Geopolitics of energy dominates the crisis in Syria. Foreign powers continue to battle for control of natural gas resources and the trade routes that bring energy to consumers. The role of energy in expanding the conflict in Syria is crucial but important element is the fact that the Syrian army and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have made major gains against ISIS’s hold over lucrative oil wells.
The US leverage over Syria’s oil and gas fields such as the al-Omar and Tanak oil fields through the American supported SDF is a reported reality. Notably, al-Omar is Syria’s largest oil field that produced approximately 30 thousand barrels per day before 2011 when the Syrian crisis erupted, while the Tanak field maintains 150 wells with capacity to produce around40 thousand barrels per day. This leverage can be used either as a bargaining chip in forthcoming negotiations with the Assad regime for the political future of Syria, or for finding new markets for the Arab country’s energy. The latter can be achieved by supporting the construction of a pipeline that would transfer Syrian energy to either Turkey or Iraq.
Syrian oil controlled by the SDF could be transferred to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) whose existing oil pipeline infrastructure will funnel Syrian energy to the European market. The benefits of this export option will be multifold for American policies in the region as the KRG will gain revenues in the form of royalties that could ease the budget crisis attributed to low oil prices and also fund the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
The US influence is also strengthened by the SDF’s control of the two largest dams in Syria; the Tabqa dam a 824-MW powerhouse that is a key source for water, agriculture and electricity at Euphrates 25km west of Raqqah and, the Soviet-built dam in western Raqqah. The control towers and stations of both dams have been destroyed, and as consequence, heavy investment is needed for the development and redesigning of these facilities. This presents a golden opportunity for the US not only to implement its advanced technology in the two dams but also to solidify control over vital reservoirs that will grant Washington a major foothold in Syria.
It has to be noted that the combined capacity of Syria’s two refineries at Banias and Homs is very low due to their significant damage once under the control of IS. Thus a major investment is required taking into account that neighboring export destinations like Turkey and Iraq lack of refineries that can treat Syrian crude oil with more than 0.5% sulfur. Reportedly, the only European country that can receive Syrian crude oil is Germany whose Beta facility is designed to accommodate high-sulfur and high-acid crudes.
Syria is also a promising zone of natural gas reserves in the territorial waters off its Mediterranean coast where Russia seeks to maintain investment in the energy sector. This is evidenced by the fact that energy giant Gazprom has reportedly taken over the gas exploration and drilling rights off the Syrian coast from Russian state-controlled Soyuzneftegaz, which in 2014 signed a 25-year agreement with the Syrian government that concedes exclusive exploration rights in Syria’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Notably, Syria’s offshore blocks 1 and 3 lie in an area contested by Lebanon and therefore a possible dispute between the two countries may impede Damascus from exploring its offshore oil and gas potential.
No doubt that the US presence in Syria can be solidified through control and investment over Syria’s oil and gas fields. For example, American investment to restore the Conoco gas plant in eastern Syria currently under the control of the US-supported SDF can prove to be significant as it can produce almost 50 million cubic feet of gas per day. Also critical is the likelihood of American investment in the two cited largest dams that will provide Washington not only control over vital reservoirs but most important bargaining power in future negotiations with the Assad regime. Concurrently, the US can use Syria’s reconstruction as an opportunity to push for stronger governance and transparency in the Syrian energy sector.
The resolution of the Syrian conflict as a prerequisite for the development of the country’s untapped offshore gas resources and for attracting foreign investment in the context of regional energy cooperation is realistically important. Because this way, the monopolization of the Syrian regime by third countries that aim to control the shores of the Mediterranean, and thereby to establish export plants and control natural gas exported to third markets will be avoided.
Unquestionably, conflict resolution is the only way for the development of Syria’s energy potential and for moving towards regional stability. Upon this context, challenges and opportunities facing American diplomacy lie ahead.