Streetwise Professor

September 8, 2013

If Syria Is All About a Qatari Pipeline, Why Are the Saudis Trying to Overthrow Assad?

Filed under: Energy,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 1:03 pm

The latest conspiracy theory regarding Syria is that this is all a Qatari plot designed to open up a route for a natural gas pipeline.  (Google Qatar Syria Gas Pipeline and you get about 1.3 million hits, virtually all of the first several hundred are about this theory.)

Several comments.

First, consider the source.  This is has been a Syrian propaganda line since very early on.

Second, consider who is flogging this theory, notably Alex Jones and Zerohedge, both of whom are reliable Putin pilot fish, with the former being a notorious propagator of outlandish conspiracy theories involving the US government, including 911 Truther type conspiracies.

Third, and by far most importantly, the theory doesn’t explain one crucial fact: Saudi support for Assad’s overthrow.  Indeed, if this reductionist conspiracy theory were correct, the Saudis would be throwing everything behind Assad, not trying to oust him.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had a testy relationship for decades, and since the Arab Spring and the ascent of the new Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid Al-Thani especially, that relationship has degenerated into a shadow war fought through proxies throughout the Middle East.  This is most evident in Egypt, where Qatar backed the Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government, and the Saudis backed the military, and bankrolled its overthrow of that government.

The KSA-Qatar battle centers on the latter’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the former’s hatred of that organization.  (H/T @libertylynx)

With respect to gas specifically, Saudi Arabia has consistently blocked, or attempted to block, Qatari pipeline plans.  KSA scuppered a Qatar-Kuwait pipeline and vetoed another pipeline that would have traversed Saudi Arabia.  It tried and failed to stop a Qatar-UAE pipeline.

Saudi Arabia does everything it can to stop Qatari pipelines.  It doesn’t bankroll rebellions or importune the US to facilitate them.

It should also be noted that the main discussion of a pipeline from Qatar that would traverse Syria dates from 2009, when Turkey and Qatar announced that they would study the idea.  The concept at the time was that this pipeline would supply gas for the Nabucco pipeline into Europe.  But Nabucco’s prospects were never good, and it was formally killed earlier this year.  Remember that there are far more pipeline ideas announced, often to much fanfare, than actual pipelines actually built.  Spending billions to fund a war to build a pipeline with bleak economic prospects doesn’t seem like all that great a project for cagey investors like the Qataris.

For religious, political, and economic reasons, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are foes not friends.  So if it was all about gas, perhaps Qatar would be trying to overthrow Assad, but Saudi Arabia would be trying to stymie Qatar.  Perhaps if it was all about gas, a bloody stalemate would be in the KSA’s best interest.  Or perhaps, KSA would even support Assad.  But if it’s all about gas, there is no way the KSA would be backing Assad’s overthrow, funding rebels, and lobbying the US to intervene.  It is even rumored that the Saudis would participate in an air campaign against Assad.  They wouldn’t do that if the ultimate outcome would be to empower the Qataris and allow them to achieve objectives the Saudis have tried to stymie for years.  The KSA isn’t going to fight Qatar’s wars.

So the conspiracy story doesn’t explain a vital fact: if you squint really hard it might-might-explain what Qatar is doing, but it doesn’t explain what Saudi Arabia is doing. And it’s even worse than that: the explanation of the Qatari action would lead you to predict the Saudis would do the exact opposite of what they are doing.  That’s a pretty big fail.

Truth be told, I have no idea what is really motivating the Saudis and the Qataris.  In the murky world of the Middle East, it is an act of extreme confidence to predict what these countries are really up to.  There are circles within circles, personal feuds, dynastic and family dynamics, and on and on.

Which means that the US should look to its interests, and to its ability to mitigate humanitarian catastrophe, when contemplating intervention.  Trying to unravel the games the Saudis and Qataris are playing is a mug’s game.  Define an objective, determine what means are necessary to achieve that objective, and determine whether the cost of achieving it is worthwhile.  Don’t get distracted by conspiracy theories, especially those that don’t fit a very important fact.

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