The strategic plane: Russia in the Mideast energy cauldron

Emad El-Din Aysha
9 Min Read
Emad El-Din Aysha

A journalist friend had told me a while ago, without naming who or when, that Russia was ready for a major strategic entrance into the region through its air campaign in Syria, compensating for all those years of being muscled out of the region with the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism.

He also told me there was a strong set of economic motives involved in this, since the Russians had first tried to re-enter the region through the Israeli natural gas finds, offering to provide the offshore platforms with a de facto security umbrella from pesky terrorist missile attacks. But the Israelis would not budge – hence the Syrian campaign and Syria’s own not insignificant oil and natural gas resources entering firmly into the Russian orbit. What happened with the downed Russian fighter-jet was to be expected, given that Turkey woke up one day and found that their neighbour to the south had just become a giant Russian military base, placing the country in a pincer movement with the Russians to the north and south.

Syria has always been Russia’s bridgehead into the Middle East and Mediterranean, especially ever since Stalin lost Yugoslavia to the Non-Aligned Movement (and NATO). That is why the Soviets did not back Syria’s unity with Egypt, threatened late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser over keeping Syria in the union by force, and were not even very keen on Syria uniting with Iraq. They were also keener on punishing the Israelis in the wake of the 1967 War over Syria than they ever were with Egypt. Abdel Nasser was too independent to control and a Syria united with a regional power like Egypt, or Iraq, could lose them a compliant ally. So there are parallels the between what’s happening now and what took place during the height of the Cold War.

The same holds true, in my humble opinion, of the ill-fated Russian passenger plane crash in Egypt on 31 October. It has been said that the bomb used – if indeed it was a bomb – was an altitude-sensitive device, which recalls Lockerbie. It could be, and this is just a supposition, that Russia is being punished for its regional ambitions, especially as those ambitions do not seem to be directed at “Islamic State” (IS), but rather only at the Syrian opposition, Islamists and non-Islamists alike.

Lockerbie was certainly utilised to go after Gaddafi, another Soviet ally in the Mediterranean, and that tragic event was used to embargo his country into long-term Western submission. Look how France has been drawn into Syria with the Paris attacks. And Russia and France are both allies of Egypt. Our tourist industry has been hit before by terror attacks, and Russian (and Ukrainian) tourists have always been the more loyal to the country, staying here in droves no matter how unstable things get, unlike the Western variety.

Iran was “punished” itself during the Iran-Iraq war, when the Americans accidentally shot down a civilian plane too, so these tactics are all too familiar even to the untrained eye. It is also disturbing that a technology from the 1980s (altitude-sensitive triggers) is making a comeback, which would indicate that the people responsible are old-timers themselves, not part of the cyber-terrorism generation at all.

Even if IS’s proclamations of guilt are not a propaganda ploy, that does not mean there are not prying hands operating behind the scenes. Look what Nafeez Ahmed has uncovered over the culpability of NATO members in harbouring Islamists of all walks operating in Syria. Turkey, it seems, has been selectively bombing Syria itself, while Iraqi oil is smuggled through the country. This does not mean the central government has anything to do with it but, if history is a guide, during the long drawn out war with the PKK drugs trafficking took place on both sides to fund or profiteer from the conflict.

Ahmed also surmises that oil and gas are a big part of the equation given that Syria is a planned outlet for Iranian oil and gas to the, you guessed, Mediterranean. We can add here IS’s role in further depressing the global price of oil, literally selling individual barrels at $30 or less. What is seldom understood about Iraq is that the country never supported the Arab oil embargo during the 1973 October War. Iraq has always been more concerned with expanding its market share than buoying up profits from a rising price of oil. A higher price would actually lose it customers to its cheaper competitors.

To quote the dearly departed Saddam Hussein: “There are attempts by imperialist and Zionist quarters in the world to distort the Arab attitude concerning oil. They constantly try to connect inflation to price increases, forgetting or ignoring the role of industrialised countries, monopolies and stock-exchange bargains in the question of inflation. These are the basic factors in inflation where oil forms a minor part. As a part of this plan, these attempts try to isolate the Arabs from the Third World countries by suggesting that the economic difficulties of those countries are basically caused by oil price increase.” (Quoted in Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Policies in Perspective: Text of President Saddam Hussein’s Press Conference, 20 July, 1980, Baghdad, 1981).

How prophetic, given the surge in oil prices that extended from 2003, when Iraq was invaded, to 2014, when Saudi Arabia all of a sudden decided it was time to over-produce. Speculation in the commodities markets was to blame at the time, and inflation is going up everywhere, even with low fuel prices. Remember that oil prices collapsed in the 1990s, even though Iraq was completely offline thanks to the sanctions regime. IS activity is also scaring off American oil companies operating in the post-invasion regime.

If I did not know better I would suspect that the Americans wanted to eliminate IS for the same reason they got rid of Saddam – to ensure that Iraqis could not push prices down whenever they felt like it. But, again, these are just (educated guesses).

Irrespective of whoever or whatever was responsible the Russian passenger plane, it will not keep the Russians out of the region. It will probably have the opposite effect. Russia is not as landlocked as it was during the Cold War, and the US is not as all-powerful as it once was either. The Arabs have woken up, more or less, on the mass scale and some Arab capitals are prying themselves loose both of US and Russian control. Meanwhile, Putin is on the warpath, and he will keep at it until he finds out who really did it, and there will be hell to pay, and we are likely to benefit in the end.

Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas.

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