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Engaging the Muslim World

Engaging the Muslim World

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Twenty-First-Century Energy Wars

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Posted on Jul 10, 2014

Photo by James Jordan (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, the East and South China Seas: wherever you look, the world is aflame with new or intensifying conflicts.  At first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances.  But look more closely and they share several key characteristics— notably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy.

In each of these conflicts, the fighting is driven in large part by the eruption of long-standing historic antagonisms among neighboring (often intermingled) tribes, sects, and peoples.  In Iraq and Syria, it is a clash among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, and others; in Nigeria, among Muslims, Christians, and assorted tribal groupings; in South Sudan, between the Dinka and Nuer; in Ukraine, between Ukrainian loyalists and Russian-speakers aligned with Moscow; in the East and South China Sea, among the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and others.  It would be easy to attribute all this to age-old hatreds, as suggested by many analysts; but while such hostilities do help drive these conflicts, they are fueled by a most modern impulse as well: the desire to control valuable oil and natural gas assets.  Make no mistake about it, these are twenty-first-century energy wars.

It should surprise no one that energy plays such a significant role in these conflicts.  Oil and gas are, after all, the world’s most important and valuable commodities and constitute a major source of income for the governments and corporations that control their production and distribution.  Indeed, the governments of Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, South Sudan, and Syria derive the great bulk of their revenues from oil sales, while the major energy firms (many state-owned) exercise immense power in these and the other countries involved.  Whoever controls these states, or the oil- and gas-producing areas within them, also controls the collection and allocation of crucial revenues.  Despite the patina of historical enmities, many of these conflicts, then, are really struggles for control over the principal source of national income.

Moreover, we live in an energy-centric world where control over oil and gas resources (and their means of delivery) translates into geopolitical clout for some and economic vulnerability for others.  Because so many countries are dependent on energy imports, nations with surpluses to export—including Iraq, Nigeria, Russia, and South Sudan—often exercise disproportionate influence on the world stage.  What happens in these countries sometimes matters as much to the rest of us as to the people living in them, and so the risk of external involvement in their conflicts—whether in the form of direct intervention, arms transfers, the sending in of military advisers, or economic assistance—is greater than almost anywhere else.

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The struggle over energy resources has been a conspicuous factor in many recent conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Gulf War of 1990-1991, and the Sudanese Civil War of 1983-2005.  On first glance, the fossil-fuel factor in the most recent outbreaks of tension and fighting may seem less evident.  But look more closely and you’ll see that each of these conflicts is, at heart, an energy war.

Iraq, Syria, and ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni extremist group that controls large chunks of western Syria and northern Iraq, is a well-armed militia intent on creating an Islamic caliphate in the areas it controls.  In some respects, it is a fanatical, sectarian religious organization, seeking to reproduce the pure, uncorrupted piety of the early Islamic era.  At the same time, it is engaged in a conventional nation-building project, seeking to create a fully functioning state with all its attributes.

As the United States learned to its dismay in Iraq and Afghanistan, nation-building is expensive: institutions must be created and financed, armies recruited and paid, weapons and fuel procured, and infrastructure maintained.  Without oil (or some other lucrative source of income), ISIS could never hope to accomplish its ambitious goals.  However, as it now occupies key oil-producing areas of Syria and oil-refining facilities in Iraq, it is in a unique position to do so.  Oil, then, is absolutely essential to the organization’s grand strategy.

Syria was never a major oil producer, but its prewar production of some 400,000 barrels per day did provide the regime of Bashar al-Assad with a major source of income.  Now, most of the country’s oil fields are under the control of rebel groups, including ISIS, the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and local Kurdish militias.  Although production from the fields has dropped significantly, enough is being extracted and sold through various clandestine channels to provide the rebels with income and operating funds.  “Syria is an oil country and has resources, but in the past they were all stolen by the regime,” said Abu Nizar, an anti-government activist.  “Now they are being stolen by those who are profiting from the revolution.”

At first, many rebel groups were involved in these extractive activities, but since January, when it assumed control of Raqqa, the capital of the province of that name, ISIS has been the dominant player in the oil fields.  In addition, it has seized fields in neighboring Deir al-Zour Province along the Iraq border.  Indeed, many of the U.S.-supplied weapons it acquired from the fleeing Iraqi army after its recent drive into Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities have been moved into Deir al-Zour to help in the organization’s campaign to take full control of the region.  In Iraq, ISIS is fighting to gain control over Iraq’s largest refinery at Baiji in the central part of the country.


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