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Syria and the Wider Region: The Hydrocarbon Dimension

December 2018

The Geopolitics of Oil and Gas in Central and West Asia over the Decades

This is an update of an earlier essay on the same subject. That narrative ended in 2015, shortly before the Iran nuclear agreement was reached. Since then, much has happened, and the present essay is an attempt to bring the analysis up to date.

The understanding that guides this say is that hydrocarbon interests have been the most important factor in explaining developments, both in an earlier period, and in the present phase. For explaining the present troubles, the starting point is the need for finding alternative sources of natural gas for Europe, apart from Russia. The two most viable options are Iran and Qatar, the second and third largest deposits of natural gas, after Russia itself. The challenge has been to find the best means to evacuate that gas.

Since gas from the Persian Gulf is produced more cheaply than in Russia, the latter has to find allies and measures to ensure that the alternative sources are stymied by one means or the other. Syria offers an attractive option, and that is why Russia has committed so strongly – alone, if necessary – to Syrian President Assad, in order to prevent this particular route. Saudi Arabia is a major oil exporter, and has no interest in promoting gas supplies, which have already made significant inroads in the energy consumption pattern in Europe. Russia, itself also an oil exporter, has made common cause with the Saudis over controlling the price of oil, and thus cemented an understanding between the two.

The other option is LNG, which Qatar has developed very actively. This is where the politics between Qatar and the other Persian Gulf Arabs have become prominent. The optimal route for LNG supplies is along the Suez Canal, and the twists in the Egyptian power play after the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak is best understood in terms of the contest for control over this particular evacuation route. However, the Suez route faces another choke-point, the Bab-el-Mandab. And as a counter to Egyptian moves, the Iran-backed Houthis have created both the possibility and the reality of disrupting Saudi and Emirati oil transit. Iran and Qatar have common approaches on this issue.

The entry of the US as a possible source of natural gas to Europe is a new factor. Given the new assertiveness of the Trump Administration, all concerned seek to accommodate them. This applies also to President Putin, echo has made public declarations on more than one occasion of his comfort in dealing with President Trump. And yet, where gas supplies are concerned, both are willing to compete. And given the open opposition to further Russian supplies, Putin has made a strategic move to support Turkmenistan – with the fourth-largest deposits in the world – it its plans to supply to Europe. This is why Russia has changed its position on the Caspian Sea, in order to permit the construction of an underwater pipeline across the Caspian bed to link up with the Azeri pipelines.

This is the essential economic and military play that has taken place since 2011, and forms the substance of the analysis that follows. This is not to suggest that the diplomacy, at Geneva under the UN, and at Astana between Russia, Iran and Turkey is unimportant; but it is definitely secondary to the power-play over hydrocarbons. More, the diplomacy can only reflect the outcome of the deeper confrontation. Similarly, there is the humanitarian aspect – frequently forgotten in analytical work. There is indeed real hardship being inflicted throughout the region. But unfortunately, that is not going to affect the power play.

Brief historical sketch

The narrative begins in late 1943. The tide of the Second World War had turned after the German surrender at the Battle of Stalingrad in February of the same year. The Teheran Conference of the three United Nations leaders – Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill – had been held in November-December, and had taken important decisions regarding the future prosecution of the War and of the world that was to be shaped once Germany had been defeated.

It was at this stage that some of the US oil companies that has acquired concessions in the Arab lands in the late 1920’s began to apply their own minds to the dispensation that was to follow the end of the War. The President of the California Arabian Standard Oil Company – to be re-named, just a few weeks later, on 31 January 1944, the Arabian-American Oil Company, ARAMCO, the name that in later years became a by-word for Arab oil power – wrote to the State Department in late December 1943 indicating that the Company was thinking of using its control of Saudi oil to re-direct the pattern of sales from that country away from areas east of the Suez, as had been the linkage before the War. Their plan was to re-direct oil sales to countries in the west, that is, in Europe. The idea was to lay a pipeline across Saudi Arabia, and on to the Mediterranean coast, either through Transjordan [as the Hashemite Kingdom was then called] and Palestine or even Egypt, so as to deliver oil to the desired terminal, and on to “the western world”. The British were using the Suez Canal for transporting their oil supplies from Kuwait and Iran in the main, but the Canal was an Anglo-French asset, and the Americans wanted their own lines of communication.

This project, the oilman recognised, had strategic implications, and therefore sought the US Government’s support for the proposal, including in overcoming political objections that might be raised by the transit countries involved. The idea was to obtain the rights and safeguards that such a project would require, and only the Government of the US could provide these assurances.

The State Department replied in short order, on 7 January 1944, that the Government looked upon the project with favour and added:

You may be assured that the Government will assist you in every appropriate way with other governments concerned in regard to your endeavors to secure such rights and safeguards as may be necessary in connection with the construction of the pipeline.

[This, and the above reference, are from State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1944, vol. V]

A formal agreement was signed by Interior Secretary Ickes in February with the oil company, which, among other things, would guarantee the US Armed Forces stationed in the region a billion barrels of oil. It was also stipulated that the oil would not be sold to countries that the US determined was not conducive to its interests. With these stipulations, the project was approved and financed, to be repaid over 25 years. This was the birth of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline or Tapline.

The initial plan was for the pipeline to end up in Haifa, in modern-day Israel, but once the State of Israel was established in 1948 [the vote establishing the state through the partition of Palestine was held in the UN General Assembly in November 1947] the idea of using Haifa was ruled out, because the Saudis would have none of it. It was then decided that the best route would be to lay the pipeline to a terminus in Sidon in Lebanon. However, there was a problem: the pipeline had then to run through Syria, and then proceed to the Lebanese coast.

The Government of Syria was approached in 1948 for the necessary permission.

The newly-independent state of Syria and its President, Shukri al-Kuwatly, were in favour of the project, and gave approval to the project in February 1949, but asked for Parliamentary ratification. And that was where the trouble began. Along with some resistance in Parliament, there were also pro- and anti-Tapline demonstrations in Damascus, and President al-Kuwatly decided on 8 March to postpone discussion of the project.

