Maritime dispute between Lebanon and Syria

Analysis: Following Lebanon’s agreement with Israel, a disagreement with Syria over maritime borders reappeared.

As soon as Lebanon signed what officials and media described as a “historic agreement” with Israel on maritime borders, a new challenge resurfaced in the north of the country.

The deal reignited a maritime border dispute with Syria that emerged last year after Damascus granted a license to a Russian energy company, Kapital, to begin maritime explorations in an area Lebanon claims as the his.

Although technically the dispute can be resolved by diplomats, the issue has political implications for both countries.

Although no defined maritime boundary exists between them, Lebanon demarcated its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2011 in a letter to the United Nations. Syria then opposed the unilateral initiative in 2014.

“The disagreement resurfaced last year after Syria granted a maritime exploration license to a Russian energy company in an area claimed by Lebanon”

However, experts say Damascus’ 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.

Days before Lebanon signs the US-brokered maritime deal with Israel on October 27, Lebanese President Michel Aoun and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad discussed holding direct talks to reach an agreement. on their maritime border.

A few days later, Syrian officials canceled a planned visit to Damascus by a Lebanese delegation and sent a letter to the Lebanese Foreign Ministry saying “the time has not come”, adding that its negotiators were busy and that Lebanon had not sent an official letter.

The meeting was postponed without providing an alternative date.

Technically, the dispute consists of overlapping claims to the maritime borders of the two countries.

Roudi Baroudi, energy sector expert and managing director of Energy and Environment Holding, told The new Arabic that the offshore block awarded to the Russian firm for exploration, located off the southern Syrian city of Tartous, straddles Lebanese economic waters northwest of Tripoli, known as Blocks 1 and 2.

“Lebanon and Syria could use the outlet of the Nahr al-Kabir river, which geographically separates the two countries, as a demarcation point to calculate maritime borders. They can resolve this dispute effectively,” he said.

Marc Ayoub, energy researcher and research associate at the American University of Beirut, said The new Arabic that Syria and Lebanon should discuss the methodology used to calculate their maritime boundary, as each country tends to use different methods.

On the legal level, negotiations with Syria are also essential to modify the border between the Lebanese and Cypriot EEZ.

A United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) ship patrols alongside Lebanese Navy vessels off the southern Lebanese town of Naqura, near the border with Israel, on 27 October 2022. [Getty]

Although Cyprus accepted the agreement between Israel and Lebanon, which formalized the border to the south, Lebanon must conclude an agreement with Syria in order to establish formal maritime borders with Cyprus north of its EEZ.

While Cypriot and Lebanese diplomats confirmed at the end of October that there was no risk of a dispute with Cyprus, Ayoub believes that Lebanon should start talks with Syria as soon as possible to reach an agreement, because there could be have political consequences.

“Syria’s decision to postpone the negotiations was a political message to clarify its position. Lebanon hastened to take the initiative for the talks. But Lebanon must define its relations with Syria,” he said. declared.

Indeed, Syria could well put several political issues on the table during the negotiations.

Aoun failed to begin negotiations with Syria before the end of his term on October 31, and the Lebanese parliament tried unsuccessfully to elect a new president.

“From a legal point of view, negotiations with Syria are also essential to modify the border between the EEZ of Lebanon and Cyprus”

This stalemate has left the country without a president and with an interim cabinet, creating a vacuum in the executive power of the Lebanese state that could benefit Syria in the talks.

Against this backdrop, Marada movement leader and pro-Syrian figure Suleiman Frangieh is a preferred candidate for Damascus, although Iran-backed Hezbollah allied with Syria has not officially backed him.

Moreover, Syria, still ostracized by the international community, is seeking to normalize its relations with Lebanon, which would contribute to consolidating the dynamics of rapprochement between Damascus and the Gulf countries.

Lebanon’s plan to expel more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees could also play a role in the negotiations.

But aside from the political implications, experts say Syria is unlikely to start drilling until the two countries reach an agreement.

Baroudi explained that there is a high probability of finding hydrocarbon resources in the disputed area, according to a geological study carried out in 2010 and confirmed by another assessment in 2017.

While Kapital’s exploration activities on behalf of Syria are part of a long-term Russian strategy to control the eastern Mediterranean Sea and prevent its competitors from drawing the oil map of the maritime area, no company is currently involved in exploration on behalf of Lebanon.

Diana Kaissy, energy governance specialist and advisory board member of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative (LOGI), said The new Arabic that the disputed offshore northern blocks have opened a second round of hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation licenses in the past two years, without receiving any offers.

The consortium hired by Lebanon to explore the oil and gas resources of block 4 (north of Lebanon) is redistributing its stakes before exploring block 9 (the former maritime area disputed with Israel).

Initially, 40% of the consortium was held by the French TotalEnergies, 40% by the Italian Eni and 20% by the Russian Novatek.

Lebanon is in the throes of an economic crisis. [Getty]

But with the exit of Novatek in August, Lebanon took the company’s stake and temporarily transferred it to TotalEnergies.

Meanwhile, QatarEnergy is in talks with the Lebanese government, asking for a 30% stake in an offshore exploration block and negotiating with TotalEnergies and Eni over it.

“What is proposed is the following split: 35% to TotalEnergies, 35% to ENI and 30% to QatarEnergy. The consortium now has three months to decide on the split of stakes for the limited exploration and production agreement. at block 9,” Kassy explained.

Asked if the consortium would be interested in exploring and developing in the disputed maritime area with Syria, Kaissy said nothing would prevent this scenario but the consortium should launch 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 allowed after 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 emphasized by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international institutions.

Baroudi explained that these reforms are crucial for entering the oil and gas industry.

“The Lebanese political class must eliminate political issues from economic initiatives. Once Lebanon has a government, it can send an official delegation to Syria. However, we need judicial, financial and political reforms before starting any extractive activity,” he said.

Ayoub stressed that entry into the sector should be a transparent process that eliminates any potential for corruption or mismanagement.

If Lebanon fails to carry out the necessary economic and financial reforms, it could resort to using hydrocarbon revenues to pay off the country’s debt.

“This is not the right way to do it. Over the years, Lebanon’s debt has been caused by mismanagement and poor financial operations,” Kaissy said.

“I really hope that the gas will remain under water if Lebanon does not implement reforms before developing the gas fields.”

Dario Sabaghi ​​is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi

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