BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 24 (UPI) -- Syria's top rebel commander is reportedly seeking Western support for taking over oil fields held by Islamist factions but the real conflict over Syria's energy resources is likely to be vast natural gas fields under the eastern Mediterranean.
Whatever is under the seabed in Syrian waters remains undiscovered but in the wake of major strikes by Israel and Cyprus, and Lebanon supposedly sitting on similar prizes, it's a pretty good bet Syria has significant gas holdings.
There seems little doubt that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime will eventually be displaced as rebel forces, disunited but backed by most of the Arab powers and, up to a point, the United States and Europe, make steady gains in a war now in its third year.
Rebels seized Syrian oil fields in northeastern Deir al-Zor province near the Iraqi border in late 2012.
This year they've pushed into resource-rich Hassaka and Raqqa, securing control of most of Syria's oil reserves. These total 2.5 billion barrels, a modest tally, although Damascus was earning around $4 billion a year from exports before the anti-Assad uprising began.
Many of the fields are controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, the most formidable of the Islamist factions with links to al-Qaida.
Gen. Selim Idriss, chief of staff of the Supreme Military Command which supposedly runs dozens of rebel factions, wants to form a 30,000-man secular force to secure the oil fields and other key economic sectors to keep them out of Islamist hands.
He wants the West to provide the $30 million-$40 million a month he says he'd need to do that.
There's another more important element in this unfolding energy contest in the Middle East and the East Mediterranean.
Key players in this complex competition are Qatar, which is supplying arms and funds to the Syrian rebels, and Turkey, Syria's northeastern neighbor, which acts as facilitator and also wants to see the Assad regime destroyed.
The tiny emirate is one of the world's leading gas suppliers and it has long sought to wreck Iranians plans to pump gas westward to Europe via Iraq to Syria's Mediterranean coast.
One of its primary objectives in backing the Syrian rebels has been to ensure that the $10 billion Iran-Iraq-Syria gas project signed in 2011 even as the uprising against Assad gathered momentum never gets off the ground.
Both Tehran and Baghdad support Assad's regime.
Qatar, one of the smallest Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf has for some time sought to establish itself as a regional power, equal if not superior to long-dominant Saudi Arabia.
The battle of the pipelines reflects the growing sectarian rift in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.
On one side is Islam's mainstream Sunni sect, with Saudi Arabia at its head. On the other, the Shiites, who broke away in Islam's early days. This group is led by Iran.
The Americans, and no doubt the Europeans who'd be able to break their dependence on Russian gas if they got supplies via Syria, would be immensely happy with a pipeline that isolates Iran and its allies.
Turkey, which also wants to shed its dependence on Russian gas, would also be happy to be cut in on the Qatari gas flow because that would further Ankara's ambition to become the region's pre-eminent energy crossroads.
Energy-short Jordan, too, would partake of the Qatari gas, assuring it of a steady supply, although the Qataris would prefer a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Amman than the Hashemite dynasty, which is looking increasingly shaky amid the turmoil sweeping the Arab world.
All this would profoundly alter the geopolitical and energy landscape in the Middle East, much to the benefit of the United States and Europe.
But the real clincher was the discovery of large gas fields off northern Israel in 2009-10, and later nearby Cyprus. This has already shifted strategic perceptions in the region. The U.S. Geological Survey says there's 123 trillion cubic feet of gas there.
Israel and Turkey, with U.S. encouragement, are moving toward mending a diplomatic rupture in their strategic partnership. Israel could export its gas to Europe via an undersea pipeline to Turkey.
But before that can happen, Assad has to go, with a secular Sunni-majority successor regime installed in his place.