Syria And Lebanon: Oil And Gas Ambitions Hit Reality
Oil and gas continue to inflame the conflict in Syria even though the Islamic State’s territory has shrunk, and the Syrian government has recovered control over portions of the country. In fact, local players and external actors battle for control and ownership over Syrian oil and gas resources.
Syria’s energy infrastructure has been largely destroyed by rebels, terrorist groups and the Syrian army seeking to reassert control. Due to territorial losses, the strategy of the Islamic State in particular centered on not conceding the oil and gas facilities it once controlled but on destroying energy infrastructures such as the Hayyan Gas Fields located 40km west of Palmyra that were blown up. The Islamic State’s focus around the area of Palmyra was attributed to the fact that the city is the hub between the transfer of the entire Syrian gas production and the power plants that supply electricity and gas to most parts of Syria. Reportedly, the Islamic State had seized a substantial number of oil and gas fields since 2014 primarily in central and eastern Syria such as the Al-Akram gas facility between Palmyra and Raqqa, that produced marketable natural resources and provided it leverage over the Syrian government which has been deprived of a vital source of revenue.
Oil production in Syria from 250-380,000 barrels per day in pre-2011 period fell to 8,000 barrels per day when rebel and terrorist groups including the Islamic State took control. Current production is estimated at 70,000 barrels per day in areas under the Syrian government’s authority.
It is noteworthy that the Syrian energy industry, from equipment and sales to crude transportation, is heavily sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. US sanctions on Syria’s energy industry predate the crisis, but their recent renewal sends the signal to state and non-state actors that revenue generation from the black-market oil and gas trade will not be tolerated. US sanctions target for the first time the Syrian Qatirji group considered to be part of a large-scale oil and gas procurement network aiming to import shipments of oil and gas to the port of Baniyas. Additionally, European sanctions imposed in 2011 prohibit trade on equipment and technology for the Syrian oil and gas sectors including exploration and production, refining and gas liquefaction.
On a parallel level, Russian companies like Gazprom contribute to the restoration of destroyed infrastructure and have upgraded the Banias refinery located in western Syria. Russian companies seem to lead investment in revitalizing Syria’s oil and gas sector. However, due to American and European sanctions, it is deemed difficult for Damascus to find partners to buy its crude exports.
For its part, the US has significant leverage over Syrian oil and gas reserves attributed to American support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that carried out military Operation Jazeera Storm that started in September 2017 with the aim to capture territory controlled by the Islamic State east of the Euphrates. As result of Operation Jazeera Storm, the US has de facto leverage over a number of Syria’s oil and gas fields, such as the al-Omar and Tanak oil fields, the Al-Izba and Conoco gas fiels, and the Jafra oil fields that used to present a major source of income for the Islamic State. The US influence is strengthened by the SDF’s control of the two largest dams in Syria namely the Tabqa dam, an 824-MW powerhouse situated 25km west of Raqqah at the Euphrates River, and the Soviet-built dam in western Raqqah. It is estimated that this leverage over Syrian energy reserves and infrastructures can be used as a bargaining power in forthcoming negotiations with the Assad regime for the political future of Syria.
Under these circumstances, the resolution of the Syrian conflict seems to be prerequisite not only for the development of the country’s energy sector but also for boosting regional energy security. American investment to restore the Conoco gas plant in eastern Syria currently under the control of the US-supported SDF can prove to be multiply beneficial as it can produce almost 50 million cubic feet of gas per day. Equal important is American investment in the two cited largest dams that will provide control over vital reservoirs, as well as the prevention of any third party from monopolizing the Assad government, as this monopolization would allow it to control the shores of the Mediterranean, and thereby establish export plants and control natural gas exported to Europe.
For its part, neighboring Lebanon signed in early 2018its first offshore oil and gas exploration and production agreement for two of its ten offshore blocks with a consortium comprised of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek, with drilling expected to start in 2019.
Lebanon has already began to suffer from the “pre-resource curse,” in which countries accumulate large-scale debts in anticipation of uncertain oil and gas revenues. This presents an obvious financial risk if gas reserves are not as high as expected, but there is another risk in missing the opportunity to invest in renewables. Compounding this, international companies are hesitant to invest in offshore blocks that are disputed between Lebanon and Israel. Given that Lebanon’s energy sector and its regulatory framework are still underdeveloped, additional laws like a petroleum asset-management department law, a sovereign wealth fund law and onshore exploration law should be enacted to promote confidence in the Lebanese petroleum investment framework, ensure transparency, and lay down solid legal and governance foundations for operating the energy sector.
In fact, challenges that could undermine the development of Lebanon’s gas potential lie in the existence of weak institutional and administrative frameworks that guarantee a gap between declared government plans and ultimate delivery. The development of potential discoveries could help Lebanon reduce its domestic energy-deficiency and dependence on import of oil products only if an exploration, production and monetization model based on best-practice standards and technical expertize materializes.
For the speedy development of Lebanon’s oil and gas sectors, the Lebanese government should increase transparency and stop formulating energy policies that treat the country as an “energy island” by pursuing energy cooperation with neighbors. It is in this context that American and European interlocutors should continue to mediate the demarcation of the disputed 854 square kilometers maritime area between Lebanon and Israel so the two neighbors can embark on trans-boundary gas sharing initiatives on exploration and production. Lebanon should also avoid distributing future oil and gas resource revenues as energy subsidies because subsidies contribute to misallocation of resources, distort energy prices, and lead to large-scale debt accumulation. The funding of Lebanese universities and think tanks to enable them conduct research and to produce Energy White Papers is important to raise public awareness of energy development and pipeline safety.
Evidently, challenges and new prospects are presented for Lebanon and Syria. Conflict resolution, dialogue and cooperation in both countries can contribute to the development of their energy sectors and attract foreign investment in the regional setting. The chances are high but choices still lie in motion.