How far can the Syria conflict spiral out of control: Interview with Pelicourt
By James Stafford
web posted December 14, 2015
Business is business, so why not buy oil from ISIS. The Russians claim the Turks are doing it, and in all likelihood even Assad is buying it. No one can fight a war without oil, according to Robert Bensh, partner and managing director of Pelicourt LLC oil and gas company. But while the politically unhinged are coming out the woodwork, the more important aspects of this story remain elusive to the public. Is the dangerously unspoken theory that ISIS is a bulwark against Iran what's keeping the West from tackling the Islamic State wholeheartedly on its territory? With no nation that can control it, the threat is now out of control and a war of ambiguous targets is emerging.
James Stafford: Just over a week after Turkey's downing of a Russian jet targeting ISIS oil facilities in northern Syria and Moscow's imposition of ‘special economic measures' against Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Ankara that this "cowardly military crime" won't be taken lightly with just a ban on imports of "tomatoes or some restrictions in the construction and other industries." Putin also reverted to Allah, noting that ‘perhaps, Allah decided to punish the ruling clique of Turkey by depriving it of its mind and reason." How much farther can this spat go from a geo-economic standpoint?
Robert Bensh: Russia and Turkey have a great deal of economic interdependence, and nowhere more than in the energy sector. There has been no talk of cutting Russian gas to Turkey, and I don't see how Russia can afford this right now. Turkey is not only a significant customer for Russia, but it's also a key gas-transit point.
James Stafford: So what does Turkey want?
Robert Bensh: The better question is: "What does Erdogan want?" You know, Putin's probably not too far off in his statement referring to Erdogan's loss of "mind and reason". Erdogan has been going down this path little by little for some time and it's no secret that he has some megalomaniacal tendencies that grow more and more out of control every year. It would seem that he has dreams of a return of the Ottoman Empire—and that ISIS could be a logical ally to that end. Of course, ISIS is not likely looking to be beholden to another Ottoman Empire controlling a greater Sunni-Arab dominion. Many, many Turks fail to share this dream with their leader, and his ambitions will also be his eventual downfall unfortunately.
For the Turkish regime, there is also the idea that ISIS will ostensibly give them more power against the rise of the Kurds, both in southeastern Turkey and in northern Syria. It will even raise the Turks' status in the face of the Saudis whose oil wealth has make them more powerful than the Turks in many ways.
James Stafford: Ok, so what does Russia want?
Robert Bensh: The Russian stance on Syria has been less ambiguous: support Assad and strike ISIS. For Russia, there are a couple of ‘domestic' angles to this as well. One—they have a radical Islamic problem always on the point of revival in the North Caucasus. The more ISIS is emboldened and empowered, the higher the threat to Russia from within its own borders. Two—the Levant Basin oil and gas prospects. Israel has already made geopolitically game-changing gas discoveries in its part of this basin. Lebanon—if it ever passes the necessary legislation—will also start exploring its part of this prolific basin. Syria has a part in this too, and the Russians already have the right to explore under Assad. They certainly won't have it under an ISIS-created Sunni caliphate.
James Stafford: Russia claims to have evidence that Turkey was buying oil from ISIS. How much merit do you think there is to this claim?
Robert Bensh: I am not privy to this evidence, but I can tell you this. It certainly has merit in theory. In all likelihood ISIS is even selling oil to the Assad regime that it is fighting against in Syria. Assad needs oil; ISIS needs money. Business is business, even in war and even with your enemies.
James Stafford: What we want to know is why is the West holding back against ISIS? We hear conflicting reports about the targets of air strikes and we can't get a clear picture.
Robert Bensh: Listen, this is all about Iran at the end of the day, and continually about the Sunni-Shi'ite balance of power. While the West shuffles back and forth uncertain whether to destroy Assad or to destroy the ISIS monster that they helped to create to destroy Assad, and which also in large part arose out of the ashes of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein and radically upset the Sunni-Shi'ite balance of power.
James Stafford: Can Western countries, or NATO, effectively defeat ISIS?
Robert Bensh: I suppose the more answerable question is whether the West is willing to truly fight ISIS—at least on ISIS' territory.
