Syria: Connecting the Wrong Dots or Correlation is Not Causation

A decade ago an insightful writer observed, wet or dry, freeze or fry the problem is always the same—our use of fossil fuels—and the solution is always more government regulation and control of the economy. Writers who subscribe to the climate orthodoxy and the anti-fossil energy agenda can always find a way to find enough dots to connect to support their preconceived opinions. Opinions may or may not be based on demonstrable facts.

Trying to tie the Syrian situation to oil or human caused climate change is an exercise in fiction.

It is a fact that the Middle East is the most unstable area of the world. It is a fact that it contains the world’s greatest oil reserves. It is a fact that droughts in undeveloped nations can provoke conflict. It is not a fact that our Syrian policy, tattered though it is, is somehow connected to a demonstrable energy issue. And, it is not a fact that the Syrian civil war is a result of climate change. But, it is a fact that Syria has regularly suffered droughts. And, it is a fact that the current one is made worse by population growth and poverty which robs a nation of resilience.

It has long been in the West’s best interests to promote a relatively stable Middle East, primarily because of the commitment to Israel. Stability translates into lower oil prices and less volatility. But, the objective of stability has proven illusive, especially since 2001. At the time of the invasion of Iraq, there was a foreign policy school of thought that believed that if we got rid of Saddam Hussein the Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators and we could lead them to the blessings of democracy. Anyone who still holds to the concept that the use of force will lead to stability and democratization in the Middle East is suffering from historic amnesia.

What we have learned in the past 12 years and especially since the “Arab Spring” is that our ability to influence political forces and bring about desired outcomes, especially through the use of military force, is very limited. There are simply too many variables and actors that are beyond our control.

We may want a change in leadership in Syria but our ability to bring it about and to anticipate the unintended consequences associated with such actions is extremely limited. Whatever, we eventually do about Syria, it will not be because oil is a major factor.

Today’s crude oil price reflects more than just Syria, which is not a major oil producer. Increased instability in the region dating to the recent tensions with Iran and disruptions in Libya, Nigeria, and Iraq are mainly the cause. According to EIA—September 10, Today in Energy—“Global unplanned crude oil and liquid fuels disruptions averaged 2.7 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in August, the highest level over the period January 2011 through August 2013.” EIA also points out that while geopolitical unrest will continue to affect crude prices, there are factors cutting in the other direction. These include seasonal demand changes, increased non-OPEC production, and sustained Saudi output.

The world has been dealing with Middle East instability since the first Arab oil embargo. Most developed countries have put in place policies to mitigate the effects of a major disruption. In the US, we have the strategic petroleum reserve and since 2008 significant increases in production. While the world will remain a major oil consumer for decades to come and dependent on the Middle East as a major supplier, it also can become less vulnerable.

We live in a world that is ever more interdependent while also less stable and predictable because of terrorism, asymmetric warfare, and Islamic extremism. These conditions require serious strategic thinking and a willingness to abandon the failed approaches of the past.

This article appeared on the National Journal’s Energy Insiders weblog at http://www.nationaljournal.com/insiders/energy/are-oil-and-climate-change-fanning-the-flames-in-syria-20130916

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