A military coup followed on 30 March, and the new leader, Col Husni Zaim, approved the project, and ratified it by Legislative decree on 16 May 1949. An internal memo of the State Department noted that this “removes the last major barrier to the building of the long pending Trans-Arabian pipeline...” [FRUS, 1949, The Near East, South Asia, and Africe, vol VI, Document 24]. There were several coups following the first one for the next year or so, but the approval of the pipeline project remained undisturbed, and the project was completed by 1950.

What makes this episode instructive is the obvious implication for Syria of the need to accommodate the major players in the energy rivalry. It was important enough in the late 1940’s to bring about what today would be called “regime change”. Now the stakes are possibly higher, and the struggle more intense. In the earlier period, ownership of the oil, the means of transport, and the lines of communication were all under western domination. Today, much has changed, and ownership no longer vests in the western companies. Equally, the means of transport, especially tankers, are more widely held under diverse ownership. It has therefore become vitally important for major powers to control the communication lines, so as to control the trade.

Before leaving the history of the early oil trade, it would be useful to record two important elements of the US policy that became the bedrock of the early decades after the War, as expressed on 11 April 1944 in the “Objectives of United States Foreign Petroleum Policy”:

Facilitation, by international agreement and otherwise, of substantial and orderly expansion of production in Eastern Hemisphere sources of supply, principally in the Middle East, to meet increasing requirements of post-war markets.

Removal, by international agreement and otherwise, of impediments to the exploitation of Middle Eastern concessions held by United States nationals.


In short, there would be every means employed, agreed or otherwise, to ensure the growing linkages between the West Asian producers and the growing European economies and their consumers. Marshall Aid provided the underpinning for the “international agreement” part of the policy statement; Syria, as described above; Iran and the confrontation with Mossadegh, 1951 - 53; and Suez during 1956 demonstrated the “otherwise”.

The Contemporary Setting

Three facts undergird the geo-economic play in and around Syria today. The first is that the US and Europe are keen to lower their dependence on Russian gas supplies to Europe, and Russia is keen not to lose this

lucrative and stable market. The second is that there are only two sources of natural gas that have deposits large enough to be long-term substitutes for Russian supplies – Iran and Qatar. And the third is that Syria is critical to any hydrocarbon pipeline linking the reserves in the Persian Gulf region to the major market of Europe. A pipeline is the preferred means of delivery to the Mediterranean because the alternative, LNG tankers through the Suez Canal, is an uncertain link, subject to the power play of Egypt, Israel, and Western Powers. Qatar, for instance, is having to re-route some of its LNG tankers around the Cape of Good Hope, as Egypt is hampering passage through the Suez Canal. The Saudis, too, faced difficulties in their oil shipping recently because the Houthis in Yemen blocked them in the Straits of Bab-el Mandab.

An examination of each of these factors will bring out their relevance to the developments in Syria and the wider Middle East over the last decade or so. The first reality is that the Sunni Arab control over the world’s largest and most economical oil deposits was a function of British map-making after the First World War. In fact, the rich deposits in the Persian Gulf area are largely in the Shia-populated areas. This is true not just of the Iranian coast, but equally of the Saudi coast. And in other parts of Iraq, it is the Kurd-populated areas that are oil-bearing. It was the British [in some cases aided by the Americans] who put the al-Saud and the Hashemites in charge of the oil.

The Americans took over this connection in a series of moves through the 1950’s, first in Iran [1953], then in Iraq [1958], with the Suez Crisis in 1956 further weakening the British transport lines. However, the US’ relations with the Sunnis had been deteriorating steadily after the end of the Cold War, with several attacks on US interests in Khobar, in East Africa, and the culmination on 11 September 2001, with attacks on the mainland itself. Iran, by contrast, had been helpful to the US after 9/11 in going after the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. It is from this date that one witnesses serious talk in the US about dislodging the predominantly Sunni Iraqi leadership – perhaps as a first step in empowering the Shias in the Middle East.

An article in The Atlantic argued in October 2001, that Bush Sr was right not to topple Saddam, among other reasons, because it would have given rise to another fundamentalist Shia regime in part or the whole of Iraq


It also concluded that, after 9/11 Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had declared implacable hostility towards the US, and had to be destroyed – though it failed to establish any link between Saddam and the terrorist outfits.

Nonetheless, this showed the merging thinking in the US with regard to the Sunni extremist movement, and that overrode the apprehension that Iraq would end up with power in Shia hands – a logical enough outcome, seeing that they were some 60% of the total population. This may also be the right time to bring out an important feature of the Middle East – Shia power. This is often discounted by arguing that they constitute 15% or thereabouts of the world’s Muslim population, with some variation of the percentage, depending on individual leanings. But in the Middle East, even including Turkey, the numbers are more evenly balanced - they would be in the region of 40% of the population, with majorities or pluralities in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and strategically-located pockets in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

This outreach to the Shias and Iran reached its culmination in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA], which brought Iran into the mainstream. There was even a telephone conversation between President Obama and President Rouhani in September 2013, which Reuters described as “historic” [].

At the same time, the Sunni world was in turmoil, thanks to the unhappily-named Arab Spring, which swept aside some of the pillars of the region, notably Mubarak of Egypt, and Gaddafy of Libya. But not all Sunni Arab countries were opposed to the Spring: Qatar and its influential TV channel, Al Jazeera were openly supportive of the movement, and of the Muslim Brotherhood leader of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. Qatar is the only other Wahhabi state in the world, and yet it broke with the Sunni Arab consensus. How its piped gas exports to Europe fed this position is explored later in this essay.

Relations between the US under Obama on the one hand, and the Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies on the other, were deteriorating over these developments, including the opening to Iran. But they were also affecting America’s relations with Israel: Prime Minister Netanyahu openly worked against the JCPOA, lobbying with the US Congress to reject the deal that was being negotiated. And it seems Obama also felt that Congress was unwilling to ratify the deal, because he did not submit the JCPOA for Senate advice and consent. In turn, this made it easier for Trump to pull out of the Treaty.

A third party that was opposed to what the Americans were doing with Iran was Russia. In order to understand this, the potential role of Syria as the conduit for a gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf needs to be understood.

