Events of the last week portend more serious troubles in the months ahead than most realize. Earlier this week, President Obama issued an ultimatum to the Assad government that it must keep its stockpiles of chemical weapons under strict control or face some kind of direct intervention by the US and possibly other foreign countries into the Syrian civil war. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Syrian army is disintegrating into an Alawite militia incapable of policing much of anything. Much of the Assad government’s remaining military capabilities consists of firing artillery from outside of cities and using aircraft to bomb and strafe civilian residential areas occupied by insurgents. The power of the Syrian armed forces to hold much of the country is on the wane.
Exactly what a foreign military intervention would look like is an open question. With Syria’s chemical weapons reported to be widely dispersed at bases across the country, securing these locations would likely require substantial numbers of Special Forces who may face opposition to efforts to secure and or remove chemical weapons. Besides Syria’s regular, paramilitary and police forces who might offer resistance, there are numerous flavors of insurgent groups who might want the weapons for themselves or at least take umbrage at the notion of foreigners carrying them off. The bottom line is that any intervention could easily worsen the situation by turning the civil war into prolonged chaos that could spill into several countries. Just how Syria’s friends such as the Russians, who vehemently deny providing any chemical weapons to the Assad government, or the Iranians, who seem to have military personnel in the country helping fight the insurgents, or anti-Israeli groups such as Hezbollah, react to a Western intervention is a good question. Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran are already claiming that the chemical weapons issue is just a pretext for the U.S. to finish off the Assad government.
Our concern here, however, is how a military intervention would affect oil prices and supplies from the Middle East. In the short run, of course, such a development is certain to cause a spike in oil prices, if only out of fear that a wider conflict is in the offing. Should any intervention be short-lived and reasonably successful in securing the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile, the immediate impact on oil prices should be minimal. If an intervention should run into serious opposition, however, the results could be different. The Assad government has already threatened to use its chemical weapons to resist a foreign incursion. Should these weapons be used against U.S. or other foreign forces, all bets would be off. The reaction would likely be a no-holds-barred attack on the remaining Syrian military forces. Should it be established or suspected that some of these chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorist groups, especially those actively opposing Israel, the conflict could go anywhere.
A second issue fraught with danger is the interaction between Israel’s government and the U.S. Presidential election which is only ten weeks away. Some Israeli sources are claiming that a deal is shaping up between Tel Aviv and the Obama administration to forego an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities prior to November 6. In return the U.S. would provide iron-clad guarantees that it would bomb Iran’s underground nuclear facilities in the spring unless Tehran agreed to abandon efforts that could lead to the production of nuclear weapons.
The lever for this agreement is said to be that in the wake of the turmoil caused by a unilateral Israeli attack on Tehran’s nuclear facilities – spiking oil prices, retaliatory attacks, financial upheavals – President Obama would be likely to lose the election. This would insure that a more pro-Israel Romney administration would come to power in January, more likely to back the Israeli position regarding Iran.
Earlier this week, Israeli newspapers were reporting that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defense Minister believe that President Obama would have no choice but to back Israel. These papers are claiming that a decision for a unilateral attack is very close.
Whether these claims are true or are simply part of a continuing Israeli effort to pressure Tehran will have to await further developments. Any attack on Iran, whether by Israel alone, the U.S. alone, or in concert would almost certainly have far more serious long-range consequences than many realize. Talk about a quick war of a month or less as seen in prior Israeli/NATO air strikes on military establishments or nascent nuclear facilities in the region does not do justice to the passions that would be unleashed across the region.
Military technology has changed. Cruise missiles can now be fired at targets the size of oil tankers from hundreds of miles away with unerring accuracy. Defending against such a threat even with the West’s vaunted naval and air superiority, which has now has little to do with the problem of protecting tankers, would likely prove to be impossible. Keeping oil exports flowing from the Gulf, should the Iranians be willing to accept the stoppage of their own oil exports and make an all-out effort to halt all oil shipments, would seem to be far more difficult than many are trying to tell us. Short of invading and occupying a nation of nearly 80 million people the size of Alaska – clearly a mission impossible – or pounding critical parts of it into rubble – something which is unlikely to happen – it would seem that there may be some very hard times ahead.
Halting of the Gulf’s oil production for more than a few days is guaranteed to set off a devastating global depression– in very short order.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.