A high-level Lebanese delegation visited Syria some days ago in the first such visit to Damascus since relations were frozen due to the Arab and Western boycott of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The visit by Zeina Akar, Lebanon’s defence minister and deputy prime minister, was not meant to improve relations or to reintegrate Syria into the Arab sphere, however.
Akar was in Syria in order to gain approval for gas and electricity networks from Egypt and Jordan to go through Syria to Lebanon after the US gave the green light for Beirut to pursue efforts in this direction.
Some Lebanese political forces saw the visit as a way to normalise relations with the Syrian regime, while the Syrian opposition said the operations would allow the regime to bring the rebel city of Deraa under its control.
Three weeks before the visit, the US told Lebanon it had approved gas pipelines and electricity networks to go from Egypt and Jordan through Syria to Lebanon. The US gave Lebanon the permission to visit Syria to discuss the details of the project.
Lebanon suffers a shortage of electricity and gas, which it can only secure via marine pipelines and electricity grids since it shares borders with Syria and Israel. But Syria is subject to US sanctions that do not allow any country to interact with it, making the US permission essential.
On 19 August, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea informed the Lebanese presidency of the US administration’s decision to help Lebanon bring in Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria.
Lebanon had presented the request to the US after former Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri talked with the Jordanian leadership to persuade the US to approve the transport of natural gas from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria and Jordan.
Al-Hariri visited Egypt on 14 July and asked President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to allow the export of the gas, which could save Lebanon some 50 or 60 per cent on its fuel costs.
Following correspondence between Syria and Lebanon, the former approved the request. The two parties agreed to follow up on the decision through a joint technical team.
Akar’s visit to Syria was a continuation of this technical path, though the Syrian regime is hoping the visit will also open the door to a resumption of Arab relations after a 10-year boycott.
Political leaders in Beirut warned against the resumption of official relations with the Syrian regime, however. Opponents of the Lebanese Hizbullah group and Syria stressed that the current economic and political crisis in Lebanon was “caused by Syria and Hizbullah,” the weakening of the state at the hands of Hizbullah and its allies, and the corrupt management of the Lebanese state.
The gas project is also meant to transport Egyptian gas to Jordan, where it will be used to produce additional electricity for the network linking Jordan with Lebanon via Syria. It also aims to transport Egyptian gas via Jordan and Syria to northern Lebanon to activate gas-operated power plants that have been dysfunctional for 11 years.
The gas pipeline, which passes from Egypt through Jordan to Syria from Homs in the centre of the country, has been repeatedly bombed by terrorists and armed groups. The section of the pipeline in Syria must now be expanded and maintained for it to function again.
According to analysts, Syria agreed to the project because the Syrian regime will gain free electricity by transporting power via its grid to Lebanon. Syria’s people currently suffer from daily power cuts that can last for hours.
Syria will also benefit from transporting gas to northern Lebanon, acquiring large amounts of gas which will allow it to operate its power plants. It will be able to levy taxes on the project, which is said to be funded by the World Bank.
The Jordanian electricity network passes through Deraa in southern Syria, and this will require a regional and international understanding over Deraa with the participation of the US, Russia, Iran and Israel, possibly allowing the Syrian regime to forcibly take control of this rebel city.
More meetings are likely to be held between the countries concerned in the project, namely Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But probably they will not lead to another desired goal for Syria, which is to extend bridges of communication between Syria and the rest of the Arab world.
Lebanon, on the edge of bankruptcy, will not be able to secure the financial resources for the project alone, and the technical and other aspects of the project will need much discussion as well as a time frame, infrastructure and equipment not likely to be available in Syria or Lebanon.
Moreover, according to experts, transporting gas to Lebanon will take between eight months and a year, while Lebanon is in need of emergency plans, not long-term strategic projects.
With debts of $96 billion, equivalent to 164 per cent of GDP, Lebanon hopes the World Bank will grant it a loan to pay for the project.
For some, the electricity and gas project appears to be part of a political game, more than an economic operation, led by the US. The features of this game are unclear, but it may be part of a grander scheme.
For the time being, despite its green light to Lebanon to pursue the project, the US is adamant about enforcing the Caesar Act, legislation that sanctions the Syrian government for war crimes, until the Syrian regime embarks on wide-ranging political reforms that are unlikely to materialise in the near future.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.