How Far Can The Syria Conflict Spiral Out Of Control?

Yves here. I have a minor quibble with this article. The interviewee is correct to say that Putin has charged Turkey with buying oil from ISIS. However, some independent reports indicate that Turkey is trafficking in ISIS oil, as opposed to buying it for internal use. That might allow for narrowly accurate but substantively misleading denial, not that anyone is all that fastidious about accuracy in war.

By James Stafford, Editor in Chief of OilPrice. Originally published at OilPrice
Business is business, so why not buy oil from ISIS. The Russians claim the Turks are doing it, and in all likelihood even Assad is buying it. No one can fight a war without oil, according to Robert Bensh, partner and managing director of Pelicourt LLC oil and gas company. But while the politically unhinged are coming out the woodwork, the more important aspects of this story remain elusive to the public. Is the dangerously unspoken theory that ISIS is a bulwark against Iran what’s keeping the West from tackling the Islamic State wholeheartedly on its territory? With no nation that can control it, the threat is now out of control and a war of ambiguous targets is emerging.

In an exclusive interview with James Stafford of Oilprice.com, Bensh discusses:

• How far the Russia-Turkey spat can go economically
• The fallout effects for countries caught in between
• What Russia wants
• What Turkey wants
• What other geopolitical purposes ISIS serves
• Why ISIS can’t be controlled
• How Shi’ite radical groups differ
• Why we’re looking at a possible remapping of a significant part of the energy arena
• Why we shouldn’t listen to billionaire buffoons

James Stafford: Just over a week after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet targeting ISIS oil facilities in northern Syria and Moscow’s imposition of ‘special economic measures’ against Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Ankara that this “cowardly military crime” won’t be taken lightly with just a ban on imports of “tomatoes or some restrictions in the construction and other industries.” Putin also reverted to Allah, noting that ‘perhaps, Allah decided to punish the ruling clique of Turkey by depriving it of its mind and reason.” How much farther can this spat go from a geo-economic standpoint?

Robert Bensh: Russia and Turkey have a great deal of economic interdependence, and nowhere more than in the energy sector. There has been no talk of cutting Russian gas to Turkey, and I don’t see how Russia can afford this right now. Turkey is not only a significant customer for Russia, but it’s also a key gas-transit point.

James Stafford: So what does Turkey want?

Robert Bensh: The better question is: “What does Erdogan want?” You know, Putin’s probably not too far off in his statement referring to Erdogan’s loss of “mind and reason”. Erdogan has been going down this path little by little for some time and it’s no secret that he has some megalomaniacal tendencies that grow more and more out of control every year. It would seem that he has dreams of a return of the Ottoman Empire—and that ISIS could be a logical ally to that end. Of course, ISIS is not likely looking to be beholden to another Ottoman Empire controlling a greater Sunni-Arab dominion. Many, many Turks fail to share this dream with their leader, and his ambitions will also be his eventual downfall unfortunately.

For the Turkish regime, there is also the idea that ISIS will ostensibly give them more power against the rise of the Kurds, both in southeastern Turkey and in northern Syria. It will even raise the Turks’ status in the face of the Saudis whose oil wealth has make them more powerful than the Turks in many ways.

James Stafford: Ok, so what does Russia want?

Robert Bensh: The Russian stance on Syria has been less ambiguous: support Assad and strike ISIS. For Russia, there are a couple of ‘domestic’ angles to this as well. One—they have a radical Islamic problem always on the point of revival in the North Caucasus. The more ISIS is emboldened and empowered, the higher the threat to Russia from within its own borders. Two—the Levant Basin oil and gas prospects. Israel has already made geopolitically game-changing gas discoveries in its part of this basin. Lebanon—if it ever passes the necessary legislation—will also start exploring its part of this prolific basin. Syria has a part in this too, and the Russians already have the right to explore under Assad. They certainly won’t have it under an ISIS-created Sunni caliphate.

James Stafford: Russia claims to have evidence that Turkey was buying oil from ISIS. How much merit do you think there is to this claim?

Robert Bensh: I am not privy to this evidence, but I can tell you this. It certainly has merit in theory. In all likelihood ISIS is even selling oil to the Assad regime that it is fighting against in Syria. Assad needs oil; ISIS needs money. Business is business, even in war and even with your enemies.

James Stafford: What we want to know is why is the West holding back against ISIS? We hear conflicting reports about the targets of air strikes and we can’t get a clear picture.

