In his 1935 book, “War is a Racket,” the late Major General Smedley Butler wrote that he was “in short… a gangster for capitalism.” Butler spoke of the role his Marines played in securing oil interests for American companies from Mexico to China in the 1920’s and ‘30’s.
His words are worth remembering as Washington and its allies deliver the opening salvo against ISIS’s economic and military nerve centers, in what could prove to be another protracted campaign in the heart of the Arab world.
Even Paris, once the leading voice of dissention amongst Western states prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, dispatched its own Mirage warplanes, striking targets in Iraq under President Francois Hollande’s increasingly interventionist foreign policy.
The case for war has focused on the imminent threat posed by ISIS and a more violent offshoot, the Khorasan group, to the West. Grizzly beheading videos of American journalists, a British aid worker, and, most recently, a French citizen by an Algerian group sympathetic to ISIS’s cause, have been broadly circulated by media-savvy militants, ramping up support for an escalated response.
ISIS maybe sitting on large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi land, threatening to plot attacks against Western cities, perhaps with bombs in smartphones, and sack Baghdad, Damascus, and, at one point, Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, but they are also a clot in an artery of some of the most valuable oil and gas pipelines.
American airstrikes effectively quelled the threat to Erbil. As Steve Coll argued in the New Yorker, Obama’s decision to stop ISIS from advancing into the relatively prosperous Kurdish enclave had more to do with securing energy interests than preventing a massacre.
“Obama’s defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state,” Coll wrote.
Now, as Obama vows to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the deadly scramble for resources and the Qatari and Iranian battle to deliver natural gas to Europe, remains at the center of the vastly supported air campaign in Syria and Iraq.
In the waters of the Persian Gulf, the South Pars/North Field gas reserve, the largest in the world, is shared equally by Qatar and Iran. It constitutes “nearly all of Qatar’s gas production and around 60 percent of its export revenues,” according to a Reuters report.
“Multi-billion dollar plants built with big Western energy companies have helped Qatar become the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, while Western sanctions have prevented Iran from mirroring that success,” the report added.
Tehran has consequently sought an alternative export route to fuel Europe. Bashar Al-Assad duly obliged in July of 2011, penning a $10 billion gas pipeline deal that would secure passage of Iranian gas from the Pars reserves through Iraq and Syria, and onwards to Turkey’s Nabucco pipeline network, which has a window to Europe, the primary target market fighting to extricate itself from Russian oil and gas dependency. Russia is currently Europe’s largest supplier.
The deal was struck after Damascus had rejected a similar proposal by Qatar in order “to protect the interests of [Assad’s] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas,” according to The Guardian.
As the brutal Syrian civil war raged, the Financial Times reported in 2013 that Qatar had “spent as much as $3bn over the past two years supporting the rebellion in Syria, far exceeding any other government.”
Whether Doha is playing kingmaker to further its export revenues is uncertain, but Iran’s staunch defense of Assad’s regime, effectively establishing a proxy war between the two pipeline rivals, lends credence to the argument.
ISIS’s expanded presence across Syria has severely hampered the country’s role as a regional oil transit hub, a gateway between the Persian Gulf and Europe, and stalled Iranian oil exports to Iraq.
The group sits on Iranian pipeline routes in both Iraq and Syria, siphoning and smuggling oil and gas to cement their status as the world’s wealthiest bad guys. Blocking Iranian gas supplies from reaching Syria would seem to serve Doha’s interests.
Qatar, however, has vehemently denied funding or arming ISIS, but the German Development Minister Gerd Mueller said that “Qatar is the ‘keyword’ when it comes to IS financing.” Retired U.S. General Wesley Clarke echoed that sentiment, implicating Saudi Arabia as well.
The interests of the West are evident: clear a path for Persian Gulf oil and gas to reach Europe so Russia’s stranglehold on the continent’s energy needs can be eased. It’s no surprise that the U.S. bombing campaign targeting oil refineries which generated revenue for ISIS was preceded by new sanctions on Russia’s largest energy companies.
Vladimir Putin is often denounced for transforming a Russia with much promise into a gangster state. As the world’s latest war kicks off, gangsterism remains abound.