DAMASCUS, Syria, May 31 (UPI) -- Syria signed an accord Saturday with two U.S. petroleum companies to explore for oil in an area close to the border with Iraq, a move that analysts said suggested improved ties between the two countries after strained relations over the war on Iraq.
Syrian Oil Minister Ibrahim Haddad and representatives from Golf Sandz Petroleum and Devon Energy Corp signed the agreement. According to the agreement, the Syrian government grants both U.S. companies the exclusive right to explore, develop and produce oil in a region of 11,000 square kilometers, or 4,300 square miles, in northeast Syria on its border with Iraq.
The preliminary exploration phase extends for four years at a cost of $20 million and allows for an increase to hundreds of million of U.S. dollars should oil be discovered. At that point, a joint Syrian-U.S. oil firm would be established.
Based in Oklahoma City, Okla., Devon Energy indicated that the contract could be extended to 25 years from the date oil production starts and will be also allow for another 10-year extension.
"This partnership enhances Devon's presence in the Middle East," said James T. Hackett, Devon's president and chief operating officer, in a statement. "The Syrian partnership focuses on exploration around areas with proven reserves."
Hackett said such a joint project would lead to a better understanding between Syria and the United States. He added the Bush administration had not told the U.S. companies they couldn't invest in Syria.
On the contrary, said Hackett, elements within the Bush administration, especially the State Department, was encouraging the U.S. firms to invest and operate in Syria. He noted that the Syria Accountability Act does not reflect Washington's policy towards Syria but rather "democracy within the Congress." The act calls for Syria to withdraw its influence from Lebanon and for imposing punitive measures if it does not.
Observers in Damascus said Saturday's contract reflects a warming U.S. attitude toward Syria after tension in March and April. Washington accused Damascus of providing military support for Iraq during the three-week war as well as shelter for officials of the fallen Baathist regime and for its weapons after the fall of Baghdad.
Bush administration officials made clear that Syria was not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs and to close offices of hardline Palestinian factions opposing peace with Israel. Damascus subsequently turned over or away several prominent officials of Saddam Hussein's former government in Iraq.
Syria's door appears to be open before more U.S. oil investments. Haddad told United Press International that Syria has been in negotiations with Marathon Oil since last year to allow the U.S. company complete exploration in the Arab country. Haddad said the talks reached an advanced phase to conclude an accord.
Another U.S. firm, Conoco, is prominent among foreign companies exploring for natural gas in Syria. Dutch Shell and French Total-Elf are looking for oil. According to official estimates, Syria produces 600,000 barrels of oil per day while its oil reserves are about 2.5 billion barrels.