The opening paragraphs set out the stakes in the transportation of hydrocarbons, and establishes that Governments that get in the way of strategies of the great powers come under pressure to fall in line – or else. The contemporary situation is the more brittle for the high stakes and the vastly increased volumes of trade, and hence money, that are involved.

To set the parameters: Europe consumes some 520 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. Of this, Russia supplies about 30%, and of this amount, about half transits through Ukraine, the balance nearly all through the Russian-German under-sea pipeline, Nordstream. These are huge amounts of natural gas, and none of the Central Asian or the newly-found gas fields in Syria itself, or in Israel or Cyprus can even begin to match these quantities. There are only two contenders for alternative supplies – Iran and Qatar.

The second important feature is that the EU is progressively moving away from dependence on oil as its primary fuel for electricity, and relying mre and more on natural gas. It is a cleaner fuel, and was relatively cheaper, especially when oil prices were above $100 a barrel of oil. The diagram below shows that gas has doubled as a source of electricity in the EU between 1995 and 2007, while oil has nearly halved in importance.

EU energy mix in 1995 [left] and 2007 [right]

The two countries, Iran and Qatar, share the super-large off-shore South Pars – North Dome field, which holds the largest amount of natural gas of any single field in the world. This single field holds reserves of 50 trillion cubic meters [tcm], with Qatar holding about 60%, and Iran the rest. For purposes of comparison, India as a whole has so far been proven to hold about 1.5 tcm, the Eastern Mediterranean even less. Either of the two, Iran or Qatar, could match the Russian long-term supply capacity. Iran, of course, is under sanctions, and hence out of play for the nonce; but it is also cautious about getting into the fray because of the obvious negative reaction that it can expect from the Russians should it seek to supplant Russian supplies to Europe. And Russia at present is among its few strategic supporters in the world.

Newer participants are entering the competition, in particular, the US and Turkmenistan. The US is now among the leading hydrocarbon producers in the world, and its reserves of natural gas are the fifth highest in the world, behind Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkmenistan. Trump has been promoting the idea of US exports to the EU, but at the moment, the exportable surplus is quite small; such exports as are taking place go mainly to East Asia – Japan, China and South Korea. The Europeans have been cool to the idea. They have seen it as aimed at blocking the second pipeline from Russia to Germany, Nordstream 2. However, the volumes bear no comparison: Nordstream 2 will carry 55 billion cubic meters [bcm] annually [like the current Nordstream], while US total LNG exports amount to approximately 5 bcm annually. Its landed cost in Europe is also significantly higher. Trump has affirmed that the US will nevertheless compete to supply natural gas to the EU. The main competitors, Russia and Norway, have significant geographical and poduction-cost advantages, but the US plans to go ahead. It does, after all, sell gas in East Asia.

Turkmenistan is a different proposition. It is fourth in terms of proved reserves in the world, and its Galkynysh field is the world’s second largest, with some 14 trillion cubic meters – as against the North Dome-South Pars, which holds some 50 tcm, the largest in the world, and shared between Qatar and Iran. However, Turkmenistan has faced a serious problem in evacuating this gas to the international market. Three pipelines already exist, all leading to China, which paid for them, and has used the debt to buy into ownership or management control of some 80% of Turkmen reserves. Iran and Russia have both stopped buying Turkmen gas since about two years back, so it is in a single customer situation as of now. It has sought to move the gas out to either India through the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India [TAPI] pipeline, which has been under discussion for over two decades now – without any real prospects of achievement. Alternatively, it has sought to supply to the EU through feeding the Nabucco pipeline, which requires laying a sub-sea pipeline in the Caspian Sea – a project blocked by both Russia and Iran. This hurdle has now been removed, though the Iranian attitude remains a question mark.

With this background, it is time now to look at the power play that followed the start of the “Arab Spring” in Syria. Although the uprising started in March 2011, there is some background that is worth noting. According to a report in The Guardian newspaper [30 August 2013], the former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, he was visiting the UK in 2009, and, as he informed French TV:

"I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was preparing gunmen to invade Syria."

There is not enough information on the wellsprings of the disturbances that occurred in the Arab world starting in late-2010-early-2011, but what is clear is that in Syria, the movement descended quickly into lethal warfare. The demand for Assad to step aside first sounded in April 2011, and by June, the UN had declared a state of civil war; the Free Syrian Army was formed by end-July 2011.

With the passage of a few years, it is already possible to see a pattern in the Obama approach to the Middle East. The traditional US approach, post-Carter, had been to rely on Israel as the principal security and strategic partner, and to carry key countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt along. Isolation of Iran was an axiomatic part of this approach. Obama stood this on its head: his relations with the Israeli leaders, particularly Netanyahu, were notoriously bad, and his passivity in the face of the street challenge to Mubarak not only contributed to his downfall, but also alienated the Saudis and other Persian Gulf Arab leaders.

Instead, he reached out to Iran, initially with Oman as intermediary, and he was comfortable with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Throw in Qatar, and that was the Obama alignment in the region, with Iran, Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar as the pillars of the new approach. No doubt, this was an implausible set of relations, consisting of one major Shia power, on extreme Sunni-led Government, both also closely linked to Qatar, a Wahhabi emirate; if it wasn’t happening on the ground, one would be forgiven for considering it almost impossible. But the Qataris had done a deal, according to some reports, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1990’s, under which it disbanded itself in Qatar, and received funding in return for activities in other parts of the region [].

Plus which, there was one unifying – linking – factor: gas supplies to Europe. If Iran and Qatar, the two biggest sources of natural gas after Russia, could be woven into a supply system, sending LNG through the Suez Canal, that would enable Russian supplies to be reduced and partially displaced.

Turkey was the fourth member of this strategy, another unlikely choice, given its claimed “secular” polity. Again, it was natural gas supplies that brought it into play: under the AK Party, it was positioning itself as the hub of the natural gas trade between West Asia and Europe. Turkey’s interest was in the pipeline trade, and it was negotiating with the Russians also for one across the Black Sea for supplying through Bulgaria to other parts of southern Europe. More to the point here, it had also,as mentioned, signed a deal with Qatar as early as 2009, for gas supplies. It had its proxies on the ground in Syria too, initially the Free Syrian Army, and later, ISIL. There are well-documented reports of Turkish support for both these groups – in fact, the newspaper that broke the story of Turkish material supplies to ISIL ended up in jail.

