Russia offers to mediate in Syria-Lebanon maritime border dispute

Lebanon seeks Russia’s mediation on its maritime border with Syria.

“We have knowledge that Syria wants to demarcate the maritime border with Lebanon, and Russia is present in this area and at this border in particular,” Lebanese Defense Minister Bou Saab told the Russian news agency.

Saab mentioned that Russia may be incentivized by its own economic interests in the area. Together with Italian Eni and French Total, the Russian Novatek company is part of the consortium of international oil companies that will start exploration operations in December in Lebanon’s offshore Block 4.

Lebanon is also significant for Russia within the context of Moscow’s efforts to reinforce the stability of Syrian administrative institutions, viewed as a rear foothold for long-term stabilization in Syria. In this situation, Moscow’s mediation of the territorial controversies between Lebanon and Syria is only logical.

“Russia may act as a mediator in the debate over maritime borders between Lebanon and Syria if it is necessary,” said special presidential envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev during his latest visit to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, according to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, the Russian government has already requested that Damascus intensify its contacts with the Lebanese authorities to initiate the discussion on the border. Syrian officials followed shortly after with overtures on border demarcation.

These actions stem from Russian companies’ interests in the Mediterranean energy reserves and there will be ample funding for the demarcation process. In 2013, Moscow and Damascus signed an agreement on the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the territorial waters off Syria — the first such deal in the history of the two countries. As was reported back then, the Russian side had been represented by SoyuzNefteGaz company. On the Syrian side, the contract was signed by the country’s Oil Minister Suleiman Abbas and General Petroleum Company, an oil and gas corporation. However, in 2015 the company suspended the oil and gas discovery project due to the ongoing war. Nevertheless, Russian businesses are still willing to pursue production in Syria.

The interest in the eastern Mediterranean oil and gas fields is not restricted to the Syrian territorial waters: Moscow is also seeking development of offshore reserves in Lebanon. In March 2019, prior to his visit to Moscow and negotiations with President Vladimir Putin, Lebanese President Michel Aoun stated there was no reason Russia would not be able to mediate the Lebanese-Israeli spat over the maritime border.

Beirut licensed a consortium of Russian, French and Italian companies (Total and Eni, each with a 40% share, and Novatek with 20%) to exploit blcks 4 and 9 of the Levantine sedimentary basin. In April 2019 Beirut moved forward on inviting foreign corporations to exploit blocks 1, 2, 5, 8 and 10, though the last two blocks are also adjacent to Israel, which is hardly willing to share, and Areas 1 and 2 are formally disputed by Syria.

Moscow’s efforts to clearly define the borders likely indicate a new stage in its political and economic fields of influence in Syria. Russia’s intensified diplomatic efforts indicate that Moscow believes it’s possible to solve the land border dispute between Lebanon and Syria.