Before Washington’s eyes: Power and gas deals revive Syrian regime’s regional role

The Deir Ali power plant in Damascus countryside (Building Syria website / edited by Enab Baladi)

Before Washington’s eyes: Power and gas deals revive Syrian regime’s regional role

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Zainab Masri | Hussam al-Mahmoud | Ali Darwish

The new gas pipeline project transporting natural gas from Egypt to produce electricity in Jordan and adding it to a grid linking Jordan with Lebanon via Syria involves five countries whose official delegations have conducted international visits and joint discussions to implement the project and alleviate Lebanon’s power crisis. 

The project’s talks are still underway between the United States (US) that laid the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act, sanctioning those undertaking economic transactions with the Syrian regime, and Egypt the natural gas source, Jordan where the Egyptian gas would generate electricity, Lebanon that is desperate for energy sources, and Syria as a power transit point to Lebanon.     

Meanwhile, negotiations continue to obtain the US’ approval to circumvent the Caesar Act’s sanctions for the countries taking part in the project and the World Bank’s approval to finance the project’s costs. 

In August, the Lebanese Presidency announced that the US decided to facilitate Lebanon’s access to power sources from Egypt following talks between the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, and the Lebanese President Michel Aoun. 

In this extensive article, Enab Baladi discusses Washington’s stand on the project transporting Jordanian electricity generated from Egypt’s natural gas to Lebanon via Syrian territories. The article also highlights the benefits the gas pipeline quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon) would obtain from the project. 

A power supply deal for Lebanon after Iraq through Syria

On 15 July, the former prime minister-designate in Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, released statements in a televised interview with the Lebanese al-Jadeed TV channel that brought Syria back to the regional scene in economic terms.

During the interview, al-Hariri announced that the purpose of his last visit to Egypt on 14 July and meeting with Egyptian President Abdu Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was to import Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon.

Al-Hariri said that he reached the Jordanian leadership to mediate for Washington’s acceptance of the importation of Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon, indicating that Lebanon obtained electricity from Syria when he was a prime minister for Lebanon. 

Al-Hariri, however, did not clarify in the interview whether he had agreed with the Syrian side or not regarding the gas project before requesting Jordanian mediation.

A natural gas well in the Mediterranean Sea (AFP)

A natural gas well in the Mediterranean Sea (AFP)

Egypt and Jordan’s negotiations on Lebanon’s supply with energy sources were intensified after the US demanded the non-involvement of the Lebanese government in any direct agreement with the Syrian regime’s government, the Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper reported on 19 July. 

The US mandated Jordan to hold negotiations with Syria to agree on how much the regime will be paid for allowing gas to be transferred through its territories to Lebanon. 

According to the al-Akhbar newspaper, the US does not want any direct communication between Damascus and Beirut on the gas issue, for some Lebanese parties seek Caesar Act’s exemptions to achieve other purposes.  

The Caesar Act is a US legislation imposing sanctions on officials belonging to and supporting the regime and prohibits economic support or cooperation with the regime since 16 June 2020.

Al-Hariri’s statements about the gas file coincided with other countries’ confirmations of Syria as a transit point for Egyptian gas to Lebanon.

On 29 April, the Syrian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, Bassam Toumeh, visited the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and met with his Iraqi counterpart Ihsan Abdul Jabbar. The two ministers discussed a possible agreement to import Egyptian gas to Iraq through Syria, the Iraqi News Agency reported.

Even though Toumeh’s visit to Iraq was marked by talks of common interests and future projects, it did not hold any concrete results to the two sides. Moreover, the Iraqi Oil Ministry denied any agreement stipulating gas transportation to Iraq through Syria, clarifying that the gas issue was mere discussions with the Syrian side.  

Following the Egyptian gas import talks, the Lebanese Caretaker Finance Minister, Ghazi Wazni, announced on 13 August on his Twitter account his approval of a Syrian offer to supply Lebanon with electricity after receiving reasonable prices from Syria. The announcement came two weeks after a Syrian delegation paid a visit to Lebanon, headed by Syria’s Minister of Electricity Ghassan al-Zamil, who offered to supply Lebanon with up to 350 megawatts of power.    

On 29 August, the Syrian local pro-government al-Watan newspaper cited al-Zamil, saying that the supply of Lebanon with electricity from Syria and the impact of this decision on Syria’s economy is left to Syria to decide.   

Al-Zamil added that “Neither America nor any country in the world can impose on Syria what to do. We examine what is best for our country and we decide accordingly,” pointing out that work is always done in “Syria’s best interests.”     

