Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading

After Israel, Lebanon eyes maritime border talks with Syria

A Lebanese navy patrol boat sails in the Mediterranean: Beirut wants to define its maritime borders with Syria to the north, and Cyprus, to the west. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - Lebanon wants direct talks to demarcate its maritime border with Syria so it can begin offshore gas exploration, weeks after reaching a similar agreement with Israel, its top negotiator told AFP.

The US-brokered sea border deal with Israel guarantees "stability" in a volatile region, where the two enemy states seek to exploit potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters, Elias Bou Saab said.

Beirut now wishes to define its maritime borders with Syria to the north, and Cyprus, to the west, to consolidate its offshore rights. 

"The Lebanese government must engage directly and publicly with the Syrian government...and publicly demarcate our sea borders," Bou Saab, who is also Lebanon's deputy speaker of parliament, said Tuesday.

"Any future government must undertake this task and put Lebanon's interest first," he insisted, while "leaving regional political conflicts out of this matter."

Syria, which once had a controlling hand in Lebanon's affairs, has repeatedly refused to delimit land and sea borders with its neighbour.

In recent years, Lebanese politicians have been deeply divided over relations with Damascus.

Lebanese security officials and politicians have made several visits to Syria, but almost exclusively in their personal capacity or on behalf of political parties that support the Syrian regime.

The powerful Shiite organisation Hezbollah, which has backed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's forces since the early stages of the conflict, been advocating for rapprochement with Damascus.

'Demands and reservations'

Bou Saab said the disputed maritime area between Lebanon and Syria is "perhaps more than 800 square kilometres (310 square miles)". 

It could be "larger" than the area that had been disputed with Israel, he added.

Lebanon cannot begin gas exploration in its northern waters near Syria without first resolving its border dispute with Damascus, Bou Saab said. 

The Lebanese presidency had announced last month that a delegation would visit Damascus for sea border talks, but that trip has since been postponed.

The Syrian ambassador in Beirut, Ali Abdel Karim Ali, said it was due to "confusion" over the proposed dates.

But after years of Lebanese distancing, Bou Saab said that Syria had "demands and reservations".

Lebanese officials are betting on the potential revenues from the country's offshore energy reserves to revive its devastated economy, mired in crisis since 2019.

Already ruled by a caretaker government since May, Lebanon has been without a president since the beginning of the month, with political paralysis compounding the country's economic woes.

'Stability and hope'

Lebanon also needs an agreement with Syria to be able to map its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with Cyprus. 

One day after the agreement with Israel, Lebanon and Cyprus agreed to move ahead with sea border talks, but the two countries have yet to strike a deal.

"In a single day, we agreed to change our border with Cyprus," based on the new coordinates with Israel, Bou Saab said.

Under the agreement with Israel, Lebanon gained full rights to operate and explore the Qana or Sidon reservoir, parts of which fall in Israel's territorial waters.

Israel will receive a compensation by the firm operating Qana.

French giant TotalEnergies and Italian energy giant Eni has been licenced to explore the field.

Russia's Novatek was initially part of the consortium but later withdrew, with Qatar stepping up to join, Bou Saab said.

"Qatar will have a 30 percent after an agreement between the three companies, while Eni and Total will each have 35 percent," he said.

The companies are expected to start operating in three to four months, Bou Saab added.

Other Arab Gulf states are interested in investing in Lebanon's offshore resources, he said.

There are still no proven gas reserves in the Qana reservoir, and analysts have cautioned that it will take years for production to start in Lebanese waters.

The deal was welcomed by both Israel and the country's arch-foe Hezbollah.

Common financial interests at the border mean that conflict is less likely between the two enemy states, Bou Saab said, as European demand for gas soars after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"This deal brings stability and hope on a regional level," he said.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.