BEIRUT: The Syrian government signed a 4-year contract with a Russian company for oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean Sea that could spark a new border crisis between Lebanon and Syria.
The two blocks to be explored under the new contract overlap with Lebanese maritime areas for energy exploration along the country’s northern border.
According to this demarcation, the Syrian side grabbed a Lebanese area of 750 square kilometers from Block No. 1 alone, where the Russian exploration process will begin.
Lebanon had previously demarcated its maritime borders in 2011, and in 2014 launched a round of primary licenses and invited bids for Block No. 1 in the north. But Syria did not recognize the Lebanese demarcation.
For years, Lebanon was busy demarcating its southern maritime and land borders with Israel. Last November, Israel accused Lebanon of changing its position seven times regarding the demarcation of the maritime borders, which led to indirect negotiations that took place under US and UN supervision.
The two countries differed over a maritime area of about 860 square kilometers, known as Block No. 9, based on a map sent in 2011 to the UN. But it was later found that the map was based on wrong approximations. In the most-recent negotiations, Lebanon demanded an additional area of 1,430 square kilometers, including part of the Karish field.
During negotiations with Israel, Lebanese President Michel Aoun told his delegation to “adhere to and defend the internationally recognized Lebanese rights.”
However, the concern for the southern borders with Israel has not been shared for the northern borders, despite the Russian-Syrian agreement getting signed March 1.
“Lebanon's demarcation of its borders came by decree, which is an internal legislation issued under Lebanese national laws, and it has no mandatory character,” Bashar Jaafari, Syrian permanent representative to the UN, said in his 2014 objection to the Lebanese demarcation.
Marc Ayoub, an expert on energy affairs in Lebanon and the Middle East, told Arab News that Lebanon must inform Syria of its objection by the available means.
“It could be through the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon or a visit by the Lebanese foreign minister to Syria,” he said. “If Syria refuses to acknowledge this objection, Lebanon must resort to the UN to object to any exploration process that will take place. It can request a halt to exploration if Lebanon presents documents proving its ownership of these areas.”
An apparent silence from Lebanese officials regarding the maritime border issue was met with political backlash from those who oppose the ruling authority in Lebanon.
MP Rola Tabsh, from the Future Movement bloc, said: “Where do the official Lebanese authorities stand on this issue? What is this suspicious coma? We waited for the violation from the south, from the enemy, but it came from the north, from a brotherly country.”
Richard Kouyoumjian, former minister and serving member of the Lebanese Forces parliamentary bloc, said: “The government and the relevant ministries are required to have a sovereign position and clear clarification.”
He called for the “resumption of demarcation negotiations in the south, an end to Syrian complicity and plundering of our money and oil wealth.”
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri worked for 10 years to define the country’s southern border and was surprised by “the death of the demarcation” of the maritime borders with Israel.