Qatar was, already in 2011, the largest supplier of LNG in the world and was using the Suez route for supplies to Europe. There were, however, two difficulties, and both were related to the UAE. Its company, DP World, was the manager of ports in both the Suez Canal and the Red Sea on the Yemen coast, including Aden, two of the three major choke points on the route from the Persian Gulf to Europe; the third is the Strait of Hormuz [] .

UAE and Saudi Arabia, being major oil exporters, were opposed to Qatar’s plans for major expansion of gas exports, because that was cutting into their oil exports to Europe. In addition, Egypt under President Mubarak, was itself frequently at odds with Qatar over Iran, and over its support for Islamist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The uprising against Mubarak in Egypt played into these issues, and removed these elements of uncertainty hanging over the Qatari plans. That country moved quickly to support the Morsi administration, and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim declared officially that they would not allow his government to fail. This took concrete shape in a $5 billion loan to the government; and they also moved to oust the Emiratis from the Suez Canal, and take it over themselves []. They also developed plans to expand the Canal, a process that was completed in 2015, by which time Morsi was gone, of course.

The other leg of the Obama strategy, Iran, was also moving forward apace. The first diplomatic contact between Iran and Egypt was established in early 2012. This was followed by the visit of President Morsi to Tehran in 2012 for the Non-Aligned Summit, during which he and Iranian President Ahmadinejad gave every demonstration of goodwill towards each other, in marked contrast to the attitude of Mubarak. Ahmadinejad himself visited Cairo in February 2013 for a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the first such visit since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Again, there were protestations of goodwill – Morsi met him at the airport with full honours, and had a bilateral discussion there itself. Their only point of difference was Syria, admittedly a major issue by then. Morsi wanted Assad out; Iran was having none of it. How this would have played out is unknowable; there is a clue, however, in the evolution of Turkish policy. From being committed to the “Assad must go” strategy, it has modified its stance considerably.

This Obama strategy had, of course, alienated the Israelis and the Persian Gulf Arabs. The Saudis made no secret of their hurt and anger that the US had not done more to save Mubarak. Accordingly, when the Egyptian Army removed Morsi from office, these countries welcomed the action; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabis praised the Army for having saved the country. However, the Obama administration was clearly divided over the take-over by the Army. While the President asked for a review of US aid to Egypt, the consensus was against calling it a coup, for that would have barred any further aid. In the end, the US continued to do business with Egypt.

The overthrow of Morsi was the first setback to this strategy and it occurred on 3 July 2013. A week earlier, there had been a change at the top in Qatar as well. Sheikh Hamad abdicated on 25 June 2013, and was replaced by his son, Sheikh Tamim. The latter also sacked the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim. One of the important consequences of the change was to play out in Syria over the rest of 2013. There was some speculation at the time of the change in Qatar that the young 33-year old Tamim, British-educated, would moderate the policies of his father, who had started Qatar on its new path in the mid-1990’s after overthrowing his father as Emir. It is worth emphasising that no Emir of Qatar, since the dawn of the 20th century, has surrendered power in the normal course, which is death. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that Tamim, as Crown Prince, had visited Egypt during the period after the overthrow of Mubarak, and had a little-noticed meeting with the strongman of the period, Field Marshal Tantawi.

The setbacks began because the new Egyptian government of al-Sisi began to roll back the Qatari positions on the Suez Canal, positions they had gained under Morsi. Accordingly, the UAE, a staunch supporter of Sisi, was given the contracts for developing the Canal Zone.

This is what turned Qatari attention to the pipeline option and it is from this period that we witness the growing divergence between what was to become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], which culminated in early 2014 in an open breach between al-Qaeda and ISIL; the specific issue dividing them was Zawahiri’s instructions to Baghdadi to limit his operations to Iraq, and not venture into Syria. As we now know, this was also the time that the US Defense Intelligence, then under Gen Michael Flynn, started their warnings against ISIL and the plan to carve out a separate Islamic state in Syria. His persistence in issuing these warnings was likely the reason for his firing, because he later stated, in 2015, that he was concerned at US support for such activities [] . And presumably, this was also the reason he was such a hate figure for the Obama team that he was an early target of attacks in the Trump Administration from the holdovers of the previous Administration.

Such a geographical entity would provide part of the land continuum needed for a pipeline. The map below shows the extent to which ISIL had established control by 2014; from Karbala to the border with Turkey, they had established the possibility of a pipeline running without let or hindrance. In a real sense, this was a replay of what the Taliban had tried to set up in Afghanistan in the late 1990’s.

The remaining area of Iraq was the focus of Iranian effort to establish its control, and this is the next move in this complex strategy. As the Iranian nuclear dialogue moved forward, it had become clear by late 2014 that an agreement would be reached. This was when the recenty-elected President, Hassan Rouhani, declared that his country would be willing to supply natural gas to Europe. This drew a sharp response from a quarter generally sympathetic to Russia:

While attending the UN General Assembly in New York, the President of Iran made a startling statement on gas supplies which could be construed as hostile in regard to Russia. The statement was made amid the standoff between Russia and the West (the US and EU) over the crisis in Ukraine. The statement implied that if sanctions were lifted and sufficient funds invested into constructing a modern gas pipeline, at the start of 2020s Iran could begin gas deliveries to Europe (10-20 billion cubic meters of gas per year). In light of the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict, Iran is offering Europe a “reliable source of gas,” – according to DW. This announcement was made on September 24 by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to his Austrian counterpart Heinz Fischer during the UN General Assembly in New York. According to Austria’s news agency APA, Iran is ready to export gas through Austria into the EU. [New Eastern Outlook, 30.09.2014, Viktor Titov, Iran’s President makes strange statements regarding gas supplies]

Russian intervention begins

This was the start of a distancing between Russia and Iran, a rift that has only grown worse with the passage of time. However, to continue: this was only a foretaste of what was to come. By July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed, with every expectation that this would lead to large-scale economic cooperation with Iran. And President Rouhani was to further signal intent with another odd formulation at the next UN General Assembly speech.

