Lebanon and Syria: A Complicated Relationship between Energy and Geopolitics

Syria continues to offer the ground where Russia and the United States compete over control of oil and gas fields and the transportation routes that bring energy to consumers. Russia seeks to expand its energy footprint in Syria to build influence over rebel-controlled areas in Northeast Syria that are backed by the American military and over neighbouring Lebanon through Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

The Syrian government’s decision to sign exploration and production contracts with Russian energy companies Mercury LLC and Velada LLC for three blocks in different parts of Syria ensures delivery on Russian objectives. The contracts for oil and gas exploration include a gas field north of Damascus, and oilfields in west of Deir Ez-zor and near the oil-producing town of Rasafa in Northeast Syria. Russian energy companies have also reportedly taken over contracts for hydrocarbon exploration in three blocks off Syria’s Mediterranean coast, while a Russian ship conducted geophysical mapping across Syrian and Lebanese territorial waters for gas exploration. The presence of Russian energy companies Mercury LLC and Novatek, both with direct ties to Kremlin, in Syrian and Lebanese maritime blocks signal a long-term involvement of Russia in the East Mediterranean’s energy geopolitics.

New sanctions on Syria under the Caesar Act that took effect in June 2020 are an American tool to counter Russian companies from doing business in the Syrian petroleum and military sectors and in rehabilitating Syria’s energy infrastructure. The presence of small sized American Delta Crescent Energy company in northeast Syria solidifies American energy interests in the region and cements U.S. alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces. The fact that the U.S. Department of Treasury extended a waiver to Delta Crescent Energy to allow development of oil and gas fields and to revamp the energy infrastructure in northeast Syria shows American commitment to maintain a long-term presence in Syria.

In fact, Delta Crescent Energy plans to build a refinery in northeast Syria at a cost of 150 million dollars. The aim is to reduce the northeast’s dependence from the Assad government where currently there is no refining capacity and as consequence, all extracted oil from the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces is sold to the Assad government and is bought again after it is refined. Delta Crescent Energy signed a contract with the Syrian Democratic Forces that foresees not only exploration and development of energy resources but also construction of transportation infrastructure so that energy products reach the international market either through Turkey or the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

In this complex context, it seems that it would be of great value if revenues from oil and gas trade are directed to alleviate the humanitarian burden in Syria and to restore basic infrastructure.

In neighbouring Lebanon, the surge in coronavirus cases in Lebanon and global low oil prices prompted the government to postpone the second international licensing round for the third time to the end of 2021. This development along with the failure to identify commercially viable gas in block 4 impedes Lebanon from proceeding with long-anticipated projects like Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals and Floating Storage and Regasification Units (FSRU). In addition, the lack of bidders or potential financiers puts on hold the construction of power plants that will convert gas into electricity for domestic consumption.

The development of Lebanon’s hydrocarbon reserves faces internal and external challenges ranging from lack of institutional mechanisms to enhance transparency and accountability to geopolitical complexities that hinder overall exploitation in block 9 that is located on the disputed Lebanon-Israel maritime border. Poor drilling results in block 4 that lies in the Lebanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has surfaced the absence of transparency that favoured the diffuse of conspiracy theories. One such conspiracy held that the block’s consortium found gas but was forced to falsify its report for political reasons. In fact, conspiracies have come to counterbalance perpetual failure of the existing political system to address deep-seated economic problems that plague Lebanon.

Lebanon’s gas hopes are built on exploration of block 9 that is partly disputed by Israel. Lebanon has been sceptical about Israel’s initiation of oil and gas exploration activities in a maritime area close to disputed Block 9 and within block 72, previously known as Alon D, that lies in the northern part of Israel’s EEZ. Interestingly, Israel has released a map, in light of the upcoming 4th international offshore licensing round, that does not extend the northern limit of block 72 into the Lebanon-Israel disputed maritime area. This can be viewed as a token of de-escalating bilateral tensions while leaving room for third party mediation.

American mediation to settle the Lebanon-Israel maritime 854 km dispute resumed in October 2020 at a base of UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force. Discussions have been conducted upon a map that was registered with the UN in 2011 with Lebanon raising demands for an extra sea area of 1,430 sq. km further south extending partly to Israel’s Karish gas field that is owned by Greek medium-sized company Energean Oil & Gas. On the other side, Israel demanded the maritime border to be moved further north in compliance with its traditional position that it is entitled to potential gas findings in Block 9.

For the resolution of the maritime dispute that could unleash Israel’s and Lebanon’s energy potential, various proposals have been put in place. The most representative is the 2019 proposal of David Satterfield, former US deputy assistant secretary of state, that centred on the establishment of a mutual trust fund under UN supervision so that profits are allocated to Lebanon and Israel in accordance with an agreement over gas fields’ distribution and profit-sharing percentages. Another proposal that surfaced recently revolves around a likely constructive role of the UAE in the resolution of the Lebanon-Israel maritime dispute through the taking over of a development and operational stake in northern Israeli blocks and in Lebanese southern blocks. Overall, likely unitization agreements can ensure joint development and production of the reservoirs across the disputed maritime border maximizing the economic recovery of gas from licenses of the contract areas.

Evidently, Syria and Lebanon must explore opportunities in terms of financing, revenue sharing and political relations with third countries. Despite challenges both countries have an interest in ensuring that they are not excluded or left behind from regional energy cooperation. In this respect, time is of paramount importance.

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