BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- As many as 40 international oil companies are expected to bid for offshore natural gas exploration blocks in Lebanon's sector of the eastern Mediterranean that lies north of major deep-water gas fields in Israeli waters.
But the threat of the 22-month-old civil war in neighboring Syria engulfing tiny Lebanon, which is already disputing control of a 330-square-mile triangle of seabed with the Jewish state, could dampen investor enthusiasm in an energy bonanza that could dramatically alter the dynamics of Levantine economies, and could, in theory, improve the prospects for a long-elusive peace.
That may be a pipe dream. But the Lebanese government, shaky though it is, plans to launch an international tender for offshore exploration Feb. 1.
Some experts value the gas reserves at $300 billion-$700 billion, a substantial prize. But Lebanon has a history that could be a problem. Its volatile politics are essentially split between pro- and anti-Syrian factions that transcend the traditional Muslim-Christian divide. Both factions have been aiding allies in Syria.
Muslim and Christians leaders on both sides, no doubt mindful of the potentially catastrophic consequences of full-scale war between the two factions and horrific memories of the bloody 1975-90 Lebanese civil war, have been striving to prevent a new conflagration.
But volatile Lebanon remains highly susceptible to the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian bloodbath.
The region's wider conflict -- that between Islam's mainstream Sunni sect and the more radical Shiite minority epitomized in the current confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- is also roiling Lebanon.
The Syrian bloodletting is an extension of this gathering conflict, exacerbated by the continuing upheaval of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where longtime dictators were toppled in an eight-month period in 2011.
Algeria has avoided the worst excesses of the Arab Spring but may yet find itself engulfed a decade after a bloody civil war with Islamists, which was, in essence, the forerunner of the Arab Spring and the Arab Winter that seems to be evolving.
Technically, Lebanon and Israel are still at war as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Iranian-backed, pro-Syrian Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in Lebanon, fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006.
Both sides still consider that unfinished business.
Israel's known offshore gas reserves stand at around 25 trillion cubic feet and will undoubtedly grow amid continuing exploration.
Reserves off Lebanon, which is seven years behind Israel in developing its energy resources, are less finite at this stage but recent 3-D seismic surveys indicate 9.7 tcf in the southern sector alone.
Factor in war-divided Cyprus, where the Greek-Cypriot Aphrodite gas field is believed to hold at least 7 tcf, and the age-old rivalry between Greece and Turkey comes into play, stirring up other threats and dangers.
The emerging dimensions of all these disputed offshore gas fields send the regional threat thermometer into the red zone.
And no one seems to have given a great deal of thought to how the Syrian conflict could impact the region's increasingly complex regional energy politics.
The U.S. Geological Survey announced in 2010 that the Levant Basin contains an estimated 122 tcf of gas, as well as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
That includes the waters off Syria, where the minority, Iranian-backed Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad is battling for survival against a Saudi-supported insurrection.
"Syria's offshore potential is indicated by the large Cypriot and Israeli gas discoveries nearby, but cannot be explored soon enough to make a separate Alawite entity in northern Syria economically viable," analyst Robin Mills wrote in The National, an English-language daily published in the United Arab Emirates.
So the outcome of the Syrian civil war could easily heighten the geopolitical tensions surrounding the region's energy resources.
The sectarian differences within Lebanon, driven by such outside influences, remain the biggest threats.
The expected discovery of major gas fields off Lebanon holds out economic salvation for a state that only barely functions and basically exists on handouts by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But given the deep-rooted corruption and sectarian rivalries that pervade this land the auctioning of exploration licenses could exacerbate tensions.
"You're on your way to heaven or hell, so proceed with caution," energy economist Carole Nakhle warned at an oil and gas meeting in Beirut in December.
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