Russia’s belligerence in Syria has renewed debates about Russian motives. James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, and Xenia Wickett, project director for the United States at Chatham House, probably put it best in their recent article: “Why, ‘logically’, would a country buckling under the strain of a crippled economy and which has itself been a recent victim of extremist terror, open up a second front of military operations far away from its traditional theatre of military engagement in the former Soviet space? And what else, other than ulterior motives to those officially stated, could explain Russia’s targeting of Syrian groupings other than ISIS strongholds?”
One answer is natural gas. Specifically, most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe. In short, as Iran emerges from international sanctions and its massive gas reserves become available for export, Syria’s gas war is heating up.
In 1989, Qatar and Iran began to develop the South Pars/North Dome field, which is buried 3,000 meters below the floor of the Persian Gulf. With 51 trillion cubic meters of gas and 50 billion cubic meters of liquid condensates, it is the largest natural gas field in the world. Approximately one-third of its riches lie in Iranian waters and two-thirds in Qatari ones.
Since the discovery, Qatar has invested heavily in liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants and terminals that enable it to ship its gas around the world in tankers. Yet liquefaction and shipping increase total costs and, particularly as gas prices have slipped, Qatari gas has remained easily undercut in European markets by cheaper pipeline gas from Russia and elsewhere. And so, in 2009, Qatar proposed to build a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey, an investment of billions of dollars up front that would reduce transportation costs over the long term. However, Syrian President Bashar al Assad refused to sign the plan; Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined, put him under intense pressure not to.
At the same time, Iran, sensing an opportunity, and lacking export infrastructure for its own massive gas reserves, proposed an…