From our point of view, the agreed-upon deal is not the final objective but a development which can and should be the basis of further achievements to come. Considering the fact that this deal has created an objective basis and set an appropriate model, it can serve as a basis for foundational change in the region.

And later:

As we aided the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and also Yemen.

[Emphasis added in top paragraph; remarks taken from prepared text submitted to UN Secretariat

The full English text as delivered is not available, but the UN summary of the speech confirms that Rouhani did make the remarks quoted above. The meaning of his remarks is clear and runs counter to the instructions given by the Supreme leader – that the deal on nuclear issues was a stand-alone agreement, with no further cooperation with the west. Given that the Russians were already suspicious of Rouhani’s intentions, their response to these developments was no surprise. The head of the IRGC al-Quds Force, Gen Suleimani, visited Moscow in late July, almost immediately after the JCPOA was signed. Few details have been put out, since Suleimani is under UN-mandated sanctions, and is not allowed to enter other countries – and this would be especially embarrassing for a UNSC permanent member. Russia has denied that such a visit took place, but the fact has been confirmed by several reliable sources.

What is clear is that, from this time on, if not earlier still, the clerical wing of Iran and the Russians were planning joint measures to save Assad’s regime. The Russian interest is clear if seen in the context of the offers made by Rouhani to supply natural gas to Europe, and to “promote democracy” in Syria, as it had done in Afghanistan and Iraq – both cases where US military action dislodged existing governments. Ture, the UNGA statement came after the visit, but it is safe to presume that both the IRGC [al Quds force] and the Russians would be wise to Rouhani’s thinking. And also worth noting is that these contacts were in the nature of planning; Russian action followed only after the Rouhani speech at the UNGA.

The swiftness of the Russian response – just some three days after the speech – suggests advance planning and coordination []. Putin’s distrust of Rouhani was on display during his own visit to Tehran in November the same year: he had gone for a conference of gas exporting countries, but spent much more time with Ayatollah Khamenei. The latter praised Putin’s actions in Syria, and declared that the result was enhanced prestige for Russia in the region, this being a not very subtle hint that the US had fared less well. A colourful, if not always historically accurate, account by Amir Taheri may be found here:

As for the hard yards, that was the work of the Russian Air Force and the ground troops provided by Iran’s al-Quds force and the Hizbollah. This coalition proved lethal for the terror groups in Syria. Contrary to their much-vaunted search for martyrdom, many of these, including the ISIL terrorists, shaved their beards, abandoned their fatigues, and ran for safety in the face of the hammering they were getting. A word of excrescence: when the plans for aerial bombings were being talked about, there were some unedifying attempts at psy-war against the west itself. One French journalist, Nicolas Henin, claiming special insight because he had been held hostage by ISIL, declared in an article in the 16 November issue of The Guardian [surprise, surprise] that they actually “long for” western retaliation, and that the west must not fall into this trap [Guardian 16 November 2015]. A little later, the same paper repeated the views of a German journalist, Jurgen Todenhofer, on 27 November, arguing that bombing would “fill them with joy” [Guardian 27 November 2015]. About a year earlier, The Independent of 21 December 2014 trotted out the same German journalist, with much the same message; he had spent ten days as a guest of ISIL, touring areas under their control, and claimed to know their popularity and declared that bombing would only strengthen the group [Independent 21 December 2014]. Happily, this Brer Rabbit type of reverse psychology did not work – and, as mentioned, the men of this and assorted other groups showed no will to fight against the combined air and land assault, except in scattered pockets. As the Turks and the Qataris moved centre-stage on the Syrian battleground – opposed by the Russians and the clerical hard-liners in Iran – there was an aerial skirmish between the Turks and the Russians on 24 November. A Russian Su-24 was shot down by the Turkish Air Force for violating their airspace, a charge denied by the Russians.

However, instead of the harsh response expected by many, President Putin confined their response to economic measures, and managed to keep relations from heading to a breach. President Obama, for his part, leaned towards the Turks, and pointed out that Russia was in a “coalition of two” with Iran, and was the outlier from world opinion on the question of Syria and Assad. The reason for the measured Russian response was geography: if the Russians were to get access to Syria, it could only be either through Iran or Turkey. And as Iran – or at least the President and his team – was leaning towards the west, turkey was the only viable option. This was reinforced by the need for Russia to use the Straits to access the Mediterranean, and the base at Tartus. At the same time, the Russians also signed an agreement with Armenia on 23 December, establishing a common air defence space. Armenia is the closest point to Syria with only a sliver of Iranian or Turkish territory in between. The Turks made a formal statement of their reservations over this development [Hurriyet Daily News 26 December 2015]. The combination of Russian air power and assorted ground forces proved quite effective, and the north-west of the country was the first to feel the pressure. In short order first Aleppo, then the eastern regions, prominent among them Palmyra, were recovered from the terrorists, including from ISIL. The Russian military strategy was not just to destroy ISIL, however. They also went after all the groups that were fighting against the Assad regime, including groups that were being backed by the US and West European countries, notably France and the UK. By early 2016, it was clear that the tide had turned.

Thus it was that there were a number of statements by western leaders suggesting that the unity of Syria and of other countries in the region was not something immutable. Symptomatic of this approach was the statement by Secretary of State Kerry [] indicating that a partition of Syria was a viable option. In testimony to the Senate, he said, “It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer”. UK Foreign Secretary Hague declared that borders of the region were no immutable; and Vice President Biden chimed in with a similar remark a little later. The obvious reason was to ensure the removal of Assad, if not by direct assault, then by destroying the country altogether.

