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Russia tightens its grip on Syria

Lowering above Banias, the black basalt Crusader Castle of Marqab [DD]

Lowering above Banias, the black basalt Crusader Castle of Marqab [DD]

On Christmas Day 25 December 2013 a contract was signed in Damascus giving Russia the 25-year rights to explore, drill, produce and develop a massive offshore Syrian oil and gas field in the Eastern Mediterranean between the coastal cities of Banias and Tartous. The signatories were Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Company, Syria’s Oil Minister Suleyman Al-Abbas, and the Russian state-controlled oil company Soyuzneftegaz, represented by the Russian ambassador. The estimated costs of the deal are US$90 million, to be borne solely by Soyuzneftegaz, which is controlled by the Russian Central Bank and run by a former Russian Oil Minister. This offshore deal, covering an area known as Block No. 2 , a full 2,190 square kilometres, is the first ever to be awarded  from Syria’s offshore oil and gas reserves, which are estimated to be considerable – bigger potentially than those of Lebanon, Cyprus or Israel.

So a historic moment, and a fine Christmas present for Russia, a reward from the Assad regime for Russian loyalty. Historic for its timing, just weeks before the scheduled 22 January 2014 Geneva 2 talks aimed at solving the Syrian crisis, and historic for its sealing of Russia’s stake in Syria’s future. Syria’s Oil Minister announced that Russia would begin work immediately on implementing the deal. After all, there is not a moment to lose. Russia wants to make very sure it, and it alone, can exploit Syria’s offshore oil and gas reserves.

Then, this morning, comes the news that Russia has blocked a UN statement, sponsored by the UK, on the Assad regime’s recent air attacks on civilians in Aleppo. Russia does not want its ally condemned: it wants it protected.

There is a huge amount at stake here – potentially billions and billions of dollars. Syria’s oil production has dropped by 90% since the March 2011 revolution began, and most of its oilfields are in the eastern desert regions around Deir ez-Zour, now controlled by opposition forces. Syria’s refineries are already in the western Banias and Homs region, much more convenient for offshore rigs. The deal also includes training for Syrian staff at the state-owned Syrian General Establishment for Petroleum.

Russia knows well how to tighten its grip, and Bashar knows well how to maximise his country’s assets. They are a perfect match.








Geneva II needs a genius, to ensure all parties can claim victory

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

For a concrete date of 22 January 2014 to have been fixed for the Syria Geneva II talks at the UN, there must have been concrete developments behind the scenes. The timing, straight after the announcement of the US-Iran deal over nuclear weapons, suggests that a further connected deal with Iran must have been arrived at, requiring its involvement and cooperation over finding an end to the war in Syria. Then, barely a day later, came the joint announcement by Iran and Turkey’s foreign ministers, both of whom support opposite sides in Syria’s war, calling for a ceasefire before Geneva II. It is all too much of a coincidence.

The key players who can influence events at Geneva II are starting to line up. America and Russia are singing from the same hymn sheet, as are Iran and Turkey. All have reached the point where they can see military victory is not possible for any one faction, and that the rise of Islamist extremism is only going to get worse.

What is needed now is a genius who can devise a peace formula whereby all parties, notably the Assad regime and the main groupings opposing him, can claim victory and thereby save face. This will be an essential requirement – that no one is blamed and that everyone gains something from the deal.

With eight full weeks to prepare, this should be possible, especially given the amount of international pressure America, Russia, Turkey and Iran can bring to bear. Saudi Arabia and Qatar will need to be placated and given something too, so that they too can claim victory and save face.

Pray God the geniuses are hard at work devising such formulas, so that 22 January can be the beginning of transfer of power away from the Assad regime before he concocts his re-election in May 2014. The alternative will be years of suffering and destruction, with thousands more deaths, injuries and refugees – a terrible prolonging of Syria’s nightmare.

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#Syria’s oil and gas potential in the Eastern Mediterranean is wasted, while Israel’s thrives

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: 'God is Syria's Protector'

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: ‘God is Syria’s Protector’

No one mentions it much, but Syria, according to the specialist Oil & Gas Journal in Jan 2013, has the largest proved reserve of crude oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. Other lucky beneficiaries are Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon, all with large reserves of oil and gas. The gas reserves in this underwater Levant Basin are so huge the estimates say they would supply all of Europe’s gas demand for 7 years.

Yet while Israel has already started production from its Tamar gas field, and the huge Leviathan field is on course to follow in 2016/2017, and while Cyprus is also gearing up for its share and discussing shared export arrangements with Israel so both countries can benefit, neither Lebanon nor Syria, locked in conflict, can make any headway with exploiting these potential riches.

