Syria’s Burning — But Signing Energy Deals: Investment by Russia a Reason to End the War

[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for the website of the 24-hour all-news television station broadcasting on-line from Israel in English, French, and Arabic. It’s called i24 News.]

The first negotiating round between the Syrian government and opposition groups ended last week, as expected, without results. A second round of talks is due later this month. The Syria civil war, nearing its third anniversary, has claimed the lives of 130,000 people, left 500,000 wounded and displaced seven million from their homes.

Israeli officials revealed recently that the disintegrated and dysfunctional Syria is hosting 30,000 Islamist warriors and terrorists from four corners of the world, who are fighting both the government and the secular opposition.

The fact the there is no sign that the war will end in the foreseeable future – even President Basher Assad, said last month in an interview that the war would continue – does not prevent Russia and big corporations to act, literarily, as though the situation is “business as usual”.

In December 2013, as the world celebrated Christmas and Syrians continued to die in their country’s killing fields, Soyuzneftegas, a Russian state-owned company, signed a huge deal with the Assad regime. Under the agreement, the Russian oil and gas giant was granted a 25-year concession to explore and develop a segment of Syria’s territorial water opposite the port of Tartus, known as “Bloc 2.”

Natural Gas Fields, pictured at Gundembugun.blogspot.com

Natural Gas Fields, pictured at Gundembugun.blogspot.com

The Russian-Syrian agreement is not merely a business venture. It also has significant strategic importance for the region and Israel. Bloc 2, spread over 2,00O square kilometers, is estimated to be the largest gas and oil reservoir in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

For more than a decade, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by efforts to promote business opportunities, especially in the energy sector. Russian gas and oil corporations, amongst the biggest in the world, are enhancing Russia on five continents as a superpower.

As part of this policy, leading Russian companies (Rosneft and Lukoil) are seeking to gain gas concessions from Lebanon in maritime zones bordering on Israel.

Russian firms also hope to be involved in the marketing of the Israeli gas (Tamar and Livyatan fields) discovered a few years ago in the Mediterranean.

It might well be a coincidence, but its importance cannot be ignored. In Lebanon, some of the Russian companies formed joint ventures with the American energy conglomerate Exxon-Mobile, while in Israel, Texas-based Nobel Energy, is the owner (together with the Israeli Delek company) of the two fields and might team up in the future with a Russian counterpart.

All these developments show that Russia is deeply committed to ensuring the survival of the Assad regime and that its American oil and gas partners will play a role in influencing the Obama administration’s approach to the civil war.

Russia’s energy involvement in the eastern Mediterranean basin may also have an important effect on Israel’s concerns and its security doctrine.

Last week, top Israeli security chiefs – including the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi – revealed that Israel is under threat from 170,000 rocket and missiles directed at cities and strategic installations – 60% of them from Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization and another 30% from Syria.

In the past year, according to foreign reports, the Israeli Air Force attacked Syria’s weapons depots and convoys carrying sophisticated missiles on their way to Hezbollah – at least six times. Israel is especially concerned that Russian-made Yakhont land-sea missiles will reach the Lebanese Shiite movement, enabling it in a future conflict to hit Israeli gas rigs in the Mediterranean.

However, the development of gas fields by Israel, Syria and Lebanon is paving the way for a new reality in the region. This reality might be called an “energy-terror balance” or “mutually assured economic- strategic interests”.

Thus, Russian energy interests in regional gas and oil projects may have a moderating effect and reduce the motives of Hezbollah and Syria to act against Israel . Knowing that their gas rigs will be damaged in revenge, Hezbollah and Lebanon will think twice before making a decision to attack Israel’s gas installations.

The Russian (and American) energy companies’ involvement and business interests may also help shorten the Syrian civil war. Already, there are signs that Washington, the EU, Turkey, Jordan and Israel are undergoing a change of heart. All of them are having second thoughts about whether, in face of the growing radical Islamist threat, it is wise to demand the removal of Bashar Assad from power.

February 2, 2014

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