A factor that was handy in this strategy were the Kurds. Their history since the end of the First World War is well-known. By the time of the anti-Assad civil war, they had established themselves as a fighting force to reckon with, and had undertaken many operations against ISIL and other terrorist groups. They were also being armed and provided diplomatic support by both the US and Russia, and not just in Syria, but also in Iraq. The misfortune of the Kurds was that the Obama Administration was on the way out by this time – it was the spring of 2016. This was compounded by the fact that the Russians also apparently saw them as a fall-back option, should it prove impossible to save Assad, and defeat ISIL. Breaking up a territory into mutually-hostile sub-units is a time-honoured way of preventing lines of communication being successfully established; the British used this to very good effect after the First World War. That the Russians saw the Kurds in the same light is something one can say with hindsight, because neither the Americans, nor the Russians did anything to save them from Turkish attacks in 2018, either in Afrin or in Manbij. Once more, it appears, the Kurdish dream of a separate state has been betrayed. This has happened first in Iraq, where the referendum of 25 September 2017 has been neglected by all the former supporters of the Kurds, then in Syria, where they were left to face the Turks alone, and forced to withdraw from territory gained at high cost in lives.

There was one other tack the US had in mind: the supply of MANPADS to the terrorist groups, or the rebel groups, as they saw them. Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft munitions had been used to deadly effect in Afghanistan against Soviet air power; the same would be true in Syria. The US Congress authorised their supply in late 2016, but again, it was too late for the Obama team to act on it.

Turkey, meanwhile, was forced to do its own reappraisal following the attempted coup against Erdogan in July 2016. Immediately after the attempt failed, Erdogan laid the blame on Fethullah Gulen, who was resident in the US, a charge he denied, and was backed up in denial by several western countries, including the US and France. In the aftermath, Erdogan ordered the arrest or dismissal of some 70,000 persona, including several senior Service officers. Both the head of the US Central Command, Joseph Votel, and the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper accused Erdogan of weakening the fight against terrorism; he, in turn, acused them of siding with the coup plotters. Credible accounts also suggest that he was tipped off in advance by the Russians, and this too coloured his future approach towards that country. Thus did Turkey change its role in the Syria, and move closer to Russia.

The Trump Administration took a different approach, and its actions have made clear that they do not favour either dismembering any of the countries of the region [at least so far], or using MANPADS to neutralise Russian air superiority. Not only that, by July 2017, Trump had instructed the CIA to stop all assistance to anti-Assad groups []. Evidence on the ground after the Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki in July 2018 suggests that the new policy is not to push for the removal of Assad, not to seek to lay any pipelines through Syria, or any other alignment, but to insist on removing Iranian presence from the country. In this, the Americans appear to have succeeded, and Putin has, on more than one occasion, called for the removal of all foreign forces from Syria. It has not happened yet, but Russia has worked to remove Iranian presence from areas of concern to Israel.

Saudi military action in Yemen

In the meantime, the Saudis were moving along a different vector. Their priority was changing towards Yemen. On 23 January 2015, King Abdullah died and was succeeded by the current King, Salman. He, and his son, later to become Crown Prince, Mohammed, were forced to attend to the growing challenge from the Iran-backed Shia Houthis, who were threatening Aden by March 2015. The south-west corner of Yemen dominates one side of the Bab-el-Mandab, through which Saudi oil supplies bound for Europe pass. The other side, the African coast, is witnessing its own current dynamic, but is outside the scope of the present narrative. The current phase of the Yemen fighting, effectively after the Arab Spring, began in 2012, with pressure on the long-serving President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step aside, which he did after a bomb attack in June 2011 that seriously injured him. He was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment and agreed to resign as President. Thus began the Houthi rebellion against the successor, Mansour Hadi. By 2014, the Houthis had spread their power not only into Sanaa in the north, but also headed for Aden and the west coast on the Red Sea and its important port of Hodeida. This was a clear threat to the shipping in the Bab-el-Mandab, through which close to 4 million barrels of oil transited from the Persian Gulf to Europe, much of it from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The UAE has an abiding interest in Aden. It took control of the port through its national arm, DP World, in 2008, during the Presidency of Saleh. When he was ousted in 2012, the contract with UAE was cancelled. With the launch of the Yemen war in March 2015, Aden became one of the primary objectives of the Saudi-led coalition. There was, in fact, a widely-held view that the brain behind the war was actually the UAE Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, and he was working with – and on – the Saudi Crown Prince. In any case, Aden was quickly regained by July 2015, the UAE was back in charge in October the same year, as were other towns on the Red Sea coast that impacted the shipping along the waterway []. The other country concerned was Egypt, which was earning $5 billion annually from Suez transit fees; these could be disrupted if the Red Sea were blocked. And yet, if Qatar wished to hit the new leadership in that country, then blocking the Red Sea waterway would be an effective way to deny the Suez passage to all shipping.

This was the fear expressed at the time of the Houthi advances, and was to flare up again later in June 2017 when the four countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt effectively blockaded Qatar. The Houthis, and their presumed master, Iran, were thus seen as acting in concert with Qatar. Further, the same dynamic that was seen in the case of Aden was on display over the Suez too. Under Morsi, the Qataris replaced the UAE as the development partner for upgrading the Canal and for developing the Zone. Morsi, in fact, had ambitious plans for the entire nearly-200km length of the Canal. To achieve this, he gave himself powers to expropriate any land needed for this development. This was in June 2013. Riots followed. The charge levelled was not only that this was abuse of power, but also that the real beneficiary was Qatar. Soon afterwards, Morsi was removed, and the contract for developing the Canal and Zone went to Dubai’s DP World. By 2015, some of the work on widening and deepening the Canal was complete, and this permitted two-way shipping for a short 35-km stretch of the waterway. The new Egyptian leader, al-Sisi projected this as a major upgrade, which it was not. But it did allow the UAE to show some early positive results and burnish its credentials as a viable partner in matters maritime.

Events were to show that the fears of both sides were justified. The Houthis were making efforts to disrupt shipping through the Bab-el-Mandab ever since they gained access to the Red Sea coast, particularly Hodeida. By early 2017, the US Navy was warning about the threat to shipping in the strait because of mines laid there by the Houthis. []. And on 25 July 2018, the Saudis suspended their shipping through the strait after two VLCC’s [Very Large Crude Carriers] were attacked by Houthis based in Hodeida. This also explains why the fighting over Hodeida has been so bitter, and the media coverage so intense. On the other side, the Qataris have seen themselves done out of their role in the Suez after the removal of Morsi; further, they were subjected to a virtual blockade by three of their Persian Gulf neighbours – Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain – as well as Egypt, apart from some other countries in the region, including Sudan and the Maldives. One of the actions taken, by Egypt in this case, has been to shut all ports of call in the Suez zone to Qatari shipping. As a result, some of its ships have opted to take the route around the Cape of Good Hope so as to avoid inconvenience in transiting through the Suez. The UAE has also closed its orts to Qatari ships. Nonetheless, for its part, Qatar has continued to supply gas to both the UAE and to Egypt.