James Stafford: Let me interrupt you here … That's where many of our readers get lost in this chaos. Why does there seem to be no concerted military move against ISIS by Western nations, aside from the on-and-off airstrikes, the targets of which there is also a great deal of ambiguity?
Robert Bensh: First, let me just stress that I am not a military man, nor am I a politician or a diplomat. I'm a businessman; and businessmen look at things a bit differently because they need to be able to see where things are going and what that means for investments. What I see right now is a great deal of uncertainty as to who the real ‘enemy' is—or, rather, who the worse enemy is.
There appears to have been for some time an overriding and unspoken conviction that ISIS was a convenient bulwark against an increase in Iranian power, in Shi'ite power. Either propping up ISIS or only half-heartedly pushing it back is a way to keep Iran subdued. This is a mistake that the West has made time again and refuses to learn from. When that bulwark comes back to launch terrorist attacks in your country—well, then it's too late to rethink strategy effectively.
But here's the part that I think everyone misses in this cynical way of looking at geopolitics and alliances that are forged along the lines of "my enemy's enemy is my friend": Iran can control its Shi'ite radicals. No one can control the Sunni insurgents.
James Stafford: Why is that?
Robert Bensh: That's easy—and this is where the historical lesson is continually ignored. The Sunni radical groups have been used over and over as a means of destabilizing regimes or the like, and then the modus operandi has always been to cut them loose. So they are armed, organized in a rather haphazard manner and on their own.
James Stafford: From a geopolitical standpoint, can you give us any prognosis for how the ISIS threat or the Russia-Turkey spat could extend with new alliances or other upsets to the balance of power?
Robert Bensh: We are now seeing a clearer re-mapping of geopolitical relationships. And more specifically, geopolitical agendas—some shrouded for some time; others simply incoherent—will surface in the light of day.
James Stafford: Well, we know that Russia-U.S. relations remain deadlocked over Assad and Ukraine, and we know that Russian-Turkish relations are at a dangerous tipping point—but are there some less obvious re-alignments?
Robert Bensh: Ok, let's take Kazakhstan for instance—a country that is enormously important in the energy equation. Kazakhstan is a geopolitically complicated arena right now. On one hand, it belongs to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and boasts Russia as its largest trading partner. But Turkey is also a fairly significant trading partner for Kazakhstan and Turkish companies play a major role in Kazakhstan. These are highly strategic relationships, and one could argue that Turkey is the more strategically important for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's response to Turkey's downing of the Russian plane illustrates the difficult position in which Kazakhstan finds itself, with one official condemning the Turkish move and then the Foreign Ministry immediately toning that down. It's trying desperately to maintain neutrality, but this will not be possible.
James Stafford: What does that mean for oil?
Robert Bensh: Again, to even attempt to determine the possible outcome, you have to follow the oil. Kazakhstan's oil is largely exported through the Black Sea and then the Mediterranean. Turkey holds a major card here because it controls the Turkish Straits and could choose to block Russian tankers. Kazakhstan's only real path right now is to pay lip service to Turkey to ensure no closing of the straits and to maintain a fair balance with Russia at the same time, but it's the Turkish Straits that will be first and foremost on its mind.
James Stafford: Thank you for your time. I know that our audience—and most of the American public at least—is desperate to understand what's really going on here; who ISIS actually is; and who everyone's supposed to be scared of. This creates a huge amount of public insecurity, and that fear breeds all kinds of other dangers, not to mention support for ill-advised strategies.
Robert Bensh: Here's the thing. This is when all the crazies come out of the woodwork—and I won't even waste your time with certain attention-seeking billionaire buffoons here. There are very few analysts in the world who can paint a big picture for you here. No one can truly predict what will come next. ISIS is loosely comprised of too many different groups and alliances, and the emerging threat is becoming much more individual, which makes it much more unpredictable. And as far as geopolitics are concerned, agendas in this game are more often than not being made up as we go along. For the energy industry, it's touch-and-go. The fate of key pipelines is in question and this conflict threatens to redraw some significant chunks of the energy map.
James Stafford is the editor of Oilprice.com where this originally appeared.