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.

 


German report reveals how Iran uses proliferation to smuggle illegal goods

German report reveals how Iran uses proliferation to smuggle illegal goods
Updated 07 May 2021

German report reveals how Iran uses proliferation to smuggle illegal goods

German report reveals how Iran uses proliferation to smuggle illegal goods
  • The report states that Iran creates state-controlled “neutral” companies to hide the true nature of the purchase from buyers
  • Iran also uses “detour deliveries over ‘third states’ in order not to identify the final buyer”

DUBAI: An intelligence report from Germany revealed on Friday details of how the Islamic Republic uses proliferation techniques to smuggle illicit technology for deadly weapons.
“Proliferation-relevant countries such as Iran, North Korea and Syria, but also Pakistan, try to circumvent safety precautions and legal export regulations and to disguise illegal procurement activities. To do this, they turn to mostly conspiratorial means and methods,” wrote the intelligence agency in northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein,” the report explains.
“Proliferation is still one of the central tasks of counter-espionage in Schleswig-Holstein,” the report adds.
According to the agency, proliferation is the “spread of weapons of mass destruction (ABC weapons) and the necessary know-how, as well as the products used for their manufacture and associated carrier technologies.”
ABC commonly refers to atomic, biological and chemical weapons.
The report states that Iran creates state-controlled “neutral” companies to hide the true nature of the purchase from buyers and establishes “illegal procurement networks which belong to the front companies and middlemen.”
Iran also uses “detour deliveries over ‘third states’ in order not to identify the final buyer” and “the use and misuse of inexperienced freight deliverers and transporters,” the report added.
Iran also breaks down the deliveries of illegal deliveries into several “individual non-suspicious deliveries to avoid exposing the entire business.” 
The report also said that Iran “conceals the end user” and the “individual, company or institution with which the goods ultimately remain.”
The report cited Iran 19 times in the 218-page report, covering security threats to the state’s democracy.
It also said that states such as Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria and Russia strive to acquire dual-use goods, items which have both civil and military use.
“Proliferation is a serious threat to security in many regions of the world, including the Federal Republic of Germany and thus for the state of Schleswig-Holstein. The Federal Republic of Germany is one of the most important export nations in the world. The export of military as well as civilian goods are subject therefore to special control,” the report added.


French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’

French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’
Updated 07 May 2021

French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’

French FM says Lebanon needs saving from ‘collective suicide’
BEIRUT: France’s top diplomat wielded the threat of more sanctions in Beirut Friday to prevent what he described as a “collective suicide” organized by members of Lebanon’s ruling political class.
Lebanon’s leaders had promised reform in the aftermath of a deadly explosion at Beirut port last year but, nine months on, they have yet to form a government.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose country has spearheaded international efforts to assist Lebanon’s moribund economy, said there was no sign of a breakthrough.
“It is indeed urgent to find a way out of the political deadlock,” he told reporters just before wrapping up a two-day visit to Beirut.
“To this day, my observation is that the political players have not lived up to their responsibilities and have still not seriously started working on the country’s recovery.”
Le Drian held talks on Thursday with President Michel Aoun, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and prime minister-designate Saad Hariri.
“If they do not act now in a responsible surge of effort, they will face the consequences of this failure,” he said.
Le Drian, who had last year already compared Lebanon to “the Titanic minus the orchestra,” accused those responsible for the deadlock of leading the country to its death.
“I am here precisely to prevent this kind of collective suicide organized by some,” he said.
France announced late last month it had started imposing entry restrictions on certain figures for their role in the political crisis and in corruption.
Le Drian refused to provide names but warned that the sanctions could be made tougher and extended to other politicians.
“It is up to the Lebanese officials to decide whether they want to break out of the deadlock hey have organized,” he said.
Le Drian’s official meetings on Thursday were not followed by joint press conferences. His appointment with Hariri was short and kept under wraps until the last minute.
The French minister also held a meeting with representatives of opposition parties which was welcomed by their leaders as a sign that the international community was increasingly open to political alternatives.

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa
Updated 07 May 2021

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa

Moroccan FM: Iran is working to destabilize North and West Africa

DUBAI: Iran is working through its proxies to destabilize North and West Africa, Al Arabiya reported on Friday citing the Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

Iran threatens our territorial integrity and is training its militias to attack us, the Moroccan minister said, adding that Tehran was expanding its sphere of influence through Hezbollah.


More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons

More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons
Updated 07 May 2021

More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons

More bickering as UN meets for 89th time to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons
  • Russia again defends Assad regime and condemns Western nations for Syria’s suspension from Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
  • Security Council hears the organization’s investigators found evidence of a chlorine gas attack on town of Saraqib in February 2018

NEW YORK: A Syrian Air Force helicopter dropped a chlorine bomb on the opposition-held town of Saraqib, on Feb. 4, 2018, an investigation team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has concluded.

Investigators found “reasonable grounds to believe” at least one cylinder landed in the eastern part of the town, releasing a cloud of toxic gas that covered a large area and affected 12 people.

The incident was the focus on Thursday of a Security Council meeting to discuss the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and its failure to comply with a UN resolution ordering the destruction of all such weapons. It was the 89th time the council has gathered to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria.

Members were briefed by Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN’s under-secretary-general and high representative for disarmament affairs, on the implementation of Resolution 2118. It was unanimously adopted in September 2013 following a UN investigation that confirmed the use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb the previous month. Images of people, including children, suffocating after breathing in the nerve agent caused outrage worldwide.

The resolution called on the Syrian regime to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons by mid-2014, and set out punitive measures in the event of non-compliance. It banned the regime from using, developing, producing, acquiring, stockpiling or retaining chemical weapons, or transferring them to other states or non-state actors.

In October 2013, Syria submitted to the OPCW a formal initial declaration about its chemical-weapons program, including a plan for the destruction of its stockpiles. Since then, however, the OPCW’s Declaration Assessment Team has been trying to resolve outstanding issues with the regime’s declaration.

Nakamitsu told the council the declaration still cannot be considered accurate and complete because of “identified gaps, and inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved.”

A new issue has been added to the list of 19 existing issues that remain outstanding because the Syrian government has failed to respond to a UN order to disclose the types and quantities of chemical agents produced or weaponized at various sites.

The new issue concerns the discovery by OPCW of a “neat chemical warfare agent” in samples collected from a former chemical weapons production facility. The Syrian government had not declared the production of this chemical agent, and the explanations it gave for its detection were described by Nakamitsu as “not sufficient to explain the results from the sample analysis.”

She said the number and nature of the outstanding issues is “concerning,” and added: “The confidence of the international community in the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program depends upon these issues being finalized.”

Nakamitsu urged the council to “unite on this issue” but her plea fell on deaf ears.

The Russian representative came to the defense of the Assad regime and again attempted to discredit the OPCW by saying its report is “replete with technical errors and does not stand up to any criticism,” and describing it as a “forgery” in which “free thinkers” who refused to take part were “intimated.”

Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative, also criticized Western countries for suspending the rights and privileges of Syria at the OPCW.

Last month, states that are parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) suspended Syria’s OPCW membership because of its non-compliance with the treaty. The decision bars Syria from voting at CWC conferences or serving on the OPCW until it fulfills certain obligations, including declaring the chemical weapons it possesses and related production facilities, and resolving all outstanding issues with its initial declaration.

Human Rights Watch had said: “Syria’s use of chemical weapons is the biggest implementation and compliance crisis parties have faced since (the CWC came) into force in 1997.

“While this move (the Syrian suspension) would be largely symbolic, it is essential to remind the world of the extent and severity of war crimes by Syrian government forces.”

Polyanskiy said the unprecedented suspension was “a violation of norms by Western colleagues (and) another blow has been dealt to the OPCW’s credibility.” He added that it is part of an anti-Syria campaign that seeks to make Damascus an outcast in the OPCW.

“Do (Western countries) really expect that they will continue to do business as usual with Damascus?” he asked.

The rest of the council welcomed the “historic decision” by the Conference of the States Parties.

Richard Mills, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, said it “sends a clear and collective message that the use of chemical weapons has consequences, and repeated failures by Syria to adhere to its obligations will not be tolerated.”

He added: “It is time for the Assad regime to adhere to its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and Resolution 2118.”

Mills told his fellow council members that the findings of the investigation into the chlorine attack “should come as no surprise to those familiar with the abuses committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people.”

Although the OPCW has attributed eight chemical weapons attacks to the regime, Mills said: “The United States assesses that the regime’s innumerable atrocities — some of which rise to the level of war crimes, crimes against humanity — include at least 50 chemical-weapons attacks since the conflict began.”

He accused the Assad regime of retaining sufficient supplies of chemicals that allow it to use sarin gas, to produce and deploy chlorine-based weapons, and to develop and produce other chemical weapons. The OPCW report, he said, is just the latest reminder of the regime’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law.

Mills also criticized Russia for holding an informal meeting last month to “impugn the OPCW and push a false narrative (of) a Western plot to attempt regime change in Damascus.”

“This Council and UN member states are not fooled by this Russian disinformation tactic,” he added, noting that the majority of council members refute the arguments by Russia and “its hand-selected presenters.”

Nicolas de Riviere, France’s permanent representative to the UN, who initiated the proposal to suspend Syria’s OPCW rights, said: “Let’s be clear, we are not pleased about having to suspend some rights and privileges of a state party. It is the flagrant and repeated violations of its international commitments that have left us with no choice.

“If Syria hopes to restore its rights and privileges, then it must comply with its international obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which it chose to adhere.”


UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths
Updated 07 May 2021

UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths

UAE confirms 1,724 new COVID-19 cases, 3 deaths
  • UAE vaccine distribution rate is now at 110.28 doses per 100 people

DUBAI: UAE health officials confirmed 1,724 new coronavirus cases and three additional fatalities overnight even amid a continued nationwide vaccination campaign against the highly contagious disease.

The latest cases bring the total number of recorded infections in the UAE to 530,944 and the number of deaths to 1,604, the Ministry of Health and Prevention said in a report from state news agency WAM.

The ministry aims to continue expanding the scope of testing nationwide to facilitate the early detection of coronavirus cases and carry out the necessary treatment, the report added.

Meanwhile, an additional 72,811 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered during the past 24 hours for a total of 10,907,264 doses thus far or a distribution rate of 110.28 doses per 100 people.