Central Asia in play

The final element concerns the latest developments in the Caspian region. The dispute over the status of the Sea – was it an inland lake, or an open sea? - centred on the rights of the littoral states. Until the break-up of the USSR, there were only two such states. With the end of the USSR, the number went up to five – Russia and Iran, of course; added to them, the newly independent states of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Of these, both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan had natural gas to export, as did Azerbaijan. However, the quantities needed for a viable strategy required the deposits of Turkmenistan, the fourth largest deposits in the world.

Since 1992, Iran and Russia had maintained that the Caspian was a lake. This meant that all the littorals had equal rights and a say in the development of the resources of the Caspian. The other three were of the opinion that the Caspian was a sea; this meant that each of the littorals had their economic zone, and the international waters were free to be used as the countries chose. The relevance of this was that the gas reserves of Turkmenistan in particular could then be transported through an underwater pipeline from the east coast of the Caspian to the west coast in Azerbaijan, and thence to Turkey and on to the European markets. Russia was opposed to this idea, as was Iran.

Then, earlier this year, Russia changed its position on this issue. It agreed with the former Soviet Republics that the Caspian was indeed a sea. But there was a twist: the economic zones were differently defined as against UNCLOS. The details have not been made public, but there is enough from official sources to give some idea of the nature of the agreement. Essentially, each country was awarded a 25-nautical mile zone for fishing and economic exploitation, plus an understanding that Turkmenistan would be enabled to lay its underwater pipeline, 300 km long, to link up with the Azeri network, which leads to Europe through one or other of the pipelines, proposed or existing. In return, all the littorals have agreed that there will be no military presence of non-littoral states in the Caspian.

Turkmenistan holds the fourth-largest deposits of natural gas, with the Galkynysh field alone being the third-largest in the world. Its total reserves are approximately 19.7 trillion cubic meters, and Galkynysh holds about 14.7 tcm. In December 2015, Turkmenistan completed its east-west pipeline from Galkynysh to the Caspian coast; with the underwater pipeline ready for construction, it can deliver up to 30 billion cubic meters to Europe. Its longer term capacity is for over 200 bcm annually, the bulk of which can be exported to Europe.

Source: By Thomas Blomberg - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It is an intriguing question as to why Russia agreed to let this project go forward, after blocking it for decades. The answer is that this was the best way to block both Iran and Qatar, by blocking them in Syria, and leaving it to the Egyptians, backed by the Persian Gulf Arabs to block the Suez route. The other part has to do with the US plans to also get into the sale of gas to Europe. These sales are rising, and in 2017, the US supplied 2bcm to various European countries, with Spain and Portugal in the lead. A notable holdout was Germany, but Chancellor Merkel has agreed to provide government support for LNG terminals in northern Germany. More, the government is promoting the use of LNG for shipping, as it cleaner and safer in case of accident.

Since the stated purpose of the US Administration is to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas supplies, and the Europeans are moving in that direction, it makes sense for Russia to promote a third alterntive. Turkmen gas will be cheaper and more plentiful, and will therefore give the Europeans the alternative option, and yet, provide competition to US supplies. Of course, this is far from a done deal, since the Iranians have made clear their opposition to the Caspian agreement. But this development does introduce a new factor in the geo-economics of the region.

Iran has expressed its opposition to this agreement. They have the shortest coastline on the Caspian, and this arrangement would leave them with little leverage on the hydrocarbon strategies of the region, including not just Turkmenistan, but also Kazakhstan, which has significant oil and some gas deposits. More, it is the third signal the Russians have given of diluting the strategic accommodation the two countries reached in the 1990’s. The first, as described above was the decisive intervention in support of Assad, with the aim of blocking Rouhani’s ambition of supplying gas to Europe. The second was Putin’s remark about the need for all foreign forces to leave Syria. When this was seen as aimed as much at Hizbollah and the Iranians, the Russians issued a pro forma denial. However, they have ensured that Iran does not stray close to the Israeli border. They have also acquiesced in the Israeli bombing of Iranian positions inside Syria. This – the shift on Caspian issues – is the third signal of a willingness to sacrifice Iranian interests for its larger strategy.

The Galkynysh gas field is also meant to supply gas for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India [TAPI] pipeline. Whether this remains a viable option after the opening of the western option is an open question. More important, the Chinese have a controlling stake in the operation of the field. Couple that with the fact that the gas will transit through Pakistan, and that means this pipeline will make India dependent on both China and Pakistan – the two major strategic adversaries of India. This should make the project unacceptable to India.

Conclusion: End Game

The military fighting seems to be coming to an end, though one can never be absolutely certain. However, for now, it seems that there is only the Idlib province that needs to be cleared of terrorist groups, and it is only a matter of time before Russia moves to do so. The agreement between Erdogan and Putin on this issue reveals further differences between Russia and Iran. Meeting in Tehran on 7 September 2018, the three leaders – Rouhani, Erdogan, and Putin – were unable to agree on Idlib. A few days later, Erdogan met Putin separately in Sochi, and the two agreed on a temporary hold-up, under certain conditions, and tight deadlines. These have now passed, but the agreement for the removal of the terror groups has not been implemented.

As the foregoing narrative suggests, the Russians have played the major role in stabilising the Assad government, with the aim of preventing the laying of any gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf region to Turkey and beyond to Europe. In the process, Russia-Iran relations have been the major casualty. Iran has been done out, or put on notice on a number of issues, including, besides the pipeline itself, the Caspian, and its military presence in Syria, especially in areas close to Israel.

