Why Lebanon is keeping mum on Syria’s contentious oil exploration contracts

The Tungsten Explorer, a drillship to explore for oil and gas, is seen off the coast of Lebanon on May 15, 2020. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)
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The Tungsten Explorer, a drillship to explore for oil and gas, is seen off the coast of Lebanon on May 15, 2020. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)
A billboard in southern Lebanon bears pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) and its late founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (AFP)
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A billboard in southern Lebanon bears pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) and its late founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (AFP)
Lebanon’s waters are home to a number of promising offshore oil and gas sites, but Syrian encroachment into them has so far been met with a muted response. (AFP)
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Lebanon’s waters are home to a number of promising offshore oil and gas sites, but Syrian encroachment into them has so far been met with a muted response. (AFP)
Lebanon’s waters are home to a number of promising offshore oil and gas sites, but Syrian encroachment into them has so far been met with a muted response. (AFP)
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Lebanon’s waters are home to a number of promising offshore oil and gas sites, but Syrian encroachment into them has so far been met with a muted response. (AFP)
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Updated 12 April 2021

Why Lebanon is keeping mum on Syria’s contentious oil exploration contracts

Why Lebanon is keeping mum on Syria’s contentious oil exploration contracts
  • Two blocks to be explored by Russian firm overlap with Lebanese maritime areas for energy exploration along country’s northern border
  • Official failure to object to oil and gas exploration deal shows extent of the Iran-Hezbollah axis’s sway over the Lebanese state

MISSOURI, USA/ BEIRUT: Syria has signed a four-year oil and gas exploration deal with a Russian company in Mediterranean waters that Lebanon claims as its own. The two blocks to be explored under the new contract overlap with Lebanese maritime areas for energy exploration along the country’s northern border. Yet Lebanese outrage has been conspicuous by its absence.

Now imagine a time, not so long ago, when the shoe was on the other foot. Lebanon demarcated its maritime borders in 2011 and, three years later, offered tenders for oil and gas companies for Block No.1 in the north. Justifiably or not, Syria responded by not recognizing the Lebanese demarcation and lodging a protest.

The striking contrast between the two reactions, separated by seven years, was not lost on the Lebanese opposition.

“Where do the official Lebanese authorities stand on this issue?” asked Rola Tabsh, an MP from the Future Movement bloc, when Syria announced the contract last month. “What is this suspicious coma? We waited for the violation from the south, from the enemy (Israel), but it came from the north, from a brotherly country.”

Similar concern was voiced by Richard Kouyoumjian, former minister and serving member of the Lebanese Forces parliamentary bloc, who 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.”

In the south, Israel’s demarcation line conflicts with the Lebanese one, which has led to protracted indirect negotiations sponsored by the UN and mediated by the US. The Lebanese-Israeli dispute and negotiations have been ongoing for more than 10 years now.

Hezbollah, being a pro-Iranian Shiite militia and political party, did not appear in favor of even indirect negotiations with Israel over the issue, but grudgingly acceded to them. A resolution to the maritime border dispute with Israel remains crucial to Lebanon’s ability to attract oil and gas companies to its waters.




A billboard in southern Lebanon bears pictures of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) and its late founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (AFP)

Hezbollah understood that it would take the blame if Lebanon failed to develop offshore oil and gas deposits due to a refusal to negotiate. But the group still tried to link the maritime borders issue to a dispute it has regarding Lebanon’s land border with Israel.

Although Israel completely withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah claims that a small tract of land known as the Shebaa Farms are also part of Lebanon and still occupied by Israel. Even though the UN determined the Shebaa Farms to be occupied Syrian land, the issue provides Hezbollah with an excuse to maintain its conflict with Israel and justification to retain armaments, long after all other Lebanese militias disarmed.

Hezbollah — and the Lebanese state it has largely controlled since 2008 — has proven vociferous in defending its interests regarding Israel. It therefore strikes many Lebanese as more than curious that the government has yet to utter a word regarding Syrian encroachments in the north.

The Syrian contract with a Russian company includes at least 750 square kilometers of maritime waters claimed by Lebanon. If Mediterranean oil and gas deposits comparable to those of Israel and Cyprus exist off Lebanon’s shores, the potential revenues from such could go a long way in helping Lebanon out of its current financial woes.

INNUMBER

750 square kilometers Lebanese area in Block No.1 allegedly allotted by Syrians for oil exploration by Russians.

A lot of money appears to be at stake, yet the same Lebanese leaders who appear so determined to stand up for their rights on the border with Israel do nothing to stop Syrian encroachments.

The Lebanese government, very much under the sway of Hezbollah, knows its limits all too well. Nevertheless, in a belated effort at damage control, the foreign ministry said last week it was preparing a road map for negotiations with Syria over the demarcation of maritime borders.

Charbel Wehbe, the caretaker foreign minister, told a UAE daily that an official recommendation would be made once the ministry finalized its assessment of an unofficial copy of the Syrian contract. However, those waiting for a strong protest by Lebanon should not hold their breath.

Ideally, according to analysts, Lebanon must inform Syria of its objection.




Lebanon’s former minister for energy and water, Nada Boustani, points to a map of oil and gas blocks in the Mediterranean, above. (AFP)

“It could be through the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon or a visit by the Lebanese foreign minister to Syria,” Marc Ayoub, an expert on energy affairs in Lebanon and the Middle East, told Arab News.

“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.”

Weak states see their rights trampled upon all the time, of course. As the Greek philosopher Thucydides remarked more than 2,000 years ago, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Israeli state’s power far exceeds that of Syria, so this explanation seems insufficient. Leaders in Beirut had no difficulty going to the UN for help in their maritime dispute against Israel.

To many Lebanese, the real explanation for the apparent double standard appears obvious: Hezbollah pursues its own interests rather than those of Lebanon, and Hezbollah is beholden to Syria and Iran.

As long as the Lebanese state remains under the sway of Hezbollah and its allies, the Lebanese national interest comes second. Under such circumstances, even a state as weak as civil war-torn Syria can take advantage of Lebanon.




Hezbollah’s leading presence in the government causes investment and development aid to dry up. (AFP)

Lebanon’s ills in fact go much further than a government that will not even stand up to protect its northern border. Even after the devastating Beirut port explosion of last year, Hezbollah has blocked government reforms necessary to attract an international financial rescue package for the country.

Hezbollah’s leading presence and influence in the government causes investment and development aid to dry up, especially as some fear running afoul of anti-Iran sanctions should they deal with an actor so closely linked to Tehran. Hezbollah’s presence on Western terror lists complicates things enormously for the country.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah fighters still openly involve themselves in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime. It is also no secret that Hezbollah advisers go to Yemen to help the Houthis, and Hezbollah operatives continue to carry out various terrorist plots in Cyprus, Georgia, Argentina, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.




Lebanon’s tensions with its southern neighbor Israel, often at the behest of Hezbollah and its Iranian backers, have seen it turn a blind eye to the activities of its other neighbor, Syria. (AFP)

Lebanon’s foreign policy is now so closely aligned with that of Iran and Syria that the country skips Arab League meetings and votes if it risks criticizing Iran’s behavior in the region. Financial support from the Arab Gulf dries up every time Lebanon votes with Iran in international forums, or refuses to condemn things like Iran’s 2016 attack on Saudi diplomatic missions.

Normally, Lebanese parties should also be especially wary of Syria. Syrian nationalists have long coveted Lebanon, viewing it as a part of Syria which French colonialists unjustly truncated away from greater Syria.

After the Lebanese civil war ended in 1991, Syria continued to occupy Lebanon for more than a decade. During that time, the Syrians did not even maintain an embassy in the country. From the Syrian point of view, one need only have embassies for foreign countries, and Lebanon is a part of Syria.




Lebanon's Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil (2-R) is handed a document by Total exec Stephane Michel on Feb.9, 2018. (AFP)

Lebanon’s failure to even protest Syria’s oil and gas exploration in waters it claims therefore appears all the more alarming. What is the point of having one’s own state if that state will not even attempt to counter encroachments from its neighbor?

From the perspective of Lebanese national interests, the country could benefit from less tension with Israel to the south — especially over such a non-issue as the 22 square kilometre Shebaa Farms — and more of a principled defense of its sovereignty against the designs of “brotherly” Syria to the north.

If the economic situation were otherwise good in Lebanon, one could perhaps forgive the de-facto surrender to Syrian encroachments. Unfortunately, the economic situation in Lebanon continues to careen from crisis to crisis.

If a Lebanon desperate for more resources cannot even stand up for its claims against an extremely weakened Syrian state, however, then the future truly bodes ill once Damascus regains some of its strength.

 


Tunisia’s president says there is ‘no turning back’

Tunisia’s president says there is ‘no turning back’
Updated 05 August 2021

Tunisia’s president says there is ‘no turning back’

Tunisia’s president says there is ‘no turning back’
  • Some 11 days after his intervention, Saied has not named a new PM, announced any steps to end the emergency
  • The labor union is preparing a roadmap to end the crisis that it says it will present to Saied

TUNIS: Tunisia’s President Kais Saied said on Thursday there was “no turning back” from his decision to freeze parliament and assume executive power, moves his opponents have branded a coup.
Speaking in a video published by his office, Saied also rejected calls for talks over the crisis, saying “there is no dialogue except with the honest” and that no dialogue was possible with “cancer cells.”
The biggest party in parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, which has been the most vocal opponent of Saied’s moves, had called for dialogue in a statement earlier on Thursday.
Some 11 days after his intervention, Saied has not named a new prime minister, announced any steps to end the emergency or declared his longer-term intentions.
The powerful labor union, as well as both the United States and France, have called on him to quickly appoint a new government. The union is preparing a roadmap to end the crisis that it says it will present to Saied.
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and ranking member Jim Risch said on Thursday they were deeply concerned by the situation.
“President Saied must recommit to the democratic principles that underpin US-Tunisia relations, and the military must observe its role in a constitutional democracy,” they said in a joint statement.
Ousted Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi appeared in public for the first time on Thursday since he was dismissed. He was shown in pictures published by the anti-corruption watchdog that it said were taken on Thursday at its office.


Amnesty International denounces Iran’s ‘cruel’ secret execution of man arrested at 15

Amnesty International denounces Iran’s ‘cruel’ secret execution of man arrested at 15
Updated 05 August 2021

Amnesty International denounces Iran’s ‘cruel’ secret execution of man arrested at 15

Amnesty International denounces Iran’s ‘cruel’ secret execution of man arrested at 15
  • Sanjari was executed in secret after he was convicted in 2012 for killing a man he said was trying to rape him
  • Amnesty highlighted the plight of others awaiting execution in Iran for crimes committed when they were children

LONDON: The execution in Iran of a man arrested at 15 is a “cruel assault on child rights,” Amnesty International said on Thursday, which also warned of more imminent executions.

In August 2010, Sajad Sanjari — then 15 — was arrested over the fatal stabbing of a man. He said the man had tried to rape him and claimed he had acted in self-defense, but in 2012 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. 

Sanjari was executed in secret on Monday, but his family was only told of the killing after it happened when a prison official asked them to collect the body.

“With the secret execution of Sajad Sanjari, the Iranian authorities have yet again demonstrated the utter cruelty of their juvenile justice system,” Diana Eltahawy, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said.

“The use of the death penalty against people who were under 18 at the time of the crime is absolutely prohibited under international law and constitutes a cruel assault on child rights.

Eltahawy added: “The fact that Sajad Sanjari was executed in secret, denying him and his family even the chance to say goodbye, consolidates an alarming pattern of the Iranian authorities carrying out executions in secret or at short notice to minimize the chances of public and private interventions to save people’s lives.”

The rights group also warned that two other young men, Hossein Shahbazi and Arman Abdolali — both 17 when arrested — are now at risk of “imminent” execution.

“Their trials were marred by serious violations, including the use of torture-tainted ‘confessions,’” said Amnesty International, which pointed out that Shahbazi would already be dead if it had not been for international outcry in the lead up to his planned execution in July that convinced authorities to postpone the killing.

“His execution could be rescheduled at any moment,” the rights group warned.

Amnesty said it had identified 80 people in Iran currently on death row for crimes committed when they were children, and since 2005, it recorded the executions of “at least 95 individuals” who were children when they committed their crime.

“The real numbers of those at risk and executed are likely to be higher,” Amnesty said.

The rights group also highlighted the unequal laws dictating how girls and boys are treated by the judicial system: “in cases of murder and certain other capital crimes, boys aged above 15 lunar years and girls aged above nine lunar years may be held as culpable as adults.”

As a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is legally obliged to treat individuals under the age of 18 as children and ensure they are never subjected to the death penalty or life imprisonment.


University professor shot dead in Houthi-held Sanaa

University professor shot dead in Houthi-held Sanaa
Updated 06 August 2021

University professor shot dead in Houthi-held Sanaa

University professor shot dead in Houthi-held Sanaa
  • Mohammed Ali Naeem was gunned down just hours after criticizing the Houthis and Yemen government on social media
  • It was the latest in a series of drive-by shootings presumably carried out by senior Houthi officials against dissidents and other opponents

ALEXANDRIA: Gunmen shot and killed a Sana’a University professor as he walked out of a friend’s house on Wednesday night in a Houthi-controlled part of the city, residents said.

Mohammed Ali Naeem, who worked in the school’s engineering and architecture department, was pronounced dead at a local hospital following the attack on Tunisia Street in Sana’a.

The assassination was carried out a few hours after he wrote a post on social media demanding the Houthis and the Yemeni government increase the salaries for employees.

After he complained about the depreciation of the Yemeni riyal and the increased price of essential commodities, the Yemeni professor wrote on Facebook: “We demand the government of Sana’a and Aden increase salaries.”

In another post on Wednesday, he wrote: “The revolution is still going on.”

Public servants in Sana’a and other Houthi-held areas in Yemen have not received employment compensation since late 2016 when the Iran-backed rebels stopped paying salaries in response to the Yemen president’s relocation of the central bank headquarters from Sana’a to Aden.

The killing is the latest in a series of drive-by shootings presumably carried out by senior Houthi officials against dissidents and other opponents. Last year, gunmen assassinated Hassan Zaid, minister of sports and youth in the Houthi cabinet.

Citing the Houthis’ handling of the Zaid case, similar assassinations, and the proliferation of armed men in Sanaa, Yemeni activists and critics of the rebels quickly blamed the Houthis on Wednesday for killing the professor.

Sami Noaman, a Yemeni journalist and former Houthi prisoner, told Arab News the rebels are suspected of killing their opponents and critics while only Houthi supporters are given special treatment.

“No one can freely roam around Sana’a carrying weapons other than the Houthi movement’s supporters,” Noaman said.

More evidence that suggests the Houthis’ involvement in the Naeem murder is their handling of the Zaid investigation. In that case, the rebels quickly announced capturing perpetrators in the province of Dhamar, and then the investigation was over.

“In a comical scene, they closed the file within 24 hours,” Noaman said. “The alleged killer was a prisoner. They executed people who had nothing to do with the case.”

Other critics of the Houthis urged the rebels to focus on capturing and prosecuting armed assailants in Sana’a, instead of incarcerating Yemeni activists, artists, actors, and women.

Ahmed Al-Khibi, a judge in Yemen, said the Houthis should be alarmed by the resurgence of assassinations in the country’s capital and divert efforts and attention to securing areas under their control.

“We hold the (Houthi) authority and its security services that are preoccupied with pursuing (women’s) undergarment and artists fully responsible for this crime” and it is their responsibility to arrest the perpetrators and bring them to justice, Al-Khibi posted on Facebook. He was referring to the recent Houthi crackdown against women, singers, and actors who have been arrested for allegedly violating Islamic norms.

Dozens of Sana’a University students took to social media on Wednesday night to mourn the late professor. Students described Naeem as a “noble” man and an outstanding lecturer.

“No words can describe the extent of the tragedy and sadness of your death,” Ghadir Yahya, a former student, wrote on Facebook.


US urges Raisi to resume Iran nuclear talks in Vienna ‘soon’

US urges Raisi to resume Iran nuclear talks in Vienna ‘soon’
Updated 05 August 2021

US urges Raisi to resume Iran nuclear talks in Vienna ‘soon’

US urges Raisi to resume Iran nuclear talks in Vienna ‘soon’
  • Ned Price says ‘this process cannot go on indefinitely’
  • President Ebrahim Raisi was sworn in earlier on Thursday

WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday urged Iran to return to talks quickly on reviving a nuclear deal after the new ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, said he would seek a diplomatic way to end sanctions.
“We urge Iran to return to the negotiations soon so that we can seek to conclude our work,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, repeating the US stance that the window for diplomacy would not stay open forever.
“If President Raisi is genuine in his determination to see the sanctions lifted, well that is precisely what’s on the table in Vienna,” he said.
With the rise of Raisi, who took the oath of office on Thursday, all branches of power within the Islamic Republic will be controlled by anti-Western hard-liners loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Our message to President Raisi is the same as our message to his predecessors .. the US will defend and advance our national security interests and those of our partners,” Price said. “We hope that Iran seizes the opportunity now to advance diplomatic solutions.”
He was referring to months of fruitless indirect talks in the Austrian capital on reviving the 2015 nuclear accord trashed by former president Donald Trump.
Iran has been negotiating with six major powers to revive the deal that was abandoned three years ago. The last round of talks in Vienna ended on June 20.
Price reiterated that the Biden administration, despite concerns with Iran, saw the accord as key to securing “permanent and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program.”
Price said that the proposal to end sweeping sanctions in return for compliance with the deal would not last “indefinitely” and at some point the benefits of reviving the agreement will have been eroded by the advancements of Iran’s nuclear program.
“For us, this is an urgent priority, knowing the issues that are at play,” Price said. “We hope that the Iranians treat it with the same degree of urgency.”
Iran began violating the pact, which gave it sanctions relief in return for curbing its atomic program, in 2019 by conducting nuclear activities that were barred under the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. 
(With AFP and Reuters)


Iranian ex-deputy vice president slams regime over water crisis

Iranian ex-deputy vice president slams regime over water crisis
Updated 05 August 2021

Iranian ex-deputy vice president slams regime over water crisis

Iranian ex-deputy vice president slams regime over water crisis
  • Kaveh Madani: “Local decision-makers are liable for avoidable failures of environmental management”
  • In July, Iran was convulsed by protests in Arab-majority Khuzestan province sparked by lack of clean water

LONDON: The former deputy vice-president of Iran criticized Tehran over its mismanagement of natural resources in the country’s Khuzestan province, blaming “excessive manipulation of the natural environment” for the country’s water bankruptcy.

In an op-ed published in The Guardian newspaper, Kaveh Madani said attempts by authorities to shift the blame toward climate change as the “sole cause of terrible (water) shortages let those in authority off the hook.”

Late last month, Iran’s Khuzestan province became the focal point for weeks of violent unrest spurred by a drought that left people without clean and safe drinking water. Those protests quickly spread across the country, including to the capital Tehran, morphing into anti-regime demonstrations.

Madani explained that water-rich Khuzestan should never have been subject to drought, but the construction of huge dams and the transfer of the province’s water to other parts of the country have left it in a state of water bankruptcy. 

“Once you drain your checking account (surface water) and exhaust your savings account (groundwater), you are left with a lot of creditors (water rights-holders) whose demands cannot be satisfied,” Madani said. “Then you are water bankrupt and the dissatisfaction of the claimants can trigger major conflicts.”

He also said that this may be related to the institutional racism in Iran that excludes ethnic Ahwazi Arabs from the majority Persian state.

“The Khuzestan protests also have an important social justice element. Ethnic Arab populations are expressing their serious frustration with what they consider a ‘systematic’ or ‘intentional’ discrimination that has resulted in underdevelopment in their rich province,” Madani said.

“Khuzestanis are also questioning why ‘their’ water must be transferred to other regions while they are suffering from thirst.”

Madani warned about the potential consequences of water mismanagement for years, but rather than being listened to he was spied upon and detained.

“What Khuzestan and the rest of Iran are experiencing today is not unexpected,” Madani said. “Lots of experts, including me, have been warning about the national security risks of this situation for years.”

While he served in his role as deputy vice president, Madani was regularly detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and after he fled the country, he said he felt “lucky” not to have been imprisoned for a longer stretch. 

Now, he is trying to prevent the regime from deflecting responsibility for its actions by invoking global climate change.

Well-intentioned environmental campaigners are correct about the devastating consequences of climate change, Madani said.

But the way that Iran has managed its natural resources means that “even if climate change stopped and Iran cut its carbon emissions by 100 percent right now, its water bankruptcy and many other environmental problems would not be solved immediately.” 

He concluded: “We must remember that local decision-makers are liable for avoidable failures of environmental management that result in the degradation and suffering we are now seeing in Iran.”