BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- As Lebanon prepares to launch a natural gas exploration program in the Mediterranean amid a maritime dispute with Israel, a U.S. think tank suggests Lebanon's sectarian rivalries are more likely to trigger a conflict over resources than external factors.
Lebanon's largely dysfunctional government, dominated by the powerful Hezbollah movement, is to open bidding by about 40 international oil companies for exploration rights Feb. 1.
Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil claims the southern sector of Lebanon's Exclusive Economic Zone contains an estimated 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. There could be as much again in Lebanon's northern waters up to the Syrian border.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levantine Basin, which runs from Syria southward to Egypt and includes Cyprus, contains an estimated 122 tcf of gas plus 1.7 billion barrels of oil.
The 25 tcf off southern Lebanon is about the same volume confirmed in two major fields, Leviathan and Tamar, off Israel's northern coast.
Leviathan, with some 16 tcf, is the most northerly and Beirut claims part of it overlaps with Lebanon's maritime zone. The dispute over the triangular area of 330 square miles of seabed has gone before the United Nations.
Lebanon and Israel remain technically at war and both have vowed they won't surrender any gas reserves and will use military forces to protect them.
However, the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank that monitors conflict, says despite the persistent hatreds that inform Middle Eastern politics, Lebanon's emerging energy wealth could be more at risk from its own internal religious-political divisions.
These labyrinthine rivalries between Muslims and Christians, and indeed between subgroups on both sides, have plagued Lebanon since independence from France in 1943 and triggered a terrible civil war in 1975-90.
The rivalries are quite intense, fanned by the 22-month-old civil war in neighboring Syria that is increasingly becoming a sectarian war in which the Lebanese have long been entwined.
The Jan. 10 Jamestown Foundation analysis, written by independent Middle East analyst Nicholas A. Heras, observed that as the Lebanese start to move toward extracting their newfound energy wealth "questions remain whether regional instability coupled with Lebanon's ongoing political deadlock, sometimes deadly social conflict and insufficient infrastructure will prevent it from benefiting from resource revenues."
Heras noted that Lebanon's armed forces, poorly equipped and riven by sectarian differences, may not be able to protect the gas fields.
The military's "limited ability ... to protect offshore energy infrastructure from conventional military assaults or terrorist attacks will be a security concern when resource extractions begins," he wrote.
Heras and other commentators have also stressed the dysfunctionality of successive governments that are stymied by conflicting sectarian loyalties, with all 17 of Lebanon's recognized sects squabbling for funding, influence and patronage.
Until the gas came along, Lebanon had no major resource except possibly water. It is made up of what is little more than a patchwork of sectarian cantons in perpetual conflict.
Corruption is endemic and there are deep concerns the sectarian power brokers who hold the political and economic power in Lebanon will plunder the revenues the gas will bring, initially estimated at $40 billion.
Many Lebanese have lost faith in their political class and the ability of governments to solve the tiny country's worsening economic crisis and cut its $54 billion national debt.
The gas reserves lying deep under the eastern Mediterranean are seen as Lebanon's last hope of economic rescue.
Lebanese energy analyst Rudi Baroudi, chief executive officer of Qatar's World Energy Council, stresses the importance of official transparency once the gas starts flowing to ensure that it doesn't end up in officials' pockets.
But Heras argues that the "potential political conflict over the exploitation of energy resources ... is most likely to follow the predictable pattern of conflict" between the main power blocs.
"It will accentuate the long-simmering public debate inside Lebanon over the deficiencies of public infrastructure and services that affect the daily lives of Lebanese citizens.
"These deficiencies are becoming greater sources of political conflict, not just for the majority of Lebanese, but also for the growing influx of unemployed and impoverished Syrian refugees that continue to enter the country," Heras concluded.