Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Struggle over the Energy Market in the Middle East

Friday, 30 September 2016 10:11
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by Gregorio Baggiani
EPOS Insights


Russia and Iran are turningto each other once again after the deal signed between Iran and the mainly Western international community. The reasons behind this rapprochement are easily explained. One is the substantial agreement between Russia and Iran on the strategic importance of Syria from the geopolitical and energy point of view for both countries. The war in Syria is not to be explained only by the political infighting in the country between the Alawites and the Sunni majority or between secular and Islamist world views, between conservatives and modernizers, but also by an important energy deal between Russia and Iran. Through it, Iran may also obtain several economic advantagesin contrast to another energy deal sponsored by a mainly Western coalition consisting of the US, France, Great Britain,Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey. The latter country has the greatest interest in toppling Assad, who expressed himself against the Western backed pipeline, and, more importantly, preventing the setting up of a Kurdish state in bordering Syria. This is why Russia and Iran are siding with Bashar al-Assad.The main aim is a reorganization and sharing of the crude oil market in the Middle East and the Gulf region, where Iran is returning as a leading political and energy actor after the lifting of sanctions by Western powers in exchange for the cessation of the Iranian military nuclear programme. Russia and Iran intend therefore to steer the energy market in the Middle East and the Gulf region, substantially influencing the price of gas and crude oil on the world markets against other potential competitors in the sector. The stakes of the players in this great game are high.

The main strategic and political aim of the United States is basically to prevent an increasing Russian and Iranian  growing role in Europe's energy market. It therefore supports alternative sources to meet the energy needs of Europe, which is paradoxically quite uninvolved in the Syrian conflict, one that will determine the balance of power in the Middle East and its at once strategic and extremely volatile energy market. This is a serious problem for the foreign policy of the European Union (CSDP) and is bound to have severe consequences on the EU’s perceived role in the world, especially in the Arab world where it might be perceived as a weak, non-essential actor in the regional balance of power.This represents a heavy toll to pay for the EU on the international energy market.Conversely, Russia  badly intends to maintain its monopoly over Europe's energy market and works hard to sabotage any viable alternatives.The Iranians have developedfar-reaching plans for playing a leading role in the energy market  well beyond the Persian Gulf. Qatar is known for its huge gas reserves and plans to ship gas to Europe. This is why it wants to play a major role in the regional and extra-regional gas market. Saudi Arabiais bitterly engaged in a century old struggle to the death with Iran for geopolitical and energetic supremacy in the region and its main  interest is to transfer its energy resources to Europe low cost through Syriain order to hamper Iranian energy exports and thussubstantially diminish the country’srevenues.

Finally, but just as importantly, Turkey's strategy is to become an energy hub with Russia’s help too, also on the aftermath of its difficult relations with the US and the EU after the failed  military coup that has drifted the West and Turkey further apart.Turkey resolutelybacks the pipeline proposed by Qatar and takes on a strongly hostile attitude towards Iran, because this project would allow Iran to completely bypass Turkey, which aims at becoming a crucial energy hub in the region. To this aim, Turkey has improved relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia and therefore openly supports the removal of Assad, even secretly or by openly supporting Islamic terrorist groups such as “Al Nusra” –at least in the past– to achieve the definitive removal of the bloody dictator Bashar Al Assad. So far, Russia has been successful in its capacity as “honest broker” to “harmonize” the interests of its main regional allies Turkey and Iran, although it is highly likely that  irreconcilable  differences between these provisional allies will soon emerge.Aside from this, Russia’s interest in being determinant, as it was in Soviet times, for the region’s structure is evident, and this goal can be reached though upholding Bashar El Assad’s power in Syria, albeit with the possible birth of a Kurdish enclave in Syria and a redrawing of Syria’s internal administrative and political borders. However, given the present rapprochement between Erdogan and Putin, the latter would no longer seem a very viable possibility, or at least it is a gradually waning one.

The renewal of the Turkish-Russian entente

The renewal of the Turkish-Russian entente means that there will be less room for manoeuvre towards the creation of a Kurdish state in Syria,which will be sacrificed or put on hold for some time to come, or indefinitely, on the altar of Realpolitik. On this issue, Turkey is rising the price to cooperate with Russia and or the USA: the price to be paid by both partners will be the annihilation( or non- birth) of a possible Kurdish dominated enclave in Syria.Putin’s aim in the near future will  be that of becoming a main political and economic actor in the region, an “honest broker” among the most important regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syriaand firmly entrench Russia’s status and position in the region, dislodging the US as a main regional power. For the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia is able once again to play and further enhance its already substantial role in the Middle East and the Gulf Region and, furthermore, in the Mediterranean Sea. This means  that  it has access  through Syrian military portslike Tartusto the warm seas it always craved for centuries,  military facilities that are essential to ensure and display to Western military forces the resilience of the Russian military presence in the Mediterranean Sea, even with the recent restoration of the Russian- Turkish relation and the now unhindered passage of Russian vessels through the Turkish Straits.Russia will probably play this “honest broker” role not only in the energy market sector, but also as a credible intermediary between the Shia and Sunni powers in the region, further enhancing its mediating role and making itself indispensable for the West too. If the West wants to act in the region, Russia has become an essential political factor to reckon with.

Russia’s goals in the Syrian conflict

The Middle East is deemed by the Russian elites a launching pad for the reestablishment of parity (ravnopravie) with the other great powers and especially with the US.  Russia clearly profits from the boost of arms sales and from renewed economic influence, for instance in the civil nuclear sector, as in the Middle East Russian nuclear technology is still competitive on the market, though Western technologies are generally preferred due to their technological edge over Russian ones. Russian intervention in Syria also means a strong promotion and boost for its arms sales in the region and in the world in general. With its intervention in Syria, Russia is also managing to avoid becoming entangled in a bloody civil war that would lead to severe casualties and therefore to a probable unpopularity of the conflict at home. The higher the casualty toll, the higher the political risk in internal affairs. Putin is aware of this and hence wants to avoid a land military intervention, a very risky, from the political point of view, “boots on the ground”. His devise is obviously a very accurate rational calculation between the gains and losses any Russian military intervention in Syria would bring about. Another political aspect of Russian intervention in Syria is that, from Putin’s point of view, it is useful to divert public attention from the Ukrainian conflict, one that enjoys little popularity in Russia because of the kinship of two Slavic peoples and therefore needs a strong propaganda effort against the “Kiev junta” by Russian propaganda. Furthermore, it allows Putin to obtain substantial concessions in Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s concessions on the Syrian conflict, which is ravaging the entire region and risks to spiral out of control, leading potentially to a major international conflict.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Monday, 03 October 2016 08:20

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