Keeping momentum, Lebanon eyes maritime deals with Cyprus and Syria
If Lebanon can successfully negotiate with Syria and Cyprus, it would have fully defined its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), paving the way for future hydrocarbon exploitation.
On Saturday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun announced that he and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to discuss the maritime boundaries between the two countries.
Lebanon then announced it would send a delegation to Syria – but the visit was postponed after Syria said it had scheduling conflicts.
Lebanon and Syria have no defined maritime border in the north, and both have issued differing claims over their respective EEZs. In March, Syria signed a contract with a Russian company for the latter to explore hydrocarbons in an area also claimed by Lebanon.
Since then, neither Syria nor Lebanon have moved to resolve the outstanding issue, though Russia has offered to mediate between the two parties to settle the maritime borders.
Analysts have said that the sudden initiative from Beirut to negotiate with Damascus may be politically motivated – and will be more complex than its maritime dispute with Israel.
"The Lebanon agenda is politicised, as the Lebanese president wanted a quick process – which is unlikely to happen," Mohaned Hage Ali, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told The New Arab.
President Aoun announced his intention to negotiate with Damascus just ten days before his term as president officially comes to an end.
The Syrians also have political considerations of their own and will likely tie the maritime deal to other issues, such as better ties with Lebanon.
Ali said that by postponing the negotiations, Syria was sending a message of support to Suleiman Frangieh – a pro-Syria MP with a good chance of being Lebanon's next president.
"They also sent a message of unwillingness to engage on the [maritime issue] before the resumption of normal relations," Ali added.
The maritime negotiations with Syria are further complicated by the fact that Lebanon does not have defined borders with Cyprus. To define its borders with Cyprus, it will also have to involve the Syrians as there is a common border point between the three countries.
Lebanon and Cyprus agreed on a proposed maritime border in 2007, but Lebanon never ratified the agreement between the two. The two countries enjoy good bilateral relations and cooperate on several issues, including unauthorised migration between the two.
"Once you start negotiating with the Cypriots, then the Syrians will want to join in because of that tri-point that is important to define the common point between Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus," Laury Haytayan, a Lebanon-based energy expert, told TNA.
Cyprus is eager to conclude its maritime negotiations with the Lebanese as it will allow the country to expand its gas exploration and call in foreign companies for drilling.
"An agreement will open the way for Nicosia to expand exploration operations in the south-eastern and eastern part of the island without complications and encourage international energy companies to participate … given that these areas will become undisputed," Eva J. Koulouriotis, a Middle East political analyst, said to TNA.
Koulouriotis added that Nicosia sees a settlement bordered with Lebanon as a geopolitical boon, as it will give the island further legal backing for its claim over the hydrocarbons in its eastern waters.
Turkey has sent oil exploration vessels to Cyprus, claiming the presence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) gives it economic rights to hydrocarbons in the area. No other country in the world recognises the TRNC, and it is usually viewed as Turkish-occupied.
Syria is less eager to negotiate with Lebanon, being the de-facto controlling power of the areas in dispute between the two countries.
Though Lebanon will negotiate directly with Syria as opposed to the shuttle diplomacy which characterised the decade of negotiations with Israel, experts warned discussions would not be easy.
"The Syrians will be more complicated than even the Israelis," Haytayan said.