More recently, Turkey organised another summit in Istanbul, at which Russia, France and Germany were present. And Iran was not. Quite likely, Turkey was the ostensible initiator of the summit, because Russia would still find it diplomatically difficult to host a meeting on Syria and not invite Iran; Russia was the mainstay, and it was for the Russia that the European leaders also came to Istanbul. By way of unconscious humour, the summit expressed its support for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned” settlement process – without Syria being present at the meeting.

But there was serious work done too. The important outcomes of this summit were three: (i) a clear rejection of any separatism – meaning the Kurds would not be allowed their separate state, cruel irony though it was, almost a hundred years after their first betrayal; (ii) an unambiguous message that Syria would not be used to threaten any neighbour – a message to Iran regarding Israel; and (iii) a political settlement, with a new Constitution and UN-supervised elections.

These last two were essential US demands, and were the subject of discussions between Presidents Trump and Putin at their Helsinki summit in July this year. This was when the real settlement was reached. The US side was clear that Iran was the real problem, and needed to be cleared out, that Israeli interests were to be safeguarded, and UN-supervised elections were to be held. We know this because the US Joint Staff leaked a memo they had recorded on the Russian proposals sent to Washington on the mil-to-mil channel immediately after the Helsinki summit. The leaking by the Joint Staff is the first indication in the Trump Presidency of the military’s dissatisfaction with his dealings with Russia. There were many more, and serious ones, with Obama.

A bit of reasoned speculation suggests that the reason for this unhappiness is over the Kurdish question. The Pentagon has helped the Kurds over the past several years, and they, in turn, have proved their worth as the most effective fighters against the terrorist groups. Even today, there is a sizeable presence of the US military in the Kurdish areas of Syria, in the north-east. It is also noteworthy that Erdogan has mentioned more than once that Trump has assured him that there would be no more military supplies to the Kurds, but this has never been accepted by the Pentagon.

A final word on Qatar: as the third leg of the Obama strategy, it was the financier of several of the terror group, notably Ahrar al-Sham, but some others too. And it kept up the alliance with Turkey till the end of the Syria fighting, but it, too, finally made its peace with Russia. In March 2018, Sheikh Tamim visited Moscow, met Putin and discussed Syria and defence cooperation. One important reason would be the blockade of Qatar by its Arab neighbours, and the US position of support for the Saudi-led blockade. This was the backdrop to the agreement for the terror groups leaving eastern Ghouta under an agreement with Russia and moving to Idlib, where they are emerging as a source of friction between Russia and Turkey. But the Emir’s visit and search for Russian military equipment indicates an end to the strategy of toppling Assad.

Thus ends the current phase of hard politics in and on Syria. The US strategy of using Qatar and Iran to displace Russia as the dominant supplier of natural gas sponsored by the Obama team is finished. There will be alternative sources, not only as Qatar will continue its present levels, but also the US and Central Asia as new entrants. Once the current uncertainty in Idlib is resolved, and hopefully the situation stabilises, the issue of a political settlement will take over.

One country that has not been in focus is Israel. It has, probably deliberately, kept a low profile throughout the war[s] in and around Syria. Nonetheless, noteworthy developments have taken place: the first is the emergence of a warm relationship between Israel and Russia. Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited Moscow and met Putin more times than any other regional leader, and the two have been in even more frequent touch by telephone. The Russian approach to the Iranian presence in Syria has been influenced by Israeli concerns. Also, on 6 April, 2017, while adding that it recognised East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian State [

/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/2717182], the Russian Foreign Ministry also clarified that it recognises West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The former part was nothing new, but the latter marked a new position, and it came well before the Trump Administration announced its decision to move its Embassy to Jerusalem. More, this June 2018, Russia for the first time, hosted its National Day reception in Jerusalem.

Israel is also making progress in its relations with the Gulf Arabs. Netanyahu visited Oman in late October, accompanied by the Mossad chief. Such a visit is not without precedent: both Rabin in 1994 and Peres in 1996 made the same journey. What is unprecedented is the subsequent invitation to the Israeli transport minister to participate in an international conference on transport. The minister, Yisrael Katz is to present a plan for linking his country’s rail network with that of Jordan, and on the Persian Gulf. Of course, there have been many such plans in the past: the ruins of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, the Hejaz Railway bear witness to the vanity of such schemes. And yet, there is something fitting about this item: this essay opens with the problem of bypassing Israeli territory in 1949, and here are the same principal actors working to include Israel in such a new network. If it succeeds.

Two open issues still remain to be settled. The first is that of Idlib, and the presence of militants there. As noted, Erdogan managed to get a deal from Putin not to mov against these forces, on the assurance that he would move them out, within a specified period of time. This time ended in October, but Erdogan has not delivered. Yet, Putin has not moved on them, as he had intended to do. The reason for this lull would, of course, be partly related to the Russian on Turkey for access to Syria; it is also probably connected with the US policy on Syria. It would appear that the Pentagon would favour an active role and presence in the country, while Trump is more concerned now with the politics of this at home in the US. He is gearing up for a very tough two years ahead, with the Democrats in control of the House, but also with a bruising Presidential campaign for 2020.

The second element of uncertainty flows from the above: how far will the US back the Kurds? In Afrin and Manbij, the US has accepted Turkish power at the expense of the Kurds. There was some logic to this, as these were areas west of the Euphrates. But now, Trump has just announced that all US forces are to be pulled out from the North-East, an announcement made after a reported phone conversation with Erdogan. This comes at a time when the largely-Kurdish SDF was preparing to attack ISIL in its last urban stronghold in Hajin, on the eastern banks of the Euphrates. The Turks had threatened to attack the Kurds, and the Pentagon, in turn, had publicly warned the Turks against such a move. Trump’s decision comes as a surprise, and reflects some dissonance between him and the Pentagon, a dissonance confirmed by the resignation of Defense Secretary Gen Mattis, and the Envoy for Countering ISIL, McGurk.

Of course, all of the analysis advanced above depends on the current dispensations continuing in the pivotal countries – the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, Turkey and Qatar. There are well-advertised elements of instability in several of the countries, and should there be any material change, it could throw open the present dynamic.

This essay was completed in end-December 2018

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