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JERUSALEM – President Bashar al-Assad inked a secret deal that gives Russia the license to control natural gas resources in Syria, according to informed Middle Eastern security officials.
The officials said Assad last month agreed to sign the document, considered an understanding of principals on control of his country’s gas resources, including transiting pipelines, in exchange for continued Russian support in resisting the insurgency against his regime.
The officials further said Russia helped to broker a separate understanding with Assad that would allow public and private Chinese companies to rebuild damaged infrastructure in Syria if Assad defeats the insurgency.
The alleged deals underscore the economic benefits that may motivate Russia to back Assad while the West, including the Obama administration, aids the rebels seeking a post-Assad Syria.
Syria is a key energy transit route to Europe. A number of countries appear to be seeking dominance of the energy market that runs through Syria.
In 2011, Syria announced it had discovered a promising gas field in the city of Homs, which would later see some of the fiercest battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels.
Oil Minister Sufian Allawi told the state-run SANA news agency that the first wells “were in the Homs governorate and the flow rate is 400,000 cubic meters per day.”
“This discovery opens new perspectives in the region of Qalamun and the Syrian company will continue its drilling,” said Allawi.
Beside the prospect of its own gas field, Syria is also one of the most strategic locations for natural gas pipelines to flow to Europe.
Syria is site of the proposed construction of a massive underground gas pipeline that, if completed, could drastically undercut the strategic energy power of U.S. ally Qatar and also would cut Turkey out of the pipeline flow.
Dubbed the Islamic pipeline, it may ultimately favor Russia and Iran against Western energy interests.
Set to open in 2016, Iran, Iraq and Syria signed a deal in 2010 to construct the 3,480-mile natural gas pipeline connecting Iran’s South Pars field to European customers.
Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Javad Oji announced the pipeline would ultimately have the capacity to pump 3.9 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.
He told Iran’s official Mehr News Agency the route would “pass through Iran, Iraq, Syria, the southern Lebanon territories and also through the Mediterranean basin,” with a refinery and infrastructure to be built in Damascus.
A key portion of the pipeline is concentrated on the Syrian ports, which would export directly to Europe out of the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia has reportedly built up its naval presence along the major Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus.
The Islamic pipeline originally may have undermined Russian’s sale of natural gas to Europe, but the new secret deal purportedly signed with Assad may serve to secure Russian interests.
The Islamic pipeline is viewed as a major threat to Turkey, which has long desired to become the main bridge for natural gas and oil between the East and the West. The proposed Islamic pipeline completely cuts out Turkey.
Turkey, however, is a key player in the Nabucco natural gas pipeline, which is being constructed to transit natural gas to Europe from the Central Asia and Caspian regions. That pipeline is set to traverse Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, and end in Austria.
Turkey has been a key supporter of the rebels fighting Assad’s regime, while Qatar has reportedly been supplied arms and training to the rebels.
The Islamic pipeline would boost the Shiite factions in the Middle East at the expense of Sunni-dominated countries.
Qatar, home to the world’s largest gas field along with Iran, recently proposed a U.S.-backed gas pipeline from the Gulf to Turkey to Europe. Qatar has also had previous designs for a Syria pipeline that would connect to Turkey.
Qatar, while small, is backed up by the U.S. military. It is the location of U.S. Central Command’s Forward Headquarters and the Combined Air Operations Center.