Saudi Arabia as a staging area to build up forces to take on the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait in August of 1990. Bin Laden objected to the presence of “infidels” in the land of the two holy mosques, and asked the king to allow his outfit to tackle Saddam Hussein’s troops.
Similarly, IS knows that it will only feel secure once Saudi Arabia is part of the Caliphate, and its oil fields are under IS control — which is why the group has two logical next steps.
First, to capture and secure the most important country in the Muslim world: Saudi Arabia.
If the battle for Syria and Iraq attracted tens of hundreds, (some say tens of thousands) of young Muslims, the battle for control of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, are very likely to attract many more fighters into the ranks of the Islamic State.
And second, to take on the United States — the one remaining superpower that could stop its march on the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, and ultimately the rest of the Gulf.
After much hesitation, it now appears that the Obama administration has come around to realizing the true danger posed by IS. Washington, along with some of its NATO allies, is now formulating a plan to defeat IS.
However, it may be wise to point out that Washington’s track record in dealing with Middle East problems has not been something to crow about. As a point of reference, one need only mention Iraq and Afghanistan — both prime examples of how not to do things.
Even if the U.S. can defeat IS militarily, any victory would only be temporary since eventually, U.S. troops will pull out and the remnants of IS would emerge from their respective hiding places, as they did after Saddam Hussein’s capture and death. Indeed, a U.S. intervention — through its massive air campaign — will foment even greater animosity toward the West in general, and the United States, in particular. It’s all déjà vu.
The one power that can effectively move against IS in a manner that would appear legitimate to other Muslims is Saudi Arabia, as Nawaf Obaid, a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Saud al-Sarhan, research director at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies pointed out in a joint opinion piece published Sept. 9 in the New York Times.
The authors dispute the widely believed notion that Saudi Arabia created IS and is funding it. “Saudi Arabia is not the source of ISIS — it’s the group’s primary target,” they write.
As Obaid and al-Sarhan put it, “The Saudi leadership has a unique form of religious credibility and legitimacy, which will make it far more effective than other governments at delegitimizing ISIS’s monstrous terrorist ideology.”
What makes IS powerful today is the fact that they laid out their military strategy based on where oil fields are located. The fact that they went after northeast Syria and northern Iraq is not coincidental by any means. Islamic State may be ruthless and brutal, but it is first and foremost a terrorist organization with an astute business plan.
The capture of oil wells in Syria and Iraq has made the group financially self-sufficient. Now it’s all or nothing.
Summer is over and many Europeans may have to keep warm this coming winter by thinking about their summer holidays while wrapped in blankets, praying for a short winter or for the world to come to its senses. It both cases, they may well be disappointed.
The never-ending conflicts in the Middle East, mayhem in Libya, uncertainty in the Gulf and a war in Ukraine are all going to take a toll on the energy supplies this winter.
Russia sold 86 billion cubic meters of gas last year, all of which passed through Ukraine. Given what’s happening there now, it is highly unlikely that the Russians would allow their gas to transit a country they are (unofficially) at war with. Just as it is unlikely that Ukrainians would allow Russian gas access through its territory.
Result? Many cold Europeans, many angry Europeans and many very pissed off Europeans. Many Europeans will have to make do without enough gas to heat homes, offices and factories. That’s a bad prospect in northern European countries, where winter is no laughing matter. Winter defeated the armies of both Napoleon and Hitler.
And what does history tell us about cold, angry, pissed-off Europeans? Well, whenever two opposing camps got cold, angry and pissed off enough at each other in the past, they typically went to war.
War in Europe? In our time?
It’s not impossible. If current trends continue, it is not at all impossible. Here’s why:
1. Mounting tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine — a situation that is very likely to worsen as the United States and European Union tighten sanctions on Moscow.
2. NATO forces edging dangerously close to Russian forces.
3. The spread of the violence and reach of the Islamic State. Besides the havoc they are creating in the region, there is the added threat of hundreds, if not thousands, of their supporters who have learned how to fight in Syria and Iraq returning to their home countries in Europe.
4. Turkey, which in recent years has played a stabilizing role in the region, is moving today in a different direction that could well lead to a new point of conflict. From jumping head first into the Middle East conundrum under former prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, started off by possibly igniting a new fight when he announced — much to the pleasure of Azerbaijan, and certainly to the dismay of Armenia — that “the liberation of occupied Azerbaijani lands would be a strategic goal for Turkey.”
