Geopolitical Winds Shifting in the Levant
Empirical reality seems to have little if anything meaningful to do American strategy in the Levant today. And that is a problem, because there is a causal relation between what happens in the Levant and international economic security.
A new state of affairs in the Levant has scarcely factored into mainstream discussions of foreign policy and international politics. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the Levant Basin, encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, and the Gaza Strip, holds an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas (that's trillion, with a T) and 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Some analysts believe the Eastern Mediterranean has the potential to become as significant to world politics as the Persian Gulf -- a noteworthy comparison: the Persian Gulf is not -- like, say, Flagstaff, Arizona -- what we might call a geopolitical footnote.
Whatever the appropriate analogy, a few things are certain: of the newly-discovered energy resources in the Levant Basin, Lebanon's Energy Ministry claims that 45 percent of Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone contains 96 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (again, trillion with a T) and 850 million barrels of oil. In other words, over 78 percent of the gas and roughly 50 percent of the oil in the Levant falls within Lebanon's exclusive jurisdiction. (And that is to say nothing of the energy resources underlying Lebanon's vigorously disputed maritime boundaries).
From within Lebanon, this newly-discovered oil and gas has been hailed as the country's "economic salvation." One Lebanese professor at the American University of Beirut expressed the sentiment with these words: "It will be like the Gulf when we have oil and gas. This will become a reality."
The problem: Lebanon does not have the infrastructure or the know-how to extract the oil and gas it sits on -- "As it is, a foreign company will need to do the drilling."
Gazprom, Russia's gigantic state-owned energy company, has already bid for Cypriot and Israeli share contracts in the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to render Moscow relevant to any future energy production in the Levant. And amidst the Syrian war last May, Russia's Vladimir Putin ordered over a dozen Russian warships and support vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia has a naval base at the Syrian Tartus Port.
Meanwhile, Iran sent its own warships to the region in early 2011 and, in May 2013, explained that it intends to extend "our security borders to the East Mediterranean."
Clearly, this is a geopolitical development to be ignored at a regional actor's own peril. That is why no significant players in the Levant are ignoring it -- except, perhaps astonishingly, perhaps not, the United States. Indeed, it seems the United States, in stark contrast with Russia and Iran, has largely allowed these energy and security developments to unfold with no impactful strategic posturing of its own.
Iran is, at least arguably, the regional actor that has, in the recent past, performed the most impressive strategic acrobatics. Indeed, Iran has persistently been executing a foreign policy of creeping domination and indirect if not de facto control of Syria, Lebanon, and even Iraq -- a policy that will likely result in domination of the entire Arab world by Shiite powers guided, if not outright led, by Iran.
As strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman recently noted, Iran is building up "a massive mix of Revolutionary Guards forces with missiles and rockets that can reach across the Gulf, it is seeking precision guided versions that can be a more real world threat than the extreme of nuclear weapons, and it has strong motives to arm these forces with nuclear weapons to intimidate and influence the Arab states." Iranian hardliners, Cordesman continues, may talk "Israel," but "Israel has nuclear weapons of its own and much of [Iran's] talk is a cover for seeking to dominate the Gulf."
The path to Iranian domination of the Arab world runs through the Levant. Iran's yellow brick road commences in Syria, which is the gate to Persian geopolitical heaven.
To Iran's benefit, the conflict in Syria is destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq -- majority Shiite nations both. That has, predictably, increased Iranian influence in both of those countries by nudging Shiite leaders, whose communities have been increasingly suffering violent attacks by Sunni sectarians and jihadi terrorists, in the direction of dependence on Iran for protection, security, and other political goods. It is not by coincidence that agents of the Iranian government, to say nothing of those of Lebanon's Hizb'allah, are operational in Syria.
Combined, Iraq and Iran possess, as Cordesman has also pointed out, about 20 percent of the world's oil reserves, and control of these reserves, the secure flow of energy out of Iran and Iraq, impacts directly on the international economy, beginning with effects on the United States.
Apart from the obvious fact that the United States is a massive consumer of Middle Eastern oil and related energy goods, there is the less obvious fact that the American economy is increasingly dependent on manufactures from Asia and Europe, and those imported manufactures are critically dependent on the stable flow of Middle Eastern energy to Asian and European manufacturing centers.
It thus hardly takes a decorated expert on global political economy to point out that no country today can afford to shake a stick at indirect Iranian control of 20 percent of the world's oil reserves.
And the gravity of the situation appears yet more unrelenting once we factor Lebanon's new energy resources, and Iran's indirect influence over those, too, into the mix.
Here once more, Iran is the regional actor best positioned to take advantage of Lebanon's (but not necessarily the entire Levant's) vast new energy resources -- resources which, again, Lebanon lacks the infrastructure to harvest. Indeed, Lebanon watchers have been writing for years that Lebanese sovereignty has been eroding -- "inch by disciplined inch" -- by the agencies of Iran, Hizb'allah, and the Assad regime, and imploring, to no avail, for the United States to do something about it. Already, official Lebanon sticks up for Iran before the UN Security Council and defends the Assad regime, too. As time continues her march, Iran's grip on the behavior of official Lebanon only tightens.
Given this state of play, hardly anything seems worse than the survival of the Assad regime. For if the Assad regime survives, the result will be a Middle East whose defining characteristic will be an Iran that exercises an enormous and ever-growing degree of influence over the governments of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, placing it in indirect if not preponderant control of an astonishingly vast quantity of the world's energy resources -- a quantity of energy resources sufficient to adversely affect the international economy at a Khomeinist whim.
Only by dramatically shifting strategic course can the so-called international community, led by the Obama administration, avert the calamity of rendering the global economy vulnerable to the world's only Khomeinist government. But the chances of that occurring are about as likely as a midday snowstorm in an Arab desert.
Anthony Tsontakis is a writer based in Phoenix, Arizona.