Robert Bensh: Listen, this is all about Iran at the end of the day, and continually about the Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power. While the West shuffles back and forth uncertain whether to destroy Assad or to destroy the ISIS monster that they helped to create to destroy Assad, and which also in large part arose out of the ashes of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein and radically upset the Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power.

James Stafford: Can Western countries, or NATO, effectively defeat ISIS?

Robert Bensh: I suppose the more answerable question is whether the West is willing to truly fight ISIS—at least on ISIS’ territory.

James Stafford: Let me interrupt you here … That’s where many of our readers get lost in this chaos. Why does there seem to be no concerted military move against ISIS by Western nations, aside from the on-and-off airstrikes, the targets of which there is also a great deal of ambiguity?

Robert Bensh: First, let me just stress that I am not a military man, nor am I a politician or a diplomat. I’m a businessman; and businessmen look at things a bit differently because they need to be able to see where things are going and what that means for investments. What I see right now is a great deal of uncertainty as to who the real ‘enemy’ is—or, rather, who the worse enemy is.

There appears to have been for some time an overriding and unspoken conviction that ISIS was a convenient bulwark against an increase in Iranian power, in Shi’ite power. Either propping up ISIS or only half-heartedly pushing it back is a way to keep Iran subdued. This is a mistake that the West has made time again and refuses to learn from. When that bulwark comes back to launch terrorist attacks in your country—well, then it’s too late to rethink strategy effectively.

But here’s the part that I think everyone misses in this cynical way of looking at geopolitics and alliances that are forged along the lines of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”: Iran can control its Shi’ite radicals. No one can control the Sunni insurgents.

James Stafford: Why is that?

Robert Bensh: That’s easy—and this is where the historical lesson is continually ignored. The Sunni radical groups have been used over and over as a means of destabilizing regimes or the like, and then the modus operandi has always been to cut them loose. So they are armed, organized in a rather haphazard manner and on their own.

James Stafford: From a geopolitical standpoint, can you give us any prognosis for how the ISIS threat or the Russia-Turkey spat could extend with new alliances or other upsets to the balance of power?

Robert Bensh: We are now seeing a clearer re-mapping of geopolitical relationships. And more specifically, geopolitical agendas—some shrouded for some time; others simply incoherent—will surface in the light of day.

James Stafford: Well, we know that Russia-U.S. relations remain deadlocked over Assad and Ukraine, and we know that Russian-Turkish relations are at a dangerous tipping point—but are there some less obvious re-alignments?

Robert Bensh: Ok, let’s take Kazakhstan for instance—a country that is enormously important in the energy equation. Kazakhstan is a geopolitically complicated arena right now. On one hand, it belongs to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and boasts Russia as its largest trading partner. But Turkey is also a fairly significant trading partner for Kazakhstan and Turkish companies play a major role in Kazakhstan. These are highly strategic relationships, and one could argue that Turkey is the more strategically important for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s response to Turkey’s downing of the Russian plane illustrates the difficult position in which Kazakhstan finds itself, with one official condemning the Turkish move and then the Foreign Ministry immediately toning that down. It’s trying desperately to maintain neutrality, but this will not be possible.

James Stafford: What does that mean for oil?

Robert Bensh: Again, to even attempt to determine the possible outcome, you have to follow the oil. Kazakhstan’s oil is largely exported through the Black Sea and then the Mediterranean. Turkey holds a major card here because it controls the Turkish Straits and could choose to block Russian tankers. Kazakhstan’s only real path right now is to pay lip service to Turkey to ensure no closing of the straits and to maintain a fair balance with Russia at the same time, but it’s the Turkish Straits that will be first and foremost on its mind.

James Stafford: Thank you for your time. I know that our audience—and most of the American public at least—is desperate to understand what’s really going on here; who ISIS actually is; and who everyone’s supposed to be scared of. This creates a huge amount of public insecurity, and that fear breeds all kinds of other dangers, not to mention support for ill-advised strategies.

Robert Bensh: Here’s the thing. This is when all the crazies come out of the woodwork—and I won’t even waste your time with certain attention-seeking billionaire buffoons here. There are very few analysts in the world who can paint a big picture for you here. No one can truly predict what will come next. ISIS is loosely comprised of too many different groups and alliances, and the emerging threat is becoming much more individual, which makes it much more unpredictable. And as far as geopolitics are concerned, agendas in this game are more often than not being made up as we go along. For the energy industry, it’s touch-and-go. The fate of key pipelines is in question and this conflict threatens to redraw some significant chunks of the energy map.

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28 comments

  1. Jim McKay

    Yves: I think your “quibble” is… indeed minor.

