Another falling dictator might soon make a splash in the oil market.
The latest domino set to drop in the Middle East appears to be Bashar Assad of Syria. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Tuesday that he thinks it's only "a question of time" before Assad joins Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and others on the scrap heap.
Assad's fall could push other regimes to wobble and possibly foment more turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East, and that could roil an already choppy crude-oil market.
"If you have an uprising and it's successful in any section and you get contagion, then the entire region becomes chaotic," said Philip Gotthelf, managing director of Equidex Energy in Closter, N.J.
We've seen it before with the unrest in Libya that led to Gaddafi's fall last year, which caused a jump in oil prices that may have been a drag on global economic growth and helped keep pump prices in the U.S. relatively high.
Syria does not produce oil in amounts anywhere close to Libya's production -- about 385,000 barrels a day, or less than 0.5 percent of global production, according to the latest BP statistics, compared to about 1.7 million barrels a day in Libya before Gaddafi's fall. But uncertainty about what may follow Assad's departure could still have a market impact, if only in the short term.
More important is the example it sets. "Syria is not a big player, so the biggest concern is that the unrest would spread to another player," said Phil Flynn, energy analyst with PFGBest in Chicago. "What we have seen in the past is that when there's a successful regime change, it seems to inspire other countries to say, hey, maybe we should have another one."
Some bigger oil-producing regimes are still standing in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, which produces more than 10 million barrels a day, according to BP statistics. That regime is not expected to fall any time soon. Then again, neither was Assad (or Gaddafi or Mubarak).
Right now, Flynn estimated, uncertainty about what comes next in the Mideast could be adding $5 or more to the price of crude oil. Worries about Iran alone could be contributing an additional $5 to $10 to crude prices. U.S. crude-oil futures were trading on Wednesday at just under $99 a barrel.
The best-case scenario is probably a quiet regime change in Syria that doesn't spark unrest anywhere else. That could calm the market, which earlier settled down once the Libyan rebels made clear they had no interest in cutting off the flow of Libya's oil.
But until then, the market will likely keep oil more expensive to account for the unknowns.