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Lebanon and Syria: Stuck between a rock and a hard place on natural gas

Antonia Dimou

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The East Mediterranean’s gas resources can promote cooperation, resolve conflicts and turn the region into an energy hub presenting new prospects for Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanon is currently in need to diversify its energy mix away from oil in order to strengthen its security of supply but lags behind neighboring Israel and Cyprus in developing its gas reserves in the East Mediterranean. 3D seismic surveys carried out by the Norwegian Spectrum company have estimated recoverable Lebanese offshore gas reserves at 25.4 trillion cubic feet. The development of Lebanon’s hydrocarbon resources nevertheless faces significant challenges at political and economic levels, namely the skyrocketing public debt, an unstable regulatory framework, and a weak administration attributable to the sectarian nature of the country’s political system.

The January 4th 2017 approval by the Lebanese cabinet of two decrees is considered critical to ignite the engines of gas exploration and production given that they provide the delineation of the offshore area into 10 blocks; the establishment of production-sharing contracts; the specification of tender protocols; and, the model exploration and production agreement (EPA) so that the first licensing round for offshore gas exploration becomes feasible and Lebanon catches up energy synergies in the East Mediterranean.

The commercial attractiveness of Lebanon’s gas resources is evidenced in the registration of interest by twelve operators and major oil companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Total in the prequalification round of 2013. But two main prerequisites are critical for the transformation of the Arab country into a gas producer. First, the Lebanese government needs to be held accountable and push for effective public consultation in that the bidding process is transparent and that contracts are sufficiently completed. Second, anti-corruption safeguards for the gas industry in Lebanon are necessary to be created to standardize binding rules for licenses and contracts with: (a) penalties on companies which provenly secure contracts through bribery; and, (b) the ability of companies to exercise supervision over one another for competitive reasons. Anti-corruption mechanisms can also include the creation of sovereign funds that take part of the gas profits and allocate them to the development of infrastructure projects and to the decrease of national public debt thus favoring economic growth.

On a broader regional setting, existing overlapping maritime claims between Lebanon and Israel over an 854 square kilometers area are hampering trans-boundary gas sharing initiatives on exploration and production. American mediation efforts thus far have failed to resolve the maritime dispute but reduced the risk of escalation by succeeding in dispiriting Lebanon and Israel from exploring gas fields and awarding contracts. The delineation of the maritime border is notably crucial for gas exploration given that oil and gas companies assess security and political risks before investing.

Also interestingly, delays in the Lebanese decision making process can close market-transformative opportunities, hinder joint monetization with Egypt and possibly Cyprus, and accelerate competition with new entrants in the regional gas market, such as Iran and Australia. For the conclusion of long-term gas supply contracts, the discovery of sufficient gas quantities in the ten blocks of the Lebanese maritime area is important. This is especially crucial when taking into account that by the time Lebanon comes on stream, a major gas market share will be locked up, thus limiting the Arab country’s ability to create gas price competition. No doubt that in the existence of a compact regulatory framework and a strong political leadership, regional energy arrangements will not likely bypass Lebanon.

Coming to neighboring war-torn Syria, the country can prove to be a significant regional energy player. Damascus overall undiscovered gas potential looks promising in accordance with French CGGVeritas’ acquisition of 2D seismic data on offshore Syrian resources in 2005 and subsequent 2011 evaluation that three offshore blocks in the Mediterranean Sea by the Syrian coast are expected to hold multi trillion cubic feet of gas.

Among various interests, geopolitics of energy seem to dominate the crisis in Syria. Foreign powers battle control of natural gas resources and the trade routes that bring energy to consumers. Conflicting energy interests in Syria are demonstrated by Russia, Qatar and Iran. Russia seeks to maintain investments in the energy sector in so-called “Safe Syria,” which is a promising zone of natural gas reserves in the territorial waters off Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The significance that Russia attributes to joining the East Mediterranean energy game is underlined by the fact that energy giant Gazprom has reportedly taken over the gas exploration and drilling rights off the Syrian coast from Russian state-controlled Soyuzneftegaz, which in 2014 signed a 25-year agreement with the Syrian government that concedes exclusive exploration rights in Syria’s EEZ.

Qatar’s energy agenda in Syria contradicts Russian and Iranian interests as it includes a pipeline that would connect Qatar and Turkey through Syria, in order to join the Nabucco pipeline and ultimately reach Europe. For its part, Iran’s energy strategy centers on the Iran-Iraq-Syria Islamic pipeline project, originally signed in 2011. The project is intended to transport Iranian gas through the Gulf to Iraq, then to Syrian and Lebanese ports, with Europe as the final destination.

Noteworthy, Syria contains a number of gas fields that have been periodically seized by the Islamic State, principally in Palmyra, a city that serves as transit for pipelines carrying gas from fields in Hasakah and Deir Ezzor provinces in northeastern and eastern Syria respectively. The regime’s control of Shaer field, the largest field northwest of Palmyra that feeds the national grid, is considered significant because it impedes the Islamic State from amassing further disproportionate rewards compared to its limited investment of combat manpower.

The “pipelization” of Syria is a reported reality. Thus all efforts should direct to the resolution of the Syrian conflict as a prerequisite not only for the development of the country’s untapped offshore gas resources but most significant for attracting foreign investment.

No doubt that as the cases of Lebanon and Syria show, potent decision making, cooperation and conflict resolution are critical for the region’s gas potential to be unlocked in a way that promotes economic growth and sustainable development for the benefit of current and future generations.

Antonia Dimou is Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses, Greece; and, an Associate at the Center for Middle East Development, University of California, Los Angeles

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Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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