These remarks refer to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and outlying areas that have been occupied by Armenia since a violent conflagration around the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Armenians and Azerbaijani troops have been engaging in exchanges of fire on a daily basis over the past few months.
5: Mounting tension between Iran and Israel, and between Iran and an unnamed former Soviet republic in the region that Iran says allowed Israel to launch a drone from its territory to spy on Iran. Tehran has promised a stern response. The country in question is thought to be Azerbaijan, Armenia or Turkmenistan.
6. Continued mayhem in Libya, where the political turmoil is affecting the flow of oil and gas to Europe.
7. The continued state of unrest in Israel/Gaza and the surrounding area.
All these points of conflict are complicating Europe’s search for more reliable sources of energy. Europe is hoping to solve its gas shortage problems by purchasing Azerbaijani gas, but it’s unrealistic to depend only on Azerbaijani gas, since Europeans would be at the mercy of interruptions to gas and oil flows from this South Caucasus country.
What Europe desperately needs is a source of energy that with not be interrupted by conflict or politics, that can be delivered via pipeline or by sea, but will not need to transit through sea lanes in areas of conflict.
And although EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said last week that he is not worried about gas supplies from Russia via Ukraine, that show of confidence did not stop him from going to Moscow to plead Europe’s case with the Russians.
So where does that leave the Europeans other than out in the cold? Trend energy analyst Vagif Sharifov believes the new bonanza of natural gas lies in the Arctic, where more than 1,500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas can be found.
But polar drilling comes with a high cost and huge challenges. Europe might need to keep looking.
By Claude Salhani
Armenia and Azerbaijan, who are in a state of war despite a ceasefire, have three options on how to approach the stalemated conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a dispute that lasted more than two decades.
Each option comes with a sour pill, as there is no magic solution. But such is the reality of trying to find a peaceful resolution to a bloody conflict.
The two sides can agree to disagree and continue with the status quo. They can continue to exchange gunfire and mortar rounds on a daily and nightly basis and to lob rhetoric and insults at each other. There are both advantages and setbacks with this option. The advantage goes to Armenia — at least in the initial stage — as it gets to keep all the occupied lands — 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory — that it grabbed when the Soviet Union broke up. This, however, is a very shortsighted option, as it lays down the groundwork for a potential military escalation down the road. At some point in time, Baku might feel it has no other option.
Unwanted as it may be, a military confrontation might seem as the only solution. Two new factors that Yerevan may want to consider: the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Turkish presidency, and the nomination of Ahmet Davutoglu to the post of prime minister. The two men are staunch supporters of Azerbaijan and have vowed to support Baku in its efforts to reclaim the occupied territories. Turkey has closed its borders with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan.
Armenia, in spite of its many domestic headaches and internal economic, political and social ills may feel somewhat untouchable while under Russian protection as it is currently. But that can change at a moment’s notice if Russia becomes too preoccupied in another conflict, such as in Ukraine. This would leave Armenia vulnerable and out in the cold.
The second option is a military one and while Azerbaijan would undoubtedly have military superiority, there are great risks involved in embarking on a military campaign as the final outcome is always unpredictable and could lead to a regional conflagration.
That leaves the third and only real viable option: dialogue and a peaceful resolution. While this be the smartest solution to follow, it will also be the most difficult, as it would involve having to talk to one’s enemies.
A conflict by its very nature is usually not a pleasant experience. And a conflict such as the one in Nagorno-Karabakh, that carries with it heavy baggage in the form of hatred of the other, given the history of violence and bloodshed that has tainted this land.
But in order for any dialogue to take place there needs to be a starting point where the two sides can begin to meet and to exchange their views. That is difficult to happen when the antagonists continue to exchange fire along the line of separation and in strong worded communiqués.
“The rhetoric that we have been hearing on both sides has not been encouraging, as it only exacerbates and polarizes different positions,” Irfan Siddiq, Britain’s ambassador to Baku told AzerNews newspaper on Thursday.
“It increases hatred of the other and what we need in this time is understanding of the other. I know this is a difficult thing to ask for in this heated environment when people say why should we understand people who kill our neighbors and take our land, but for there to be any resolution that is what will be required, and its what we have seen through history,” the ambassador said.
You can follow Claude on Twitter @claudesalhani