The Petro Principle: Thucydides, Oil Currencies, and the Syrian Civil War

It was Thucydides that introduced the concept of ‘Realism,’ a dog-eat-dog world where powerful states and nations compete in an anarchical universal system for resources and power. The strategic interactions between these states are based on patterns and these patterns are dependent on the hierarchy among these powerful nations; while a change in the hierarchy of small, weaker states doesn’t affect this international system, a change in the hierarchy of great nations, does. The fate of small, weaker states is therefore determined by needs and interactions of powerful nations. The current civil war in Syria is a great example of that.

Understanding “petrodollars” will help explain the importance of Syria’s civil war, and the urgent interest in the region by Russia and the United States (US), inarguably the two greatest powers involved in the resolution of this conflict. While the US is not dependent on the Middle East for its own oil consumption (Flintoff, 2012), it does depend on the Middle East to secure the US currency (Clark, 2005). When President Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard in 1971, he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger feared that the demand for the US dollar (USD) would fall; in order to avoid that, Kissinger was able to secure an agreement with the Saudi Royal family in which the US offered military aid to protect Saudi oil fields, and Saudi oil would be sold exclusively for USD; by 1975, all of OPEC had made a similar agreement. Because world oil could only be bought for USD, its currency demand was secured (Clark, 2005).

However in 2000, Iraq was found to have fraudulently used the UN’s “Oil for Food Programme” (OFF) in order to exchange its oil for euros, not dollars, a clear violation of its prior agreement with the United States (Clark, 2005). The US promptly invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, and Iraqi oil sales were returned to US currency (Hoyos, 2003).  The OFF scandal finally erupted on January 25, 2004, in an exposé published by the Iraqi daily paper, al Mada, and which implicated British, French, Russian, and Indian heads of state, as well as PNB Paribas bank, the Vatican, and the PLO in fraud. An investigation by the US House Committee on International Relations confirmed many of the allegations. (Washington Times, 2004).

The USD cannot afford a repeat performance of Iraq’s trade violation in the Middle East; therefore, securing Middle Eastern oil is imperative to the US economy. Cut to Syria, whose immense, newly discovered offshore oil and gas reserves rival those of Saudi Arabia and present a clear threat to the USD if not secured. In 2009, Qatar, an ally of the United States, attempted a deal with Syria’s President Bashar al Assad in order to establish a Qatari gas pipeline that would transport the resource from the Persian Gulf, through Syria, and into Turkey, another US ally; effectively giving Qatar (and the US) direct access to the rapidly expanding European gas market (Engdahl, 2014). Syria declined, citing its energy partnership with Russia, and instead signed a pipeline deal with Iran, Qatar’s regional rival. Almost immediately, a Qatari-backed, full-scale civil war exploded across Syria (Mazzeti, 2013). However, the chaos only served to give Russia the opportunity to secure the gas and oil reserves for itself, as the US was both economically and politically unable to act and impose its influence on Syria directly. On December 25, 2013, after almost 130,000 civilian deaths in Syria (Solomon, 2013) Russia finally signed a 25-year deal with the Syrian government, effectively giving Russia exploration and development rights to the vast majority of Syria’s offshore waters (Engdahl, 2014).

The Syrian civil war pegged the interests of Russia against those of the United States at the expense of the Syrian people, just as Thucydides predicted. Let us hope that Russia’s victory will, at least temporarily, put the conflict in Syria to rest.

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