The on-going kerfuffle over Syria is as much about gas as about anything else. Not sarin or some other weaponised chemical cocktail. No, we are talking about good old natural gas.
Syria is the focal point of rival plans to pipe natural gas into Europe. Plan A would pipe gas from Russia via Iran. Plan B would pipe it from the Persian Gulf. Assuming that only one pipeline gets built, its backers can hold Europe to ransom over energy supplies for years to come.
The Gulf gas exporters need a stable, friendly Syria through which to pipe their gas. Should Syria remain pro-Russian, or break down into a collection of warring fiefdoms, the Gulf pipeline would be pretty much a non-starter. Without it, Qatar and the other regional exporters have to liquefy their gas and export it by tanker. That is expensive and vulnerable to Iran’s potential to disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.
For Russia, anything less than a West-backed military occupation of Syria is a win. Russia can still pipe gas directly across its Western border with Europe. Blocking the gulf routes would be a bonus, though. That would give it a near-monopoly on the European market. And, as extra icing on the cake the option of a Mediterranean outlet to the increasingly energy-desperate southern European periphery.
Hence the outbreak of brinksmanship over chemical weapons.
In today’s world, 100,000 deaths from explosive chemicals is a problem. 1,000 deaths from poisonous chemical gas is a pretext. Unexpectedly for the US administration, the thing the gas attack was supposed to be the pretext for – an escalating US-led military involvement in Syria – has not happened.
Putin’s assessment of public opinion in the West turned out to be very astute. Apart from France, which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy and needs US support to secure its North African nuclear fuel supply route, no one in Europe had any appetite to go adventuring into another Middle Eastern military morass. Germany is trying to get off the fossil energy hook as fast as possible, while the UK Government has perhaps recognised that Royal Wootton Bassett was, in its understated way, a watershed for Britain’s electorate.
As for the US, the Big Lie that it is foisting on its citizenry, about fracking its way to energy independence, has backfired in this instance. Why go to war over a right of way for energy on the far side of the world if you are being told you have 100 years of bounty under your own soil?
Of course, this is not the end of the Syrian civil war, nor of the widening spider’s web of political, ethnic, economic and religious cracks across the Middle East, nor of the deepening energy predicament undermining Europe’s status quo.
The main change is that, after last week’s Russian-American manoeuvrings, Europe finds itself a choice of devils to sup with. The questions being: which one and how long a spoon will we need?