Amid oil threat, Syria might be a way out

Strife-torn Syria has historically had a strategic position in the Middle East as the crossroads of empires and as Iran threatens to close the Persian Gulf's oil shipping route some see Syria as an alternative gateway for pipelines to the Mediterranean.

But for that to happen, Syria, ravaged by a year-old uprising aimed at toppling the minority regime in Damascus, would have to be pacified and probably under a new government.

And for that to happen, there would more than likely have to be outside military intervention or at least a far more aggressive diplomatic effort than has so far been made, to end the bloodletting and install a friendlier regime than President Bashar Assad's Iranian-backed, anti-Western one.

The revolt in Syria shows no sign of ending. The United States is reluctant to mount the kind of operation it endorsed for NATO to support rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's Libyan regime in 2011.

But it may come to that because of events in the gulf, where Tehran has warned it will shut down the 112-mile Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the gulf, if the West tries to throttle Iran's vital oil exports.

Blocking Hormuz with mines, missiles or other means would cut off around 17 million barrels shipped through the narrow strait every day. That's one-fifth of the world's oil supplies.

How long the Iranians could sustain that effort in the face of a major U.S. military response is open to question. But there would always be the danger Iran might try to do it again.

Analyst Ronnie Blewer, writing in Asia Times Online, surmised that overland pipelines northward from the gulf to the Mediterranean would be a serious alternative for gulf exports heading to Europe and the United States.

These pipelines would bypass “the most troubling oil chokepoints,” the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal at the northern end.

“Is that a strong driver behind the West's interest in the Syrian rebellion?” Brewer asks.

“Instability all along the oil road is at its highest point in decades, and Syria's history as a perennial spoiler and location as a potential energy path cannot have been missed.”

Apart from the Iranian threat against Hormuz, oil tanker routes face other problems:

- Iran's efforts to dominate its western neighbor Iraq, which is destined to become one of the world's leading oil producers over the next decade, challenging even Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor sees Iran's influence, spurred in large part by the Americans' efforts in ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003, as an “arc of influence” that extends through Syria, Iran's Arab ally, and into Lebanon, giving the Islamic Republic access to the Mediterranean.

“The West's strategy is to contain Iran's foreign influence and prevent Iran's development of nuclear weapons,” Blewer observed. “Syria would be a natural target for this strategy.”

- The threat from Somali pirates has extended 1,500 nautical miles into the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, threatening tanker routes from the gulf to Asia. One tanker was recently hijacked just south of Hormuz.

- Al-Qaida has in recent months seized large swathes of conflict-plagued Yemen, which overlooks the chokepoint Bab el-Mandeb.

- Political upheaval in Egypt, where pro-Western President Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February 2011, has catapulted the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies to the brink of power.

That could lead to a closure of the Suez Canal. Gamal Abdel Nasser did that in 1956, forcing tankers westbound from the gulf to take the 6,000-mile voyage around Africa.

“Properly secured, a pipeline through Israel, Syria or Lebanon to the Mediterranean would be of tremendous value,” Blewer noted. “Until now, a major Syrian pipeline would have been a pipe dream.”

But the basic infrastructure for such a system is already in place.

In the 1940s, Bechtel built a 1,068-mile pipeline from Qaisumah in Saudi Arabia to Sidon port in Lebanon via Syria for what became Saudi Aramco.

The Trans-Arabian pipeline, or Tapline, could pump 500,000 barrels per day. It was closed during the 1967 Mideast war when Israel seized Syria's Golan Heights. It was reopened, but has been shut since 1976, when Lebanon's 15-year civil war erupted.

Copyright 2012 by United Press International