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What Syria tells us about world oil supplies

I've been watching old episodes of The West Wing, the acclaimed television series about life and work in the West Wing of the White House. In one sequence of shows, bombers kill two U.S. congressmen and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are on a fact-finding mission to Gaza. Pressure mounts from both political parties in Congress, from the public and even from the president's own staff for a retaliatory military strike.

But the president doesn't like his options, and he delays. Violence will just beget more violence. Is there a way to bring the bombers to justice without killing innocent civilians and entangling the United States directly in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a combatant rather than a broker for peace?

Map of the Middle East from the Arab League via WikiMedia

Today, the real president of the United States has the opposite problem. He is getting pressure from many in Congress and the public NOT to make a military assault on Syria. Even the British Parliament rejected a call from Prime Minister David Cameron to join any U.S. military action in Syria. For obvious reasons, Americans are leery of involvement in yet another war in the Middle East. So, why is this president--the same one who opposed the Iraq war when he was a state senator in Illinois--drawing up plans for a military strike?

The ostensible reason is the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military. President Obama called this heinous act a violation of "international norms." But in a war that has already taken 100,000 lives would "international norms" have been better observed if Syrian soldiers had simply gunned down everyone instead?

I believe that the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons is merely a pretext for American intervention despite all the hoopla about the president's rather vaguely worded "red line" warning about chemical weapons to Syria last year. (Need I recount the simmering conflicts and resulting tragedies around the world in which the United States chose NOT to intervene?) One always suspects that oil is the real issue when it comes to the Middle East. So, let's see if that's the case here.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2010 before the civil war drove down oil production, Syria was the 34th largest oil producer in the world--behind Thailand, but just ahead of Vietnam. Syria's oil production of 367,100 barrels per day (bpd) represented about one half of one percent of world oil production--small in the overall picture. But it is more instructive to see what Syria's neighbors produce. (All oil production and ranking numbers are based on EIA figures for crude including lease condensate which is the definition oil.)

Oil producers in Syria's neighborhood ranked against all other countries in the world as of 2012 are as follows: Saudi Arabia (2nd, behind Russia), Iran (5th), Iraq (7th), Kuwait (8th), Egypt (25th), Turkey (54th), Israel (95th), and Jordan (96th). (In the age of jet warfare I am tempted to include the United Arab Emirates (8th) and Qatar (19th).) Turkey is more important than it seems because two major oil pipelines run through the country, one originating in Azerbiajan and the other originating in Iraq, that country's largest crude oil export line.

The general idea that Syria's neighbors hold the keys to a lot of oil certainly comes as little surprise to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Middle East. But, the salient fact about the Syrian conflict is that it is a civil war. So, why is an American president so concerned about a war within the country?

That question leads to a second and even more salient fact. This civil war has now become a proxy for the Shia-Sunni split in the Muslim faith. Don't think: Catholics and Protestants in the United States. Rather think: Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where a wide range of nonreligious issues sparked violence between the two groups for decades.

The split isn't just between countries that are predominantly Shia and predominately Sunni. It is, as Syria is showing, a split within many Arab nations which have citizens of both sects. So, there is not only the potential for conflict between nations in the Middle East, but also for the spread of civil unrest and civil war to other nations in the region. Iraq continues to demonstrate that this fear is not just hypothetical as bombings perpetrated in the name of minority Sunnis continue to vex a country which has experienced a long civil conflict between Shia and  Sunni after the U.S. invasion.

The spread of that kind of chaos would be very bad for oil supplies. Witness what has happened to Syrian oil production. It has fallen from 367,100 bpd in 2010 to just 157,200 bpd as of the end of last year. That's a decline of 57 percent in two years. That kind of decline in Middle East oil production would have catastrophic effects on an already iffy world economy, one absolutely dependent on oil for its smooth functioning.

The United States, as it turns out, has already been aiding the rebels for some time. The idea behind the aid may have been that the current regime might fall quickly, and the United States and its allies would have a solid relationship with those who take over.

With the stalemate continuing it's not obvious what strategy will work best to achieve America's number one goal in the region: stable oil production. One think tank academic even suggested that an ongoing stalemate was in America's best interests. Clearly, he doesn't believe the Shia-Sunni split will lead to conflict between or within other countries, at least on a scale that would prove troublesome.

But, there is one final consideration. After all we've been hearing about American energy independence, about growing domestic oil production, and about America being able to disengage from oil-exporting dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere, the president seems as engaged as ever in the region.

There are three reasons for this: First, right now the United States imports just under half its oil needs. We produce a little over 7 million bpd and consume about 14 million bpd. Second, no realistic nonindustry assessment of future U.S. oil production suggests we'll stop needing substantial imports. Third, oil is traded in a world market, and its price is determined by world supply and demand. Any disruption in Middle Eastern oil supplies would lead to much higher prices which would ripple through the U.S. economy no matter how much we produce domestically.

The worldwide concern over Syria tells us that oil supplies remain tight and consuming nations remain very concerned about disruptions to supply. The oil price continues to hover near all-time highs when compared to the average daily price in 2011 and 2012, both record years. As the United States prepares plans for intervening militarily, there is not only much at stake in human terms, but also most assuredly in terms of critical oil supplies.

Map image by Arab League (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Levant.GIF) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  Inserted by Resilience editors.

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