As soon as Lebanon signed what officials and the media called a ‘historic deal’ with Israel over maritime borders, a new challenge resurfaced in the north of the country.
The agreement rekindled a sea boundary dispute with Syria which emerged last year after Damascus granted a licence to a Russian energy company, Kapital, to begin maritime explorations in an area Lebanon claims as its own.
Although from a technical standpoint the dispute could be resolved by diplomats, the issue carries political implications for both countries.
While no defined maritime border exists between them, Lebanon demarcated its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2011 in a letter to the United Nations. Syria later objected to the unilateral initiative in 2014.
“The disagreement reemerged last year after Syria granted a maritime exploration licence to a Russian energy company in an area claimed by Lebanon.”
However, experts say that Damascus’s objection had no legal basis. Unlike Lebanon, Syria is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international convention used to regulate marine and maritime activities.
A few days before Lebanon signed the US-brokered maritime deal with Israel on 27 October, Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad discussed holding direct talks to reach an agreement over their sea boundary.
Days later, Syrian officials cancelled a planned visit to Damascus by a Lebanese delegation and sent a letter to the Lebanese foreign ministry saying “the time was not right”, adding that its negotiators were busy and Lebanon had failed to send an official letter.
The meeting was postponed without providing an alternative date.
In technical terms, the dispute consists of overlapping claims concerning the two countries’ maritime borders.
Roudi Baroudi, an energy industry expert and chief executive of Energy and Environment Holding, explained to The New Arab that the offshore block assigned to the Russian firm for exploration, located off the coast of the southern Syrian city of Tartous, overlaps with Lebanese economic waters northwest of Tripoli, known as blocks 1 and 2.
“Lebanon and Syria could use the Nahr al-Kabir river’s outlet, which geographically divides the two countries, as the demarcation point to calculate the maritime boundaries. They can solve this dispute efficiently,” he said.
Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher and associate fellow at the American University of Beirut, told The New Arab that Syria and Lebanon would have to discuss the methodology used to calculate their maritime border, as every country tends to use different methods.
In legal terms, the negotiations with Syria are also essential to modify the border between the EEZ of Lebanon and Cyprus.
Although Cyprus has accepted the agreement between Israel and Lebanon, which formalized the borderline in the south, Lebanon must reach a deal with Syria to set formal maritime boundaries with Cyprus in the north of its EEZ.
While Cypriot and Lebanese diplomats confirmed in late October that there was no risk of a dispute with Cyprus, Ayoub believes Lebanon should start talks with Syria as soon as possible to achieve an agreement, as there could be political consequences.
“Syria’s decision to postpone the negotiations was a political message to clarify its position. Lebanon rushed to take the initiative for the talks. But Lebanon should define their relations with Syria,” he said.
Indeed, Syria could well put several political issues on the table during negotiations.
Aoun failed to begin negotiations with Syria before the end of his mandate on 31 October, and the Lebanese Parliament has unsuccessfully attempted to elect a new president.
This deadlock has left the country without a president and with a caretaker cabinet, creating a vacuum in the Lebanese state’s executive power that could advantage Syria in talks.
In this context, the leader of the Marada Movement and pro-Syrian figure Suleiman Frangieh is a preferred candidate for Damascus, although Iran-backed and Syrian-allied Hezbollah hasn’t officially endorsed him.
Furthermore, Syria, still ostracised by the international community, seeks to normalize relations with Lebanon, which would help consolidate Damascus’s rapprochement momentum with Gulf countries.
Lebanon’s plan to deport more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees could also play a role in the negotiations.
But apart from the political implications, experts say that Syria is unlikely to start drilling until both countries reach an agreement.
Baroudi explained that there is a high probability of finding hydrocarbon resources in the disputed area, according to a geological survey made in 2010 and confirmed by another assessment in 2017.
While the exploration activities of Kapital on behalf of Syria are part of a Russian long-term strategy to control the Eastern Mediterranean sea and prevent its competitors from drawing the maritime zone’s oil map, no companies are currently involved in exploring on behalf of Lebanon.
Diana Kaissy, an energy governance specialist and advisory board member of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative (LOGI), told The New Arab that the disputed northern offshore blocks have opened a second round of hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation licenses over the past two years, without receiving any offers.
The consortium contracted by Lebanon to explore oil and gas resources in block 4 (Northern Lebanon) is reshuffling its stakes before exploring block 9 (the former disputed maritime zone with Israel).
Initially, 40% of the consortium was held by French TotalEnergies, 40% by Italy’s Eni, and 20% by Russia’s Novatek.
But with Novatek’s exit in August, Lebanon took the company’s stake and transferred it temporarily to TotalEnergies.
Meanwhile, QatarEnergy is in talks with the Lebanese government, requesting a 30% stake in an offshore exploration block and negotiating with TotalEnergies and Eni on the matter.
“What is being proposed is the following distribution: 35% to TotalEnergies, 35% to ENI, and 30% to QatarEnergy. The consortium now has three months to decide how to distribute the stakes for the exploration and production agreement limited to block 9,” Kaissy explained.
Asked whether the consortium would be interested in exploring and developing in the disputed maritime zone with Syria, Kaissy said that nothing would prevent this scenario but that the consortium must start a separate bidding process.
“Most experts agree that Lebanon’s ability to capitalize on hydrocarbons will depend on the political and economic reforms the country can implement.”
Ayoub explained that blocks 1 and 2 would only be licensed following an agreement with Syria.
Most experts agree that Lebanon’s ability to capitalize on hydrocarbons will depend on the reforms the country can implement, as repeatedly highlighted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international institutions.
Baroudi explained that these reforms are crucial for entering the gas and oil industry.
“The Lebanese political class must remove political issues from economic initiatives. Once Lebanon has a government, it can send an official delegation to Syria. However, we need judiciary, financial, and political reforms before starting any extraction activities,” he said.
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