US should note that Iran stands to gain from Syria's misery

If a Middle East war is fought without the participation of the United States, does anybody hear about it? Not in the oil markets, apparently.

The US's major parrtners are more vulnerable to oil price spikes. Pawan Singh / The National
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If a Middle East war is fought without the participation of the United States, does anybody hear about it? Not in the oil markets, apparently.
Oil prices were up 3 per cent last week on the prospect of a US strike following the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons, then fell more than US$1 as the British parliament voted against involvement. Société Générale warned of "spillover" into Iraq.
But this seems to miss the vicious civil war that has already been raging in Syria for more than two years, and that has already "spilled over" into Iraq.
Oil prices were up $8 per barrel last month, and only in the past few days were they driven by Syria, a minor oil producer even before the war. Concerns (mostly misplaced) about Egypt were one part; more important was the loss of production from Libya through protests. Iran exports have been halved by sanctions; Yemen and South Sudan are also suffering interruptions.
None of these disruptions have much, if anything, to do with Syria. But Iraq does.
Security in Iraq has deteriorated seriously this year.More than 600 people have been killed in bombings and other attacks in August alone. The northern pipeline to Turkey has been repeatedly sabotaged, with oil now spilling into the Tigris. So far the main fields and export facilities in the south have been unaffected, but there have been some worrying security breaches at the port of Umm Qasr.
The US perhaps convinced itself too quickly that Middle East oil was losing its importance. Its own rising production, led by shale development, would allow it to execute its vaunted "pivot to Asia". Despite the shambles left behind in Baghdad, Iraq's rising production would supply Asia, giving room for strangling sanctions on Iran.
US oil imports have indeed fallen sharply, to 1993 levels. Without this boost, recent turmoil would have taken us back to the $143 per barrel territory of 2008. But the US still imports 7.4 million barrels per day, close to total Saudi exports. Even before the recent attacks, Iraq's impressive expansion had stalled over infrastructure bottlenecks - though it may revive at the end of this year.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have boosted output close to all-time highs to fill the gap, potentially easing markets by the end of the year - and underlining their continuing indispensability.
The US may be less vulnerable to oil price spikes now, but some of its major partners are not so lucky. When denominated in the slumping Indian rupee, oil prices reached record levels recently. Turkey, is also struggling to fund its current account deficit amid problems exporting to Middle East neighbours.
Growing need for their oil represents an opportunity for the new, more pragmatic and sophisticated Iranian administration to chip away at sanctions, and improve its negotiating position for the next round of nuclear talks in the face of an irresolute America. The oil minister Bijan Zanganeh's strategy lays out just such an approach.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government's other main backer, Russia, is happy for elevated oil revenues to keep bailing out its leaky economy.
The solipsistic western impression that the war in Syria only matters insofar as the US, Britain and France are involved overlooks not only the drawn-out human tragedy, but also the country's centrality to the Middle East.
If, as signalled, the US launches only limited strikes, oil prices will spike and then fall back.
But with still no signs of a comprehensive solution - military, diplomatic, political and humanitarian - the Syrian conflict will continue to undermine regional security and damage the world economy in a multitude of subtler but serious ways.
 
Robin Mills is the head of consulting at Manaar Energy, and the author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon