Page 1 of 2 INTERVIEW Energy key to our civilization
By Lars Schall
This is an unedited part of an interview first published on the Lars Schall website. For the full interview see here.
Dr Karin Kneissl is an independent energy analyst, university teacher and writer. From 1990 to 1998 she served in the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and recently taught several seminars in Turkmenistan and Lebanon, where she works as guest-lecturer in Beirut. She teaches in Vienna (Diplomatic Academy, Military Academy) and at the European Business School (Frankfurt). Her publications range from books on the Middle East (The Cycle of Violence, 2007) to diplomacy. In 2008, a second and revised
edition of her book The Energy Poker was launched in Munich, wherein the repercussions of the current financial market crisis on the price of oil and natural gas are tackled. Her articles on the energy market have been published in peer-reviewed journals, notably in India, Poland and France.
The following interview was conducted as her latest book is coming out, Die zersplitterte Welt: Was von der Globalisierung bleibt ("The Splintered World: The Remains of Globalization"), published by Braumuller in Vienna, Austria.
Lars Schall: Dr Kneissl, very recently you have been in Egypt and in Lebanon. What were your experiences there?
Karin Kneissl: I spent a while in Egypt in mid-May and the atmosphere was already very tense; one could really feel that the collapse of the state is imminent. And this is something that is fairly frightening for a country like Egypt, which - in my mind - given its long standing pre-Islamic history - is one of the few countries in the Arab world that is not the outcome of colonization chess board mapping; it has its genuine territorial history for 5.000 years. And that such a country with such a long-standing history of institutions is at the brink of collapse, that is, I think, the most frightening element of the current state of Egypt.
In Lebanon - I just came back from Lebanon two weeks ago - the atmosphere on the spot, continues to be - how should I say? - the traditional optimism of the Lebanese who have gone through terrible times but who have learnt to manage protracted conflicts. Most of my Lebanese interview partners I met are more or less optimistic about the option to avoid the outbreak of an overall conflict. However, most people expect the one or the other booby trap bomb to explode, as we have seen just a few days ago. So the violence in the streets will continue - whether it is in the north or the south of the country. But given the manifold interests at stake in the country, be it from Iran, be it from the Gulf countries, be it some Western vested interests, they might avoid the outbreak of another big conflict inside the country.
LS: Well, Lebanon gets sucked up into the conflict in Syria more and more, is this right?
KK: We have the same confessional pattern on both sides of the border and the old word of Lebanization - you might remember that in the 1970s some political scientists referred to the balkanization of Lebanon, meaning the breakdown of the country in small-sized cantons as we have seen at the beginning of the 20th century - balkanize a country, balkanize a centralized state - and when Yugoslavia started to fall apart in the early 1990s, some political scientists referred to the Lebanonization of Yugoslavia. And today we have some additional terms like the Iraqization, the Somalization and the many spillovers that we have seen from Iraq, from Afghanistan, but particularly from Iraq, into Syria and now from Syria back into Lebanon inter alia, this Shi'ite-Sunni conflict, this inter-Muslim conflict, this is something that very, very closely affects Lebanon as well.
LS: In your new book The Splintered World you have the thesis that World War I in this region is actually still going on. How do you come to this conclusion?
KK: Well, the borders that we see in the Middle East are the immediate outcome of the treaties after World War I, the treaties that were concluded in the suburbs of Paris, in that case in Sevres and later on in Lausanne. And these borders actually have their reference in pipeline agreements of 1920. So the whole region was mapped along the ceasefires, the armistices of ... as the situation in the field was after World War I and what happened to the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, namely the reshuffling of the map of the Middle East by the victorious powers Great Britain and France alongside resource interests, in that case the oil of Mesopotamia, this is the map of today's Middle East.
Now, since I mentioned Egypt just beforehand as one of the few countries, if not the only Arab country that really has a long-standing pre-Islamic, pre-20th century state history ... countries like Syria and Iraq on the other hand, even though their origins as cultures go back to pre-historic times but the nation, the territorial figure of the state is fairly recent and that has a lot to do with the outcome of World War I. And in my eyes that war is still going on because the conflict levels of those days, like, I would say, the fight for Damascus. In my eyes, this city has a much stronger role in Arab history than for instance Jerusalem. Jerusalem is often referred to by Muslims as the third important city and of fairly relevant importance to Arab history. But I would say that Damascus is even more important and we can see the way Turkey, Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia and others, are participating in the war in Syria, it is as if World War I was still going on.
LS: Now, when you say that Damascus is so important, does the road to Tehran lead through Damascus?
KK: It is important for Tehran to have a foot in the eastern Mediterranean. However, this is something that not only the Islamic Republic of Iran had been fighting for but it is a very old constant also in Persian history. Iran, Persia, whatever you call it, is the country of the Gulf, of course. But they always wanted to keep a foothold also in the eastern Mediterranean. At various times in history the different Shah dynasties sent Shi'ite clerics to take care of Shi'ite communities in the eastern Mediterranean, such as in Lebanon. And these many constants are also still valid today because for Iran, which sees itself not only now as a power of the Gulf but which also strives for leadership in the Muslim world.
LS: There is also a possible road going from Tehran to Damascus via a pipeline, the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline. Do you consider this as an important feature of the conflict in Syria?
KK: I would say in the case of Syria the oil interests are secondary. They were primary in the case of the Iraq War. What might emerge as a larger legacy of the whole conflict is maybe not so much the physical access to certain resources or to pipeline tracing, I think it will be more, as I just mentioned, a fight for Damascus, which has its role in ancient Arab history and it is also about the changing of the maps, the creation maybe of a Kurdish state that is interlinked, I think, in the whole pattern. It has to do with the fight of regional power dominance, both by Turkey and by a number of Arab states and the pipeline tracing according to my assessment is secondary.
LS: The main war theater in the war on terror is Afghanistan and this has become the longest war in US history. How does the balance look like as far as you are concerned? I mean it is now going on for more than twelve years ...
KK: Well, the old coining of the phrase Afghanistan being the graveyard of Empires, or course it is once again very valid and in my book I also refer to a certain analogy. Of course one should never push analogies into the extreme but when the declining Soviet empire decided in 1988 to start withdrawing - and we have here some very interesting details from the Kremlin protocols that were published a few years ago, how Gorbachev and his cabinet desperately were looking for some sort of honorable exit. I think it would be worthwhile studying those protocols of the Kremlin once again because the analogies here are rising.
The kind of mission-accomplished-exit-scenario that the United States and her allies had been building up over the past two years is crumbling. And it will most probably - a lot of indications amount to a scenario where we will have less of an honorable exit but an accelerated exit in a hurry. As we see now certain deadlines are pushed closer; the most important outcome in perception from the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was: look here, rest of the world, a number of shepherds form the Hindu Kush mountain were able to kick out the Red Army! And this kind of perception in my eyes applies also to the current state of affairs because we can see to which point this enormous technological superiority, all the material, financial and political investment that was taken under Obama in the so-called "resurge" a few years ago, all that has resulted in nothing.
On the contrary, what we see right now with the US Army's withdrawal is the biggest destruction of military hardware that has ever happened in history and that might also amount to a change in warfare in the sense that all that war material that was taken into Afghanistan actually has proven to be quite useless. And with that perception in the Islamic world by and large with the current disastrous economic state of affairs of most NATO countries, I would not exclude that ... well, certain analogies might apply also for the Western powers in Afghanistan as was the case for the Soviet withdrawal in January 1989. And as we know, the withdrawal in January 1989 was the beginning of the so-called annus mirabilis that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
LS: Isn't it interesting that the US and the regime of Hamid Karzai are now again negotiating with the Taliban about TAPI, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline?
LS: What is this? Is this a historical joke?
KK: It is. You can call a kind of Treppenwitz der Geschichte, there is no real English translation to that.  But I remember fairly well that the first duty trip outside by Karzai when he was elected in 2002 was exactly to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, because of that pipeline. And some people claim that Mr Karzai, who worked in the oil business before, being brought into Afghanistan, was a man of the oil world. Now, I am not so familiar with the details of his CV ...
LS: I believe he was a consultant of Unocal (Union Oil Company of California) ...
KK: ... but I have always given a certain future to that pipeline because it is something that those countries, those receiving countries, especially Pakistan and India, have a vested interest in. And it is something that we can observe on an overall level: pipelines are turning east and are turning south but they are not turning west. And what enforces that picture is also the fairly successful detente between Pakistan and India that we have seen in the past three, four years despite all the other difficult circumstances but a detente between Pakistan and India is going on. And this, I think, was a major step, and if a number of warlords in Afghanistan can agree on the sharing of the profits then I think that pipeline has a certain chance.
LS: When you say that those pipelines go to the east and not to the west, it reminds me of one theme in your book and this is the rise of the East, in particular China. And that we might go into an Asian age. Can you elaborate on this one?
KK: Well, the Asian age, I think, has to be taken with a certain prudence. But a lot of indicators nevertheless would for the time being be in favor of let's say a multi-polar world where a number of countries in the south and in the east will have a stronger weight than the north-western hemisphere. And for me one of the main elements to argue for such an option is the way those powers organize their strategies in the resource field; the way people are ready to sacrifice something in order to obtain something; the much higher level of curiosity that we will find among younger generations than we have it in our societies. And here of course it would be difficult to put all the countries into one basket and I personally am not such a partisan of the BRICS acronym because these countries are simply so different. But it is nevertheless interesting. Also I would say against the backdrop of the Edward Snowden case, to see how countries like China and Russia behave in that case in contrast to the western countries.
LS: Now that you mentioned it, how do you evaluate the behavior of continental Europe related to these NSA & Co. revelations?
KK: It is shameful. It is really shameful because I mean the basic concepts - I would not even go into norms - but to me simply the concept of asylum and the concept of freedom of speech, the concept of privacy, secret of postal, telephone et cetera ... our rights ... is simply fundamentally violated. And there is no real rising up, there is a kind of funny duty trip by the German Minister of Interior but there is no real outbreak or revolt of anger by the governments in power.
LS: And they also say, well, there is no economic espionage going on. Do you buy this?