Greek and other geostrategic interests in Syria, by Dr. Andreas Coutras*
It is not easy to fathom what is happening in Syria. When religious fanaticism is involved in a dispute, irrationality and barbarism prevail.
In Syria, the religious dispute is between Sunni and Shi’ah Muslims – rather analogous to the disputes between Orthodox and Catholic Christians from 800+ years ago. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has said that, whether with or without God, you can have good people doing good deeds, and bad people doing bad deeds – but in order to make good people do bad deeds, you need God’s blessing.
In the Middle East, all factions presume to possess the blessing of a God in whose name the most atrocious crimes are carried out.
The civil war that has been raging in Syria for two years now has claimed possibly up to 200, 000 lives (vs. ‘official’ estimates of 100, 000) and made refugees out of some 2, 000, 000 people; incidentally, the UN designation of the Syrian problem as ‘civil strife/war’ has bestowed the Syrian regime with the dubious legality of killing its own people ‘in self-defence’.
Syria is one of the most brutal and inhumane dictatorships on the planet, led by Bashar al Assad, the son of yet another brutal criminal, Hafez al Assad. The alleged recent use of chemical weapons against the rebels (the UN inspectors’ verdict is still pending) compares well to the use of cyanide gas (a.k.a. Prussic Acid, a.k.a. Zyklon-B in Nazi Germany’s extermination camps) in Hama in February 1982, when the regime poured diesel fuel down the city’s sewers and underground tunnels, and set it on fire, whilst tanks were waiting at the exits from the city to machine-gun down the civilians trying to flee the inferno to save their lives.
hat incident resulted in 20, 000 deaths, according to Amnesty International. In both instances, the enemy (and target) of the regime was/is the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathisers.
Yet behind all the usual divine invocations lie hidden interests (and states) seeking to profit from the bloodbath. In the case of Syria, we have three regional powers – Saudi Arabia (assisted by Qatar), Turkey and Iran, and two
global super-powers, namely the USA and Russia.
In Syria, the majority of the populace are Sunni, while the regime is dominated by the Shi’ah branch of the ʿAlaween (‘Alawites’ in English). Let us recall that the majority of Iranians and Iraqis are Shi’ah Muslims as well.
At the risk of over-simplification, we can distinguish between the warring factions as comprising (1) Iran, which supports the Alawite regime together with Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Syria has a tradition of invading and occupying Lebanon, and is responsible for several assassinations of prominent politicians such as Rafiq al Hariri), versus (2) Sunni Muslims, encompassing a substantial jihadi element (‘jihadists’), backed up by strands of al Qaeda and Turkey. Clearly, before we can look at the dispute through the (usually myopic) lenses of the USA and Russia, we have to understand what the local powers are after in the area.
On the one hand, Iran wants to expand its influence (which anyway has been extended in Iraq via the ascendancy of Shi’ah Muslims), and create an area of influence which stretches all the way to Lebanon and to Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel.
On the other hand, neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey look favourably on the strengthening of Iran’s influence, and both therefore support the jihadists, despite US objections.
Overall, a grand geostrategic game of local influence is being played out in the area.
Natural Gas The world’s largest natural gas field lies mostly in Qatar, but Qatar shares it partially with Iran. However, Qatar is able to extract the gas faster than Iran, causing the latter to accuse Qatar of depleting its naturalresource wealth. Qatar’s problem is that there is no pipeline to carry its natural gas to Europe, because such a pipeline would necessarily have to go through Syria; thus Qatar uses LNG carriers instead (could there be hidden Greek interests here?) Syria, therefore, with the encouragement of Iran – and more importantly of Russia (Gazprom) has blocked the construction of such a pipeline, which would break Gazprom’s monopoly in Western Europe. On this basis, a friendlier regime in Damascus would be to Europe’s benefit; however, the risk is that, with Assad gone, chances are that Syria will collapse into chaos, and his replacements will be fanatical Muslims. It is worth pondering what the position of Greece and Cyprus would be in the context of such an
outcome, given that Cyprus will shortly start producing natural gas, and Greece will likely do so as well in the future.
In addition, we also need to ponder the Kurdish factor in both Syria and Turkey, which impacts Greece indirectly. One of the ‘grand plans’ currently being touted involves the secession of northern Syria and the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Paradoxical as it may seem, Turkey itself was flirting with this scenario until recently, since the splitting of Syria and the creation of a Kurdish state in the form of a Turkish protectorate, controlled by Ankara, was always a distinct possibility. It appears, however, that the US have put a stop to such an initiative, and indeed several recent statements by Turkish officials, regarding the agreement(s) previously concluded with the Kurdish PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, evince a lot of wavering and copious duplicity. What we have here is a surreal situation, in which Turkey’s armed forces invade northern Iraq at their pleasure to kill Kurds, all the while they are assisting the Kurds of northern Syria!
Let us also recall that a weakened Syria is in Turkey’s benefit, given the festering territorial disputes between the two countries regarding the oil-rich region of Alexandretta where, incidentally, NATO has established its regional Command and Control Centre (NC3).
USA & Russia
America’s interests in Syria are limited, and revolve mainly around the curbing of Iran’s nuclear aspirations. In contrast, Russia has vital strategic interests in the region, over and above those involving its aforementioned natural-gas monopoly in Europe.
Russia maintains its single (but nevertheless large, and capable of both repair and supply operations) naval base in the Mediterranean, as well as its largest foreign eavesdropping facility, in the port of al Lādhiqīyah (‘Lattakia’), bordering Tartus to the south and Hama to the east. If the Russians end up having to leave Syria, the USA will have to compensate them by giving them ‘good consideration’ elsewhere (perhaps in Egypt, Greece or Cyprus – who knows). Moreover, Russia is worried that a potential fall of Assad’s regime will rekindle the bellicose fanaticism of its own Muslims within its borders (not just the Chechens, but others too).
The foregoing considerations prompt the conclusion that any intervention in Syria cannot be long-drawn-out, because the risk (and cost) of destabilising the region is high. A modest airborne or off-shore missile attack, as well as a no-fly zone over Syria, are most likely to be implemented. The latter will prevent Iran from supplying the regime (which it can only do by air). The problem is that all wars are ultimately unpredictable in terms of outcome, and for any local or global power (no matter how strong) to presume that it can man-handle the locals into submission would constitute hubris (as the Vietnam experience shows).
Moreover, and sadly so, wars such as the one being waged in Syria tend to degenerate into escalating violence, mostly against noncombatants.
The delicate balance between the expansionist aspirations of Iran, Turkey, and fanatical Muslims can only result in misery, death and brutality – invariably “in the name of God” . Within the context of i t s relationships and alliances, Greece should consider seriously the impact of the Syrian conflict on its long-term interests, leaving all sentimentality and political dogmas aside.
Greece’s interests in the region are not negligible: they revolve around how Turkey will behave if it is allowed to emerge as a major regional power – not only in respect of energy supply to Europe via Syria, but also in respect of the festering issue of Cyprus.
Unfortunately, the potential humanitarian issue of the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of refugees who may seek safety in Greece (and thence safe passage elsewhere) figures lower down the priority list.
*About the Author:
Dr. Andreas Koutras has worked for 15 years as a fixed-income derivatives structurer and regulated
investment advisor across CEEMEA. He started his career at Lehman Brothers as fixed-income quantitative
analyst and derivatives modeler, where he implemented a 3-factor arbitrage-free interest-rate model and
ancillary optimisation techniques for bond portfolia and relative-value trades, before moving to exotic
derivatives and structured products, where he structured and priced innovative ALM solutions for European
Subsequently, Andreas worked at Nea Capital (now MacroCapital) as equity & fixed-income quantitative
structurer/modeller, including a year-long stint in India (2001), during which he developed a local equityderivatives platform and traded Indian stock indices and derivatives. In 2004, he joined the structuring desk of Bank of Montreal in London, out of which he advised private banks in CH and across the EU on structured investments and hedging solutions. In 2006, Andreas became head of interest-rate and hybrids structuring at CALyon in London, leading the desk through its best period ever in terms of both volumes and revenues. In 2007 he became additionally responsible for Greece, spearheaded a fixed-income marketing campaign in the Middle East, North & South Africa and Europe (ex-France), and covered central banks and government debt agencies on liability management. His last sell-side position was with Royal Bank of Canada, as complex interest-rate derivatives structurer.
In his capacity as partner of market intelligence provider ITC Markets, Andreas advises a multitude of prominent institutional investors, including some of the world’s biggest banks and asset managers, on central bank policy and the EU debt crisis. He is regularly hosted and quoted by Bloomberg and other mainstream media worldwide, and appears frequently, as speaker or panelist, in prestigious industry and investor conferences around the world, as well as public lectures and specialist events in academic venues such as the London School of Economics.
Andreas holds a BSc (First Class Honours) in Astrophysics and a PhD in General Relativity from the University of London, as well as a Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge (Part III of the Maths Tripos). He has written several articles in prominent scientific journals, and is the author of the widely-cited ‘Koutras Algorithm’ for Killing tensors in General Relativity. In addition, Andreas has spent two years as post-doctoral General Relativity research fellow at Max Planck Gesellschaft / Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena (Germany), and another 2 years in the same capacity as NATO Advanced Fellow in Applied Mathematics and Cosmology at the University of London.
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