    Larger picture of what’s really going on with Turkey’s intentions driven by Ergodan, Bensh’s correct description of Ergo’s character and flaws, and less explicitly stated US (he says “west”) 1/2 ass efforts to defeat IS despite US leaders (from WH to Congress) emphatic claims otherwise…

    These are realities. Whatever small portion of US electorate reads here, at least a few are being introduced to this. We are heading into another election with… in my view, more deeply entrenched public opinions on this based on lies, then maybe any time I recall my entire life. It’s just, the game is bigger now with more potential for longer lasting catastrophe if we don’t find a way to right our ship.

    I appreciate this article… it’s on the right track. Only other thing I’d mention: amidst all this, we’ve had recent international climate meetings with little progress. Clearly, this is bigger problem for entire planet that nobody will escape. I’m stuck by Bensh’s comments on protecting their investments (oil) and how the various players he mentions all make decisions based on… oil. It over rides, it seems…everything else that matters.

    The planet needs to get behind renewables, and develop them… fast. It’s not so hard to see how doing so would change these other geo-political games forever.

  2. financial matters

    I think taking the ‘businessman’ look at this is not a bad way to look at it. As Adam Hanieh has pointed out

    https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/12/isis-syria-iraq-war-al-qaeda-arab-spring/

    “Coupled with unparalleled levels of socioeconomic insecurity, Sunni marginalization produced a real social base whose attraction to ISIS goes beyond religious or ideological factors.”

    and also

    “ISIS may project a utopic promise of stability and prosperity, but this is far from the reality on the ground. We can be absolutely certain that it will experience its own internal revolts, as similarly declarative examples of Islamic “states” have faced in the past.

    Despite all the setbacks of the last few years, the potential growth of a genuinely left alternative has not been extinguished and, most importantly, has never been more necessary.”

    ——

    William Polk echoes this idea of the importance of a non-military and non-police response.

    https://consortiumnews.com/2015/11/17/falling-into-the-isis-trap/

    “–The results of insurgency are described in my book Violent Politics. There I have shown that in a variety of societies over the last two centuries in various parts of Africa, Asia and Europe, guerrillas have nearly always accomplished their objectives despite even the most draconian counterinsurgency tactics.”

    His point being that dealing with the fundamental socioeconomic imbalances/repression can be more effective.

  3. Eureka Springs

    Interesting to me as much for what is not considered by oil businessmen.

    A few quick points:

    No mention of human suffering, not even in cost/opportunity terms.
    No mention of rule of law.
    No mention of what happens to the earths climate/ecosystem if all the oil and gas at stake is unleashed.
    No mention of who many of the business players are, certainly not in detail. No mention of Erdogans family, Tony Hayward, trafficking / selling this stolen oil… Nor mention of Israel being the major end buyer.
    When mentioning Assad buys oil from IS (U.S Turk Israel Saudi Qatari Qaeda Nusra) no mention of the point Assad is buying his countries own oil at the point of a gun from the thieves who stole it.
    No mention that this uncertainty/chaos is both deliberate and a constant feature of big oil and MIC’s business model.
    No concern that more tyrants of the head chopping variety are bound to achieve or maintain power.

    1. cassandra

      …and
      No mention of strategic significance of naval base at Tartus
      No mention of “legal” Saudi arms purchasing and trafficking, and extremist support in Syria, Yemen and about the globe.

    2. Charles Fasola

      Looking at the situation from the point of view of the businessman equates to looking at it from an extremely narrow minded perspective. A perspective that has resulted in much of the current chaos occurring world-wide. A viewpoint where the end justifies the means.
      Another point, no mention of the parts played by the israelis and kurds in this illegal oil game. No mention of the fact that there exists two Turkeys. The nation of Turkey, which includes Erdogan and his cronies and nato occupied Turkey which calls the shots in reality.

  4. Brooklin Bridge

    This is a good interview. Along with other posts on the subject, this is bringing a little clarity to why there is no clarity.

  5. camelotkidd

    Pepe Escobar has been all over the back story of what he calls pipelineistan–counterpunch.org/2015/12/08/syria-ultimate-pipelineistan-war/

    “Yet, from the point of view of Washington, a geostrategic problem lingered: how to break the Tehran-Damascus alliance. And ultimately, how to break the Tehran-Moscow alliance.

    The «Assad must go» obsession in Washington is a multi-headed hydra. It includes breaking a Russia-Iran-Iraq-Syria alliance (now very much in effect as the «4+1» alliance, including Hezbollah, actively fighting all strands of Salafi Jihadism in Syria). But it also includes isolating energy coordination among them, to the benefit of the Gulf petrodollar clients/vassals linked to US energy giants.

    Thus Washington’s strategy so far of injecting the proverbial Empire of Chaos logic into Syria; feeding the flames of internal chaos, a pre-planed op by the CIA, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the endgame being regime change in Damascus.”

    1. participant-observer-observed

      Yes, thanks for that most recent Escobar piece at Counterpunch; the one i linked above is already old but still interesting.

      The regime change recipe of DC has already been tried and has failed in Iraq, Libya, etc., no one can fathom any improvements replacing Assad + Isis with Isis alone, aka rag tag coalitions of jihadis! Even Saudis can hardly wish for it.

      1. Stalin lives

        We would have to know what the US strategy really was to determine whether it failed. Maybe it has achieved all its goals. At least it left a stinking mess right on the doorstep of Europe. Dealing with it throws back a major competitor of the US for at least a decade.

  6. ChrisFromGeorgia

    Based on reported facts on the ground (well, reported by non-US media that is) the SAA is making slow but steady progress in retaking key towns and the highway between Aleppo and Damascus. No doubt Russian air and logistical support has made a difference.

    If things keep going this way, Assad will likely regain the upper hand and the Saudi/US sponsored jihadis will be confined to the eastern part of the country. It’s looking like Washington will have to make a choice – accept Assad as the legitimate ruler (for now) or continue to provoke the situation with guerrilla tactics. We know from history that there is precedent for long wars against legitimate governments that displease Washington (see Daniel Ortega, Sandanistas.) My guess is they go this route and hope to eventually install a stooge.

    Of course Turkey is the wild card – Erdogan is increasingly looking like he might be the spark that sets off a much larger conflict. To answer the question, I think there are a lot of really bad scenarios that could happen here, and they are a lot closer than people think (Turkey shutting down the Bosphorus, for starters.)

    1. Synoia

      Saudi/US sponsored jihadis will be confined to the eastern part of the country.

      That’s the desert, and has borders with the Sunni Tribes in Iraq. Further east are the Iraqi Shia and then Iran.

      Jam in the middle of the sandwich?

  7. Steven

    It is way past time for the arrogant stupidity of Washington’s neoconservatives to be exposed and for them to at a minimum be removed from the levers of power – if not tried for crimes against humanity. And that includes Obama if he is really one of them, i.e. if he believes in anything but the politics of power.

    This ‘Arrogance of Power’ has characterized US foreign policy making since the end of WWII. The U.N. was sold to the public as an arrangement for collective security so the U.S. would not have to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ (sic) a third time. It has been in reality nothing more than a tool for the pursuit of (perceived) US interests, promptly discarded when the principles in its charter became inconvenient.

    Short of initiating the world’s Mutually Assured Destruction, the U.S. is running out of options – in Syria and around the world. It may be too late for the U.S. to get serious about collective security, to tell the world ‘this time we really mean it’. Having squandered economic and “too good to waste” military power in a successive string of needless wars, it may no longer be possible to convince especially those who hold the levers of power in Russia and China that we are serious about collective security and willing to accept a multi-polar world.

    Specifically with respect to Syria, it looks like about the best the ‘West’ (i.e. the US and its vassals) can hope for is some pipeline arrangement providing Europe with an alternative, a competing supplier for its energy needs. In exchange, the ‘West’ can agree to end its economic war against Russia, Iran et.al and get back to the business of business, i.e. exporting something other than debt and bombs.

    1. different clue

      Electing Sanders might give foreign governments a reason to “wait and see” about that.

      Then again, electing Trump, given his several respectful referrences to President Putin and offhand referrence to Assad as legitimate authority in Syria and his own superior ability to “make the deal” might also give foreign governments reason to “wait and see” about that.

      The election of WarPig Clinton would certainly confirm foreign governments’ view of America’s bad faith and dangerousness to the world.

  8. kgw

    I remember reading years ago that the rise of the AKP, and the rising standard of living with it, was fueled directly by a large stream of cash that was funneled from the House of Saud.

    The interest must be paid…

  9. susan the other

    This was really to the point, without actually making it. One thing is becoming clear – the oil wars are distilling down to natural advantage. It currently belongs to SA – but the future looks like it prefers to use Levant & east Mediterranean oil because it will be easier to pipe to southern Europe. And maybe cleaner? So everybody and their dog is fighting for access to it. It explains Netanyahu’s trip to moscow & the French clearly in league with Russia for achieving access to this resource (why else?). And it is partly being driven by decisions to leave current oil reserves in the ground. As Palast said it is a “war for no oil.” Which in turn makes sense of Kerry’s admonishing the Senate about the Iran deal – that if they want to continue to be oil brokers (petrodollar brokers) they have to come to terms with Iran because there are plenty of other nations who can step up; and of course we want our EU cousins to get a cut of Levant oil, and etc. And Russia is clearly protecting its oil interests. I wonder how long this feeding frenzy will continue.

  10. Horatio Parker

    I think the waffling on ISIS is due to their location among Sunnis. The US would like to win Sunnis over, so they’re cautious about bombing, which of course is to ISIS’ advantage.

    1. Massinissa

      There is no waffling. That’s media disinfo. The U.S. along with its gulf allies are directly aiding and abetting Daesh/ISIS.

      Like the Democratic parties ‘weakness’, American ‘waffling’ on ISIS is a charade.

  11. tgs

    From where I sit, the Syria conflict is an important part of a much larger one – between the ‘West’ and Russia. Things have been heating up again in the Ukraine. Biden gave a speech there just a couple of days ago in which he insisted that ‘NATO would not rest until Crimea was returned to the Ukraine.’ That’s not going to happen without a war.

    1. Massinissa

      It wont be the first time the west fought Russia over that miserable little peninsula. But back in the 1850s, not only were there no world wars, there were no nukes, tanks, aircraft or drones.

      And even with their primitive technologies, hundreds of thousands of men died on both sides for that damn glorified port.

    2. Massinissa

      Anyway, heres a nice quote about the Crimean war

      “in some sense the Crimean war was predestined and had deep-seated causes. Neither Nicholas I nor Napoleon III nor the British government could retreat in the conflict for prestige once it was launched. Nicholas needed a subservient Turkey for the sake of Russian security; Napoleon needed success for the sake of his domestic position; the British government needed an independent Turkey for the security of the Eastern Mediterranean….Mutual fear, not mutual aggression, caused the Crimean war.” A.J.P. Taylor

  12. washunate

    It’s interesting that Oilprice is more on the trail here than some of the previous articles. But they still support the establishment framework that gives Washington a pass on direct responsibility.

    The US specifically and NATO more generally has been trying to overthrow the Assad government for years. It’s been over two years now just since Russia outmaneuvered the particular effort to invade in 2013 by arranging for Syria to give up all of their chemical weapons. That’s back when the Democrats controlled the Senate and Harry Reid himself introduced the invasion bill. Such short memories we have. Or perhaps Oilprice does not want to remember that the Obama Administration is the major belligerent in this fight. The American government talks remarkably openly about removing the head of state of a sovereign nation.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorization_for_the_Use_of_Military_Force_Against_the_Government_of_Syria_to_Respond_to_Use_of_Chemical_Weapons

  13. Blurtman

    “Listen, this is all about Iran at the end of the day, and continually about the Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power.”

    None of the US’ business.

  14. nothing but the truth

    capitalism as we know it is dying. more accurately the post WW II order is dead.

    at the moment the elite are cannibalizing the carcass, but that is also coming to an end.

    between the nobel peace winner who is trying best to start WW III and Trump who will whip frustrated greying white men into a frenzy and Mrs Clinton who will also start WW III and give contracts to cronies…..

    While chaos is natural in the collapse of post WW II setup, what is astonishing is the complete move to the dark side by the US establishment, and even by the EU.

    In the long term, between US, EU, Russia, it is the US that is the odd man out. Eventually EU and Russia will have to move closer. Basically the Eurasian market will leave the US behind. Maybe this is driving the US neocons mad.

    1. Pepsi

      It’s interesting to see Saudi spend everything they have in an attempt to become the hegemon of the middle east, as America fades. One family of inbred freaks ruled most of europe until relatively recently, the Sauds probably see themselves in the same way.

  15. MerM

    Neocons already have their eye on the Caspian Sea/Eurasian oil. There is a US/Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. Dick Cheney was a member until last Dec. James A. Baker III, James A. Baker IV, Brent Scrowcroft and others are members.

    That will be the next region where ‘rebels’ will need our help.

  16. Yata

    You have to admire how the administration can maintain two sets of standards in what qualifies for an acceptable foreign government. Al Sisi & assoc. managed to stage a military “not-not-a-coup” of a democratically elected government, gunned down a thousand protestors, put everyone in prison, and now receives ten AH64 Apaches and billions in foreign aid.
    Assad, by contrast, doesn’t get any attack helicopters, and the foreign aid works against his country, because..?

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