Western firms primed to cash in on Syria’s oil and gas ‘frontier’

US, British, French, Israeli and other energy interests could be prime beneficiaries of military operations in Iraq and Syria designed to rollback the power of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) and, potentially, the Bashar al-Assad regime.

A study for a global oil services company backed by the French government and linked to Britain’s Tory-led administration, published during the height of the Arab Spring, hailed the significant “hydrocarbon potential” of Syria’s offshore resources.

The 2011 study was printed in GeoArabia, a petroleum industry journal published by a Bahrain-based consultancy, GulfPetroLink, which is sponsored by some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Total, and BP.

GeoArabia’s content has no open subscription system and is exclusively distributed to transnational energy corporations, corporate sponsors and related organisations, as well as some universities.

Authored by Steven A. Bowman, a Senior Geoscientist for the French energy company CGGVeritas, the study identified “three sedimentary basins, Levantine, Cyprus, and Latakia, located in offshore Syria” and highlighted “significant evidence for a working petroleum system in offshore Syria with numerous onshore oil and gas shows, DHIs (direct hydrocarbon indicators) observed on seismic, and oil seeps identified from satellite imagery.”

France’s secret affair with Assad’s Syria

At the time, when civil unrest was sweeping across Syria, CGGVeritas was contracted to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Sources.

The French company is one of the world’s largest seismic surveyors. Backed by the French government which owns 18% voting rights in the firm, CGGVeritas had acquired seismic data on offshore Syrian resources in 2005, and since then has been the main point of contact for geophysical and geological datasets on behalf of the Syrian regime.

In 2011, the French firm had an exclusive contract with the Syrian government to provide technical support for that year’s Syrian International Offshore Bid Round for firms to explore, develop and produce oil and gas from three offshore blocks in the Mediterranean Sea by the Syrian coast.

“Exploration activity has increased in the Eastern Mediterranean in recent years following a series of major multi-TCF (trillion cubic feet) gas discoveries made in the offshore southern Levantine Basin,” wrote Bowman. “Licensing rounds are scheduled to be announced during 2011 for areas in offshore Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus, which are believed to share strong geological similarities with these discoveries.”

Describing offshore Syria as “a truly frontier area of exploration”, Bowman — who was also involved in CGGVeritas evaluations of seismic datasets of energy resources in Libya — noted the discovery of several “flat-spots” which, if real, “will represent billion-barrel/multi-TCF [trillion cubic feet] drilling targets given the scale and volumetrics of the structures within which they occur.”

Image of Syrian offshore fields from 2011 GeoArabia study

Western energy majors court Assad

CGGVeritas was also licenced by the British government for the North Sea, where for the last several years Bowman has held responsibility for identifying prospectivity and coordinating licencing round activities.

In 2012, the US Department of the Interior published a US Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook, which observed that Assad’s government-owned Syrian Petroleum Co.:

“… cooperated with several international oil companies, such as Chinese National Petroleum Co. (CNPC), Gulfsands Petroleum of the United Kingdom, Oil and Natural Gas Resources Corp. of India, Royal Dutch Shell plc. of the United Kingdom, and Total SA of France through subsidiary companies.”

Two years earlier, the Syrian capital, Damascus, was host to the 7th Syrian International Oil & Gas Exhibition, convened by Assad’s Ministry of Petroleum. The exhibition was sponsored by CNPC, Shell, and the French major Total, and was attended by over a hundred representatives of international firms, 40% of whom were based in Europe.

A 2010 draft document produced on behalf of the Syrian Ministry of Petroleum by the exhibition organiser, Allied Expo, described how British company Shell was planning to work closely with the Assad regime to develop Syria’s gas production:

“Shell will devise a master plan for the development of the gas sector in Syria, following an agreement signed with the Ministry of Petroleum,” say the presentation slides, created in October 2010 to promote plans for a new oil and gas exhibition in 2012. “The agreement includes an assessment of the overall undiscovered gas potential in Syria, potential for upstream gas production, need for gas transmission and distribution networks…”

Slide from 2010 Syrian Ministry of Petroleum presentation (mistake in final sentence is from the original)

Throughout 2010, Shell officials held numerous meetings with British government ministers. In July, Shell met David Cameron to discuss “business issues”, Foreign Office minister David Howell to discuss “international energy matters”, and Charles Hendry, minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Slide from 2010 Syrian Ministry of Petroleum presentation

Such meetings with multiple government departments and often dozens of senior officials continued for every month through to the end of the following year, except June 2010. These included meetings with the Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor Peter Ricketts; business secretary Vince Cable, various DECC ministers to discuss “energy issues” related to Qatar, along with several sessions with Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

Declassified British government memos show that in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, oil firms BP and Shell held several meetings with senior government officials to guarantee a role of British energy companies in post-conflict Iraq.

While publicly the government decried criticisms of an oil motive for British involvement in the war as “the oil conspiracy theory”, one memo of a meeting between then Trade Minister Baroness Symons and UK oil firms revealed that in private, they believed “it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”

Slide from 2010 Syrian Ministry of Petroleum presentation

After the 2011 protests, even when Assad was brutalising demonstrators in the streets, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruled out military intervention and insisted that the Syrian dictator was a “reformer” — which he took as a green light to escalate his crackdown.

As the cycle of violence intensified, Western governments disassociated from Assad when it became clear his rule had become completely unstable. With the outbreak of civil war, the plans of Shell and other oil majors to open up Syria’s offshore resources were unexpectedly suspended.

Military action to protect Mediterranean oil and gas

The sudden crisis in Syria threw a spanner in the works for longstanding efforts to explore and open up lucrative energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A report published in December 2014 by the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) provides compelling evidence that American, British and Gulf defence strategists see the Mediterranean as an opportunity to wean Europe off dependence on Russian gas, and boost Israel’s energy independence.

As part of this process, the report revealed, military action is viewed as potentially necessary to secure Syria’s untapped offshore gas resources, which overlap with the territorial waters of other Mediterranean powers, including Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.

The report by Mohammed El-Katiri, an advisor to the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Defence and formerly a research director at the UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Advanced Research and Assessment Group (ARAG), explicitly acknowledges that a post-conflict Syria would open up new prospects for energy exploration.

“Once the Syria conflict is resolved, prospects for Syrian offshore production — provided commercial resources are found — are high,” wrote El-Katiri. Potential oil and gas resources can be developed “relatively smoothly once the political situation allows for any new exploration efforts in its offshore territories.”

The US Army SSI report noted that Syria’s offshore resources are part of a wider matrix of oil and gas deposits in the Levant basin encompassing the offshore territories of these competing states.

The region is estimated to hold approximately 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which could be just a third of the basin’s total hydrocarbons.

US-led military intervention has a key role to play, the report concludes, in “managing” conflicts and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the prospect of “Syria destabilising into de facto civil war.”

“US diplomatic and military support has a pivotal role to play in the East Mediterranean’s complex geopolitical landscape, and its importance will only grow as the value of the natural resources at stake increases,” the Army SSI report said:

“US security and military support for its main allies in the case of an eruption of natural resource conflict in the East Mediterranean may prove essential in managing possible future conflict.”

Neocons angling for Syria’s Golan oil bonanza

One of the key potential conflicts flagged up by the report is between Syria and Israel, over oil exploration licenses granted by the Israeli government to search for oil in the Golan Heights.

The Golan was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, and unilaterally annexed in 1981 with the introduction of Israeli law to the territory.

The report recognised the risk of “another armed conflict between the two parties should substantial hydrocarbon resources be discovered.”

The company that has been granted exploration rights in the Golan Heights is a major American firm, Genie Oil and Gas. Data from exploratory wells explored by Genie’s Israeli subsidiary, Afek Oil and Gas, confirmed “significant” quantities of oil and gas after drilling into a column of reserves 1,150 feet thick, “about 10 times larger than the global average.”

Yuval Bartov, Afek’s chief geologist, recently told the Economist his firm had discovered an oil reservoir “with the potential of billions of barrels.”

Equity-holding board members of Afek’s parent company, Genie Oil and Gas, include global media baron Rupert Murdoch.

In late 2010, Murdoch teamed up with Lord Jacob Rothschild to buy a 5.5% stake in Genie, worth around $11 million. Lord Rothschild is chairman of RIT (Rothschild Investment Trust) Capital Partners, a $3.4 billion investment trust fund formerly associated with the Rothschild investment bank.

RIT Capital invests primarily in public equity, debt markets, real estate equities, gold and oil, including “sectors that we have a deep knowledge of” such as “energy, resources, financial services, TMT [technology, media and telecommunications] and consumer-related.”

Murdoch is the owner of News Corporation, the world’s second largest media conglomerate before it split in 2013 into News Corp, where he is executive chairman, and 21st Century Fox, where he is co-executive chairman, running the corporation with his two sons, Lachlan and James.

As such, Murdoch is a dominant force over newspapers, publishers and TV networks in the English-language media, encompassing BSkyB, The Times and The Sun in the UK; the FOX cable network including FOX News, Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, New York Post and National Geographic in the US; The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, and Herald Sun in Australia — to name just a few.

“I believe Genie Energy’s technologies and vast shale oil licenses have real potential to spur a global, geo-political paradigm shift by moving a major portion of new oil production to America, Israel, and other western-oriented democracies,” said Murdoch explaining his reasons for investing in the firm.

During the Leveson inquiry, it emerged that the global media baron had numerous undisclosed meetings with Prime Minister David Cameron, who appeared to have close relationships with Murdoch and other senior News Corp. officials.

Murdoch and Rothschild also serve on Genie’s strategic advisory board. Joining them on the board are Larry Summers, former Director of President Obama’s National Economic Council; ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, a former Vice-President of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Director of the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advisory board member of anti-Muslim hate group the Gatestone Institute, international patron to the Henry Jackson Society; Dick Cheney, former Vice-President under George W. Bush; and Bill Richardson, former Secretary of Energy under Clinton, Governor of New Mexico and Obama nominee for Secretary of Commerce.

Dismembering Syria to stave-off peak oil

Another of Genie Oil and Gas’s subsidiaries is American Shale Oil, a joint project with the French major Total SA. Total was among the sponsors of the 2010 international oil and gas exhibition hosted by the Assad regime in Damascus.

American Shale Oil (AMSO) operates in the US in Colorado’s Green River Formation, estimated to hold 3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil.

On its website, the company offers an extraordinary declaration regarding its rationale for focusing on unconventional oil and gas resources in the US and Israel:

“The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an enormous challenge. Aggressive action must be taken to avoid unprecedented economic, social and political costs.”

Screenshot of website of Genie Energy subsidiary

This candid statement demonstrates that the interests behind Genie Energy recognise the reality of ‘peak oil’ usually denied by the industry. Peak oil does not imply that the world is running out of oil, but rather the end of the age of cheap, easy oil as conventional oil production declines, and therefore an increasing shift to a new age of expensive, difficult oil.

Declassified documents along with senior US and British officials involved in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq confirm that fears around the impact of ‘peak oil’ played an instrumental role in the Bush and Blair administration’s plans for war.

This illustrates that Genie Energy’s activities via Israel in Syria remain integral to the wider strategic goal of dominating the world’s remaining oil and gas resources, due to concerns about the impact of ‘peak oil.’

Obama appears to have few objections to the premise of Genie Energy’s oil exploration activities in the Syrian Golan Heights: that the territory will ultimately be ceded to Israel.

In early November, as Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook reports, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took advantage of a private meeting… with Barack Obama — their first in 13 months — to raise the possibility of dismembering Syria.”

According to Israeli officials familiar with the conversation:

“Netanyahu indicated that Washington should give its belated blessing to Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 war…. Netanyahu claimed that Syria was no longer a functioning state, allowing ‘for different thinking.’”

Obama’s response was telling — he did not clarify to Netanyahu that the dismemberment of Syria was out of the question:

“[A]n unnamed White House official confirmed that Netanyahu had raised the matter. The official said: ‘I think the president didn’t think it warranted an answer. It wasn’t clear how serious he [Netanyahu] was about it.’

There is thus a surprisingly broad and powerful nexus of US, British, French and Israeli interests, encompassing defence, security, energy and media sectors, at the forefront of pushing for the break-up Syria.

An overriding motive for this is the control of what is believed to be potentially vast untapped oil and gas resources in Syria and the wider Eastern Mediterranean. Relatedly, the US and Britain aim to rollback Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

According to the 2012 US Department of the Interior’s Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook on Syria, the Syrian civil war has put paid to Assad’s ambitions to transform Syria into a gas transshipment hub to Europe allied with Russia and Iran:

“In the summer of 2011, Iran, Iraq and Syria signed a memorandum of understanding on laying a 5,000-kilometer pipeline, to be named the Islamic Gas Pipeline. The proposed pipeline would transport gas resources from Iran’s South Pars field and would extend through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and to Europe under the Mediterranean Sea. Iran had suggested that the Islamic Gas Pipeline could serve as an alternative to the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline, which was set to supply Europe with gas resources by way of Turkey and Austria.”

The other alternative was a proposed pipeline backed by the US that would transport gas from the Qatar-owned part of the field overlapping with Iran, known as the North Field.

At 872 trillion cubic feet, the latter comprises the third-largest proven reserves of natural gas in the world. Together, Qatar’s North Field and Iran’s South Pars constitute the world’s single largest natural gas deposit.

The Qatar pipeline would run through Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey where gas could then be transported to Europe. Companies that have a stake in developing Qatar’s North Field include the US-based ExxonMobil and France’s Total.

CGG Veritas, the French-government backed firm previously contracted to Assad’s regime in Syria to scope the country’s offshore resources, had also conducted seismic surveys of the North Field on behalf of Qatar, after which it was contracted to survey Qatar’s Dukhan field.

The conflict that increasingly engulfed Syria after Assad signed the Russia-backed pipeline deal with Iran has effectively annulled the Iran-Syria pipeline project, which was supposed to have been completed in 2016.

“The war and sanctions had an adverse effect on Syrian hydrocarbon sector activity, including development, exploration, export, production, transportation, and distribution,” observed the US Geological Survey report:

“As the war continued in the country, Syria’s prospect of becoming a significant energy transit country to Iraq, the Mediterranean area, and Europe was severely diminished.”

ISIS is a figleaf for the Mediterranean scramble

Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Russia is intent on laying its stake in the ground.

SoyuzNefteGaz, a Russian oil and gas company, began oil prospecting operations in September 2015 on Syria’s western coast — the same area scoped by CGGVeritas.

The operations follow on from a 2013 agreement between Syria and Russia, under which SoyuzNefteGaz would pump in an initial investment of around $90 million.

Russia’s increasing military build-up in Syria, justified as an offensive against ISIS, is more likely about propping up Assad within a self-contained Alawite mini-state allied with Iran.

Putin’s announcement after Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet that Turkey has been systematically facilitating ISIS oil sales illustrates how the terror-entity has become a figleaf to justify military action.

As INSURGEintelligence has previously reported, there is significant evidence that high-level elements of Turkish government and intelligence agencies have covertly sponsored Islamist terrorist groups in Syria, including ISIS, and that this has involved permitting black market oil sales.

Why, however, did Vladimir Putin wait until the murder of a Russian pilot before announcing Russia’s possession of intelligence on Turkish state-sponsorship of ISIS?

There can be little doubt that Putin had previously been more interested in protecting Russian relations with Turkey as an emerging gas transshipment hub to Europe, under which he and Erdogan planned to build the multibillion Russia-Turkey gas pipeline, Turkish Stream — now suspended after the recent diplomatic furore.

US, British and French military operations have been similarly inconsistent, inexplicably failing to shut down ISIS supply lines through Turkey, failing to bomb critical ISIS oil infrastructure including vast convoys of trucks transporting black market oil, and refusing to arm the most effective and secular Kurdish ground forces combating ISIS.

It has become increasingly clear that the US-led coalition strategy is aimed primarily at containment of the group’s territorial ambitions within Syria.

Shortly before the Paris attacks, Obama explained:

“From the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria it — they’ll come in, they’ll leave. But you don’t see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain.”

This strategy is, however, consistent with the de facto partitioning of Iraq and Syria apparently favoured by the nexus of neoconservative defence and energy interests described above.

As Russia expands its military presence in the region in the name of fighting ISIS, the US, Britain and France are now scrambling to ensure they retain a military foothold in Syria — an effort to position themselves to make the most of a post-conflict environment. As the US Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook put it:

“Most of the international investors who pulled out of Syria following the deterioration of the safety and security situation throughout the country… are expected to remain so until the military and political conflicts are resolved.”

In this context, as Russia and Iran consolidate their hold on Syria through the Assad regime — staking the claim to Syria’s untapped resources in the Mediterranean — the acceleration of Western military action offers both a carrot and a stick: the carrot aims to threaten the Assad regime into a political accommodation that capitulates to Western regional energy designs; the stick aims to replace him with a more compliant entity comprised of rebel forces backed by Western allies, the Gulf states and Turkey, whilst containing the most virulent faction, ISIS.

It is unlikely that this blood-soaked strategy to beat Russia and Iran to Mediterranean energy riches has any prospect of success, for any of the parties.

Judging by recent history, it is also likely to backfire in ways that cannot be foreseen, nor controlled.

Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is a weekly columnist for Middle East Eye.

He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award, known as the ‘Alternative Pulitzer Prize’, for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was twice selected in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power 1,000’ most globally influential Londoners, in 2014 and 2015.

Nafeez has also written and reported for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist, Counterpunch, Truthout, among others.

He is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Faculty of Science and Technology at Anglia Ruskin University, where he is researching the link between global systemic crises and civil unrest for Springer Energy Briefs.

Nafeez is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel ZERO POINT, among other books. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

This article was amended on 2nd December 2015 to include evidence of secret meetings in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War between British government officials and UK oil majors.

This exclusive is being released for free in the public interest, and was enabled by crowdfunding. I’d like to thank my amazing community of patrons for their support, which gave me the opportunity to work on this story. Please support independent, investigative journalism for the global commons via Patreon.com, where you can donate as much or as little as you like.

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