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Syria: The Next New Frontier, Unexplored and Geopolitically Meteoric

In 2011, shortly before conflict broke out in Syria, the government was preparing to begin bidding for its first offshore exploration blocks in the Levant Basin region.  That, of course, has been put on hold, and three key basins analogous to massive finds in Israel and Lebanon remained entirely unexplored.

Geologists think it’s a gold mine.

There’s not much talk of this publicly, while all eyes are focused on who is controlling Syria’s onshore oilfields amid the fighting. But this is what we do know: The geology of the Eastern Mediterranean is highly prospective, and Syria has three key basins to tap into: Cyprus, Levantine and Latakia. 

According to the US Geological Survey, the Levant Basin, which covers Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Palestine, contains around 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and at least 1.7 billion barrels of oil. The Israeli discoveries in the Levant basin, at its Leviathan and Tamar fields, have brought this into clearer focus, and as we noted in last week’s Intel Notes, this is the thing to watch as the end game for the Syrian conflict unfolds.

Syrian Oil

Before the conflict, the Syrian government on 24 March 2011 had announced its plans for an offshore auction. Up for grabs were three blocks with a total area of 9,038 square kilometers. To assist with bidding, there was some 5,000 km of seismic data for offshore Syrian territory in water depths ranging from 500 to 1,700 meters.

Let’s forego the sticky geopolitics for now and look at the geology.

Offshore Syria—Geology

Syria’s offshore territory is located above the plate tectonic boundary between the African and Eurasian plates of the Latakia Ridge System in the Eastern Mediterranean. Here, a bit further to the east, we have the Dead Sea transform fault system, which separates the African and Eurasian plates from the Arabian plate. This is joined to some onshore geological gems in Syria’s northwest.

What we have here is about 5,000 km of 2D seismic data that pinpoints three sedimentary basins—Levantine, Cyprus, Latakia—overlapping Syria’s offshore territory. These basins are separated from each other by the Latakia Ridge System. According to satellite imagery, there are a number of repeating oil slicks offshore Syria, that are naturally occurring and in line with seismic data.

Latakia Basin: In the Syrian city of Latakia, just off the coastline, four onshore wells were drilled in the 1980s. All of these wells had oil and gas showings. Offshore, no wells have been drilled. But finds in the Cyprus and Levantine Basins make the prospectivity of the Latakia basin—the geologically youngest of the three basins—high. New data shows that the Latakia Basin sedimentation was initiated during the Early to Middle Miocene and is analogous to the Iskerderun Basin to the north, offshore Turkey.

According to a geological study of the area, “The majority of the Latakia Basin in offshore Syria is covered by Messinian salt, which has a maximum undeformed thickness of approximately 1,360 m, except for the eastern part of the basin along the Latakia Ridge where it is absent.”

While no offshore exploration wells have been drilled within the Latakia Basin and it remains untested, the Iskenderun Basin is thought to provide a good analogue and may in fact be part of the same, larger basin system.

Levantine Basin: Within the Levantine Basin the current exploration focus is on Lower Miocene deep-water turbidite sands sourced from the Levant Margin, which are also thought to be present across the northern part of the basin offshore Syria. Importantly, the principle reservoir in Tamar, Dalit and Leviathan—the Israeli and Lebanese discoveries--is formed by these same sands.

Cyprus Basin: This basin extends across offshore Syria, to Lebanon and Cyprus. The north of the basin is the Larnaca Ridge, to the southeast the Latakia Ridge and to the west the Hecataeus Ridge. The basin is in the Eurasian Plate and was created by the convergence of the Eurasian and African plates. According to the same geological study, “the Cyprus Basin is interpreted to have developed during the Late Cretaceous with sediments located above poorly imaged and strongly deformed ophiolites and rifted Tethyan sediments.” While no wells have been drilled here, the basin contains “up to 2,900 m of Oligocene and Neogene sediments”.

The Geopolitical Quagmire

Now, the tricky part. As we’ve noted before, Qatar has a major interest in overthrowing the Assad regime as part of its pipeline race with Iran to transport gas from the massive Pars field (the world’s largest—for now) the two countries share. The conflict started in earnest when Iran clinched a $10 billion deal with Iraq and Syria for a South Pars pipeline to traverse their territories.  Right now, Qatar enjoys the status of the world’s biggest LNG gas exporter thanks to its Pars field, which sits in the middle of the Persian Gulf.

The clincher, however, was Syria’s discovery in August 2011 of a huge gas fields at Tartus, on the Syrian part of the Mediterranean, near the border with Lebanon. Tartus is a key Syrian port with a strong Russian navy presence. It is also to this port that Iran’s pipeline would run. There has been talk that the Syrian discovery could give the country (and whoever ends up running it) more gas than Qatar.

While a major oil and gas producer compared to Lebanon and Israel, which is about to change, Syria’s key strength was its strategic importance as an oil and gas transit state. Keep this in mind: The key territory still controlled by the regime contains the pipeline routes to the key Mediterranean ports—Tartus, Latakia and Baniyas.

If offshore exploration gets underway and turns up finds similar to those in Israel and Lebanon, Syria’s importance on the world stage will increase exponentially. Certainly, Assad is eyeing the offshore potential in the conflict’s end game—but so is everyone else.

As the chess pieces are moved around this complex board, who will control Syria’s offshore exploration potential? Right now, that’s not clear, but every move by Qatar, the Saudis, the West and Russia should be examined from the depths of these prospective basins.

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