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Layers of conflict: Syria between history and geology

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD Things just keep getting worse in Syria. The Sunni Jabhat Al-Nusra recently killed 23 Druze clan members in Idlib in an apparently unsanctioned raid. This, as James M. Dorsey warns, could drag in the Israelis as self-styled protectors of the Druze. Not to mention that the attack could prompt the …


Emad El-Din Aysha
Emad El-Din Aysha

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD

Things just keep getting worse in Syria. The Sunni Jabhat Al-Nusra recently killed 23 Druze clan members in Idlib in an apparently unsanctioned raid. This, as James M. Dorsey warns, could drag in the Israelis as self-styled protectors of the Druze. Not to mention that the attack could prompt the Baathist regime to arm the Druze, reviving up the already escalating sectarian media machine that is the Syria civil war, with other proxy brokers getting involved too.

There is nothing inevitable about this, however, despite what we may think we know about the region’s history. A journalist and historian friend, Ahmed Kamel, had once informed me how the Druze were traditionally the allies of the Sunnis, fighting in Ibrahim Basha’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire in 1838. (The Druze of Syria and Lebanon were united at the time under the leadership of Bashir Eddin Al-Shehaby).

He also revealed that Saladin’s successes partly resulted from his ability to get the different sects and kingdoms in Lebanon to remain neutral during his campaigns against the crusaders. I know, from my own readings, that Saladin was technically the man who returned Fatimid Egypt to Sunni rule. The nominally Shi’a assassins were out to get him, that’s true, but as hired professionals. A motley crew of envious ministers and army commanders in what was left of the Fatimid regime in Egypt were to blame, and some were Sunnis themselves.

If sectarian history isn’t driving the civil war then what is, internally and externally? There’s a lot more to the Syrian conflict than meets the eye. What sparked off the protests to begin with was a water dispute in Dera’a, the so-called epicentre of the (at first) peaceful Syria revolution, with Alawis and Druze doing the protesting. Syria, as we all know to our shame, is (or was) self-sufficient in wheat and had even been exporting it to Egypt.

This in turn resulted from agricultural reforms that reversed the previous set of Baathist land reforms, handing land back to their original Sunni owners, with added incentives like subsidised electricity and ‘water’. Syrian farmers had been suffering for a long time too from water shortages because of Turkey’s hydroelectric dams, drying up Syrian villages along the border and driving scores of people from the countryside to the city. The situation in Dera’a was probably the last straw. The Israelis, moreover, can’t be far off from these calculations since the Arab-Israeli wars almost all had in one way or another a relation to water.

A Syrian water engineer I met years ago told me that the Golan Heights are positively saturated with underground freshwater lakes. The Israelis have always openly coveted the Litani River in Lebanon too. But there’s more to the role of water than just that. Syria, it turns out, is a world leader in a particular kind of oil recovery technique that involves water: losal (low salinity, or salt content) water injection.

Oil is a very gooey, sticky substance, so huge quantities invariably get left down in a reservoir. This is where oil recovery techniques come into play, trying to dislodge as many oil droplets as possible from in between the sand and rock particles they get lodged between. One technique is to push the oil up with water, with varying salt content and temperatures and pressures depending on the geological characteristic of your oil fields.

In Syria they rely on river water, which has low salinity naturally, whereas in other countries they have to rely on sea water which they later desalinise. Now here’s an unassuming quote from the US Energy Information Agency: “The years prior to the onset of hostilities saw an increased emphasis on the use of enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques in Syria, with several companies promising increased investment in the country’s mature oil fields.”

Then there’s oil shale; not to be confused with shale oil. (A more scientific name for oil shale is kerogen shale, a kind of sedimentary rock with oil trapped inside it). A petroleum expert I know, who’d rather remain anonymous, told me that the countries in the Middle East that are blessed with oil shale are the ones who are weak in good old fashioned crude. Israel and Jordan, in other words. Syria, it seems, should be added to the list.

Israel keeps running into roadblocks over its oil and gas prospects. There are the anti-monopoly laws in Israel that have stymied attempts to exploit the Aphrodite Mediterranean gas field; the offshore oil and natural gas fields it shares with recalcitrant Lebanon and ever-troublesome Gaza; its huge deposits of oil shale that only became economically viable during the oil price binge from 2003-2014; and environmental consideration surrounding oil shale as well. With oil prices plunging from 2014 onward these Israeli dreams may never come to fruition. But a compliant regime in Syria ‘could’ just do the trick.

This is so much speculation when it comes to what’s motivating the players in this deadly game but the facts about water, agriculture, oil recovery and oil shale are all realities on the ground that will certainly determine the future of whatever species of Syria or ‘Syrias’ emerge out of the conflict. Water and trade routes determined success or failure in war and peace in the olden days, now its water and energy. One encouraging development is the kind of pragmatism Dorsey has identified with Jabhat Al-Nusra leadership, condemning the Idlib attack and trying to mend bridges with fellow Sunnis.

That’s the impression I got watching that Al Jazeera interview of Al-Nusra’s leader, Muhammad Al-Julani, a person who’s keenly aware of how a direct confrontation between the Iranian military and Sunni jihadists is precisely what the Americans want.  He’s also aware how pragmatic his even more-radical Sunni rival ISIS is, using Syria’s resources – captured oilfields, again – to quite literally fuel the war machine in Iraq.

If history is any guide, and it isn’t, such calculated manoeuvrings might just save the day, recollecting the Levantine exploits of Ibrahim Basha and Saladin. Then again, Arabs have never been very fond of reading the history books.

 

Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas

 

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