Western oil companies abandoned exploration operations because of political stalemate, but even now, after two and a half years of war, Syria’s government was still in April 2013 (according to a Congressional Research Service report) in discussion with Russia and China over offshore oil exploration. Syria is also said to have oil shale reserves estimated up to 50 billion tons. Russia’s state-owned energy companies have a huge stake in the Damascus regime’s survival so they can continue to profit from Syria’s oil and gas reserves, so Russia’s interest in maintaining the status quo with Assad in charge is clear. There is too much to lose, and it also wants to thwart Israel’s plans to build an undersea pipeline to Turkey, the obvious way to export oil and gas to Turkey (and thence to Europe) while excluding Iran and Russia, the two current supplier’s of Turkey’s energy needs. This also explains Obama’s instruction to Israel in March 2013 to apologise to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident, so that diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey could be restored. America wants its ally Israel to be able to export oil and gas to Turkey. The longer Lebanon and Syria take to sort themselves out vis-a vis oil exploration and production in the Eastern Mediterranean, the better, from the US point of view.

The conclusion?  There is no incentive for the US to end the Syrian war now that the chemical weapons issue is sorted, as they want no interference in Israel’s ability to export from its Eastern Mediterranean reserves. And there is no incentive for Russia to end the Syrian war while it can still benefit from Syria’s potential Eastern Mediterranean reserves in future, since Bashar is now solely dependent on Russia (and possibly China) for future exploration and production.

The Syrian people do not feature in this equation, as usual.

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Chink of Light in #Syria?

Aleppo citadel at night, July 2010 [DD]

Aleppo citadel at night, July 2010 [DD]

The speed at which things can happen once there is international consensus is remarkable. UN Chemical Weapons inspectors are already in Syria just days after the UN Security Council agreed unanimously last week to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons arsenal. They are working to a strict timetable and have just till November to complete their work.

Seven out of the 19 chemical weapons sites which they will be inspecting are, according to the Syrian government (which provided the list of sites) in rebel-held or contested combat zones. Here is the possible chink of light.

Ceasefires will have to be negotiated to enable the UN inspectors to pass through these combat zones to reach these seven sites to verify them and make assessments. The wording of the new UN Resolution makes it clear that action will be taken against anyone – regime or rebels – found to be obstructing the UN inspectors’ work. Such a situation forces compliance and cooperation on all sides and may be the start of a new dynamic on the ground.

So what if consensus can be achieved now, not just on chemical weapons, but on another issue of pressing concern – the need to expel from Syria the recently-formed foreign extremist Islamist groups? Parties involved in the conflict – both inside and outside the country – are increasingly concerned about the rise and rise of such foreign-funded, foreign-composed extremist groups such as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Shaam), which are intent on imposing their vision of an Islamic state on Syrian citizens the overwhelming majority of whom do not want this. Many feel their revolution has been hijacked by these Islamist groups. Some who began by supporting them because they were better funded and better organised than other rebels, now regret their early enthusiasm. After experiencing the reality of life under such radical groups in places like Ar-Raqqa and around Aleppo, they now want to distance themselves and return to something more moderate. 99% of Syrian citizens don’t want them, the Assad regime doesn’t want them, the moderate opposition groups don’t want them, the US, Russia, Israel and European countries don’t want them, seeing them as a greater threat to world stability than either the Syrian regime or the moderate Syrian rebels – it’s beginning to look like another consensus.

On that basis, with the political will, a ceasefire could even be agreed in time for the upcoming Eid Al-Adha on 14 October, marking the end of the pilgrimage season. Over-optimistic perhaps, given it will take time to drive out the extremist fighters even if the regime and the moderate groups were to unite to achieve it. But once there is consensus, remarkable things can happen very quickly, as we have just witnessed.

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Damascus ‘neighbourhood militias’ being trained in Russia

Detail of an Ottoman painted ceiling in the Old City of Damascus

Detail of an Ottoman painted ceiling in the Old City of Damascus

Members of the ‘neighbourhood militias’ who now man the checkpoints in the Old City of Damascus have been receiving training in Russia, I am reliably informed. Training in what, you may ask? How to spy on your neighbours?

No, training in how to use weapons, how to fire guns, Many of the militia members are very young indeed, still teenagers. But if you are unemployed and your university/school education has been interrupted by war, the attractions of a stable job, paid for by the regime are obvious. The overwhelming majority are young men, but a few are women, some of whom – especially those stationed at the Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi checkpoints, are even wearing hijab headscarves, which is surprising.

The ordinary residents of the Old City have noticed the change, and the increase in armed patrols and checkpoints, but far from feeling safer, they are worried that these militias will increase the volatility of the Old City, hitherto a relatively safe bubble away from the fighting. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but the residents feel highly manipulated by the presence of these militias whom they have had no say in choosing.

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