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Earlier this year, the Turkish daily Today’s Zamanreported that the Turkish government “has been accused of supporting the terrorist organization by turning a blind eye to its militants crossing the border and even buying its oil.”
A senior Western official familiar with a large cache of intelligence obtained this summer told the Guardian that “direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking ISIS members was now ‘undeniable.’”
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2014, Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham whether he knew of “any major Arab ally that embraces ISIL.” Gen. Dempsey replied: “I know major Arab allies who fund them.”
In other words, the most senior U.S. military official at the time had confirmed that ISIS was being funded by the very same “major Arab allies” that had just joined the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition—these include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait, which for the last four years have funneled billions of dollars to largely extremist rebels in Syria, with Western support.
Which begs the question as to why Western leaders determined to “destroy” ISIS are avoiding the most significant factor of all: the material infrastructure of ISIS’ emergence in the context of ongoing Gulf and Turkish state support for Islamist militancy in the region.
There are many explanations, but one perhaps stands out: oil.
“Most of the foreign belligerents in the war in Syria are gas-exporting countries with interests in one of the two competing pipeline projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe,” wrote professor Mitchell Orenstein of Harvard University in Foreign Affairs, the journal of Washington, D.C.’s, Council on Foreign Relations.
In 2009, Qatar had proposed a pipeline to send its gas northwest via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to Turkey. According to Orenstein, Assad “refused to sign the plan” under pressure from “Russia, which did not want to see its position in European gas markets undermined."
Instead, Russia put its weight behind “an alternative Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline that would pump Iranian gas from the same field out via Syrian ports.”
Then in 2011, the Arab Spring protests erupted. By July, Assad signed a preliminary agreement for a $10 billion Russia-backed Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline agreement.
Later that year, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel ramped up covert assistance to rebel factions in Syria to elicit the collapse of Assad’s regime from within.
“The United States … supports the Qatari pipeline as a way to balance Iran and diversify Europe’s gas supplies away from Russia,” explained Orenstein in Foreign Affairs.
Assad’s repression of his own people was exploited by foreign powers to fan the flames of this proxy war for black gold. But the popular discontent was amplified by deeper systemic factors.
In Syria, climate-induced droughts over the preceding decade had ravaged agriculture, forcing more than a million poor Sunni farmers to seek employment in the Alawite-dominated coastal cities.
Globally, climate-induced extreme weather had triggered a string of crop failures in major food basket regions, driving global food prices up. The price spikes made staple foods like bread too expensive for the poor majority in many Arab countries, Syria among them.