According to al-Zamil, the power grid connecting Syria with Jordan through the Deir Ali power plant (the southern station) has witnessed significant destruction with 80 electrical towers destroyed and landmines buried along the grid, impeding maintenance works to the grid and reactivation of the Arab Gas Pipeline.          

These developments come under an acute fuel crisis in the Syrian regime’s areas, reflected by the regime’s Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection’s decision to raise fuel prices on 15 March for the second time during the current year.  

The regime’s areas have also been suffering from lengthy power outages and power rationing on a daily basis in all regions, depriving Syrians of electricity. 

Workers at Qatar Liquified Gas Company (the company’s official website)

Workers at Qatar Liquified Gas Company (the company’s official website)

Lebanon’s economic deal reactivates political negotiations involving Syria 

The gas supply plan from Egypt to Lebanon through Syria has reactivated political negotiations involving Syria as an effective party in this plan. In addition, several high-level international meetings were held in this regard, including leaders and top officials, to discuss the transportation of gas through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon.      

On 19 July, four days after al-Hariri talked about a Jordanian mediation with the US concerning the gas file, the Jordanian King, Abdullah II, met with US President Joe Biden in the White House to discuss several issues including Syria. 

The public diplomatic statements of the two leaders (King Abdullah and Biden) did not address the Egyptian gas supply plan to Lebanon via Syria; however, a week later, a phone call between the Syrian Minister of the Interior Mohammed al-Rahmoun and his Jordanian counterpart Mazen al-Faraya took place. 

The phone call was the first of its kind on the level of ministers between the two countries in years and opened the gate for economic cooperation between the two sides as the two ministers pledged joint coordination to facilitate the passage of trucks and passenger buses between Syria and Jordan.

King Abdullah’s visit to the US was followed by a visit to Russia on 24 August, in which he met with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

During the meeting between the Jordanian king and Putin, several issues were put on the table, including Russia’s hopes for normalizing relations with Syria without naming the supply deal of Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria, despite the importance of the Russian role and its impact on several critical issues for the Syrian regime. 

On 27 August, the al-Akhbar newspaper talked about an upcoming visit by a Lebanese delegation to Syria consisting of Zeina Akar, deputy prime minister and caretaker foreign minister, Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar, Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, and General Security agency chief Abbas Ibrahim.

According to the newspaper, the visit’s agenda includes discussions about required procedures to activate the gas supply deal from Egypt to Lebanon and exploring cooperation in relation to obtaining electricity from Syria.   

On 4 September, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad received the Lebanese delegation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates in Damascus and discussed several issues of importance to the two sides.    

On 19 August, the Lebanese Presidency announced that Lebanese President Michel Aoun had received a phone call from US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, in which she declared the US decision to assist Lebanon in the transportation of Egyptian gas through Syria.   

The Lebanese Presidency’s Twitter account cited Shea saying that the US will facilitate the transmission of Egyptian gas to northern Lebanon through Jordan and Syria. Shea also said that negotiations are continuing with the World Bank to finance the cost of the Egyptian gas and maintenance cost of electricity grids and gas pipelines.     

On 27 August, the al-Akhbar newspaper said that despite the US Ambassador in Beirut announcing that the US will make “Caesar” exemptions for the power supply deal to Lebanon, there are still no moves taken in this regard from the US.   

Meanwhile, Lebanon continues to suffer a severe electricity crisis resulting in a near-total power outage since the closure of the two main power stations generating electricity for the country on 10 July due to lack of fuel necessary for operating them.  

Lebanon is also trying to alleviate its fuel crisis by raising fuel prices repeatedly by the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water and partially lifting fuel subsidies. In the meantime, Hezbollah Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah, promised the Lebanese people that oil shipments would arrive to Lebanon from Iran to mitigate the acute shortage in fuel quantities in Lebanon.

The Syrian regime’s gains out of the power supply deal to Lebanon

The Syrian role has come to light in the power supply plan to Lebanon because the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) used to transfer Egyptian gas to Lebanon passes through Syria. 

The AGP originates in Egypt at the Arish city in North Sinai and snakes through Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. 

The regime’s requirements to carry the power project to success in its lands are still blurry. However, on 21 August, Syria’s People’s Assembly member Mohammed Kheir al-Akkam said to the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik that the electricity transmission issue from Jordan to Lebanon via the Syrian power grid was discussed during a previous visit by the Syrian ministers of oil and electricity to Jordan.  

Al-Akkam also noted that Jordan has an electricity surplus and water shortage, which could lead to Syrian-Jordanian cooperation where Syria provides water to Jordan in return for electricity.    

A division of the Qatar Liquified Gas Company (the company’s official website)

A division of the Qatar Liquified Gas Company (the company’s official website)

Different benefits for all parties 

Minister of Economics in the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), Dr. Abdul Hakim al-Masri, told Enab Baladi that if implemented, the power supply project to Lebanon through Syria would violate the Caesar Act that prohibits economic transactions with the regime.    

However, the regime will benefit from the exemptions of the Caesar Act and obtain electricity from Jordan in return for providing Jordan with water, which will reduce the regime areas’ need for electricity estimated at about 60 to 70 percent. The regime is currently covering 30 percent of its areas’ electricity needs, al-Masri said.    

The project will also enable the regime to rehabilitate its power grids and gas pipelines, besides obtaining other economic and political gains, including additional quantities of gas, al-Masri added.    

Should the regime obtain electricity from Jordan, the increasing need for fuel (diesel oil) would decrease in winter, as people in regime areas would rely on electricity as an alternative for heating, which would alleviate the fuel crisis in regime areas.  

Al-Masri added that the Deir Ali power plant connecting the power network between Syria, Egypt, and Jordan had been severely damaged by the bombings and explosions, and the regime will not repair it under financial deficiency claims, forcing countries supporting the project to maintain it.   

As for the other parties in the project, they will all benefit on different levels. Egypt will export more of its natural gas, Jordan will receive gas transit fees and revenues of selling excess electricity. Lebanon will be revived again, as it will cover some of its electricity needs, the backbone of the economy, industry, and service institutions. Moreover, Lebanon’s deteriorating economy will improve with the availability of electricity. 

The Russian approval is above all

Regarding Russia’s stand on the project, al-Masri said that Russia would place major conditions with regard to infrastructure maintenance and obtaining part of the regime’s financial gains as an “occupier State” to Syria.       

Al-Masri added that it is in Russia’s interest to re-establish life in Syria as it supports the regime’s government. The project will benefit the regime and Russia without clashing with the Caesar Act sanctions. 

The regime will benefit from the transmission of gas and electricity through its lands. The gas will be transported from Jordan to Homs and then to northern Lebanon, and the infrastructure along the gas pipelines will be repaired, which serves Russia and the regime. 

Al-Masri added that this project is an international deal that calls for the approval of the People’s Assembly in Syria. The Assembly, in turn, is subject to the rules of the regime that moves according to Russia’s wishes. 

 According to al-Masri, the regime has already given its approval to the power supply project to Lebanon through its lands, but it is negotiating its shares and the mechanism to circumvent sanctions while contracting with Jordan to obtain electricity in return for water outside the deal with Lebanon.   

Caesar Act sanctions still in place to hold Syrian regime accountable

Even though the Lebanese Presidency announced that the US would assist Lebanon in obtaining gas from Egypt through Jordan and Syria, as stated by the US Ambassador in Lebanon Dorothy Shea to the Lebanese president on 19 August, Washington did not provide an explanation to its assisting mechanism.   

Moreover, the US did not place any side, country, or institution on the Caesar Act sanctions waivers list as a step towards facilitating the Egyptian gas transfer to Lebanon via Syria.       

Enab Baladi contacted the Foreign Affairs Department of the US Department of State and requested comments on the possibility of a US recognition of the Syrian regime through the Egyptian gas transportation to Lebanon through Syria, to which the US Department of State responded, “The United States has no plans to improve diplomatic relations with the al-Assad regime.”

The US Department of State gave no statements or details on diplomatic talks held in regard to the Egyptian gas file and its relation to Syria. Instead, it stressed its support to efforts made to find innovative, transparent, and sustainable solutions that would address Lebanon’s severe energy and fuel shortages.

When asked about future exemptions to the Caesar Act imposed on the Syrian regime, the US Department of State emphasized the importance of the sanctions as a vital pressure tool to bring the regime to accountability and pledged to continue using them against the regime.     

The US Department of State provided no comment on whether there will be any exemptions or waivers for individuals, institutions, or projects in the near future. 

Abdul Majeed Barakat, the coordinator of the Caesar Act Committee in the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), pointed out to Enab Baladi that the provisions of the Caesar Act clearly provide for sanctions against the regime and those dealing with it, be they individuals, entities, or even States, and therefore there are no exceptions relating to projects of this form or any projects related to reconstruction. 

Barakat added that the Caesar Act stipulates exceptions and waivers in transactions of humanitarian aspects for the delivery of food and medical assistance to Syria, but any other economic activity supporting the regime financially is sanctioned because it helps the regime to stay in power without any change at the political, military, and security levels.

Barakat spoke of a new mechanism in handling the concