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Keeping an Eye on Mideast Oil

September 16, 2014

The resurgence of radical Islamist terror, as ISIS or ISIL, could represent a threat to Mideast oil. (ISIL refers to the Levant, an area encompassing Lebanon and those around it in the eastern Mediterranean.)

What are some of the factors we should be aware of?

First, what is their strategy?

Is it:

  1. To finish off Assad and secure all of Syria along with the portions of Iraq they already control, and consolidate their holdings as a Caliphate, to ensure a long-term base of operations? Where Caliph means successor to the Prophet Mohammed.
  2. To extend their control of Iraq to include Baghdad and all of the oil-rich areas in southern Iraq, thereby opening the gateway to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?
  3. To overthrow the House of Sa’ud and become the center of the Islamic World by controlling Mecca and Medina, the holiest places of the Muslim religion, with the intent of uniting all Muslims in their cause?

Or, is it a combination of these?

Given that ISIS has already secured enough wealth to support its operations, a strategy to capture more oil fields would seem inappropriate, especially those in Kuwait and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. This would include avoiding a frontal assault on the Kurds, who control some of the rich oil fields in northern Iraq.

The Kurds are capable fighters who can defend their territory, especially when it involves their core enclave which is in mountainous, difficult to attack terrain. But they lack the modern equipment, as well as sufficient manpower for an offensive campaign much beyond Kirkuk or Mosul.

Beneath the surface of any strategy is the undercurrent of religion. First there is the divide between Sunni and Shia that dates back centuries. Then, within the Sunnis there is the extremely conservative Wahhabi sect, that views itself as the protector of the Muslim religion, and historically was given that role by the House of Sa’ud.

A History of Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom, by Robert Lacey.

A History of Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom, by Robert Lacey.

The Wahhabi’s have given financial support to radical Islam in the past, though it’s unclear whether they will support ISIS: They could see that their interests continue to lie with supporting the House of Sa’ud.

There is also the tribal nature that still exists throughout the region, more so in the Arab world than in Iran.

Currently, Iran, which is predominantly Shia, is backing the Baghdad government which is also Shia. Iran is a formidable military power, and could probably prevent ISIS from taking control of Baghdad and southern Iraq if ISIS pursued that strategy. Iran’s direct military involvement in Baghdad and Southern Iraq would, however, be contrary to US interests.

But what about oil?

The oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are 200 and 500 miles, respectively, from ISIS controlled Iraq, and would require ISIS to first have control of the cities along the Euphrates River, south of Baghdad, in order to gain access to Kuwait or Saudi oil fields.

A thrust through the desert west of the Euphrates isn’t likely, because of the terrain and that their forces would be exposed.

While ISIS might like to overthrow the House of Sa’ud, it’s unlikely it will be part of an early strategy.

But there are opportunities for ISIS to inflict damage on Saudi Arabia’s ability to produce oil, and thereby hurt Western economies.

Saudi security forces recently rounded up 80 militants who were said to have plans for terrorist activities.

There is the long-standing friction between the Shia population, which dominates the eastern, oil rich, province of Saudi Arabia, and the Wahhabi sect: Disgruntled Shia could be a source of terrorists. Disaffected Sunnis from within Saudi Arabia might be recruited as terrorists, as might other individuals from nearby Yemen or Bahrain.

While there could be attacks on pipelines and other infrastructure, the holy grail of any attack on Saudi oil production would be a successful attack on Abqaiq.
Nearly all of Saudi oil production is processed through Abqaiq, primarily to remove hydrogen sulfide and volatiles from the oil.

A terrorist attack on Abqaiq failed in February, 2006. If it had succeeded, and severely damaged the facility, it would have cut the world’s oil supply by about 10%.

It would appear as though ISIS’ immediate strategy will be to unseat Assad, take control of all of Syria, and consolidate its gains, while using its Caliphate to attack Western interests in the Mideast, and also the European and United States homelands.

If the initial strategy is successful, ISIS could then pivot and focus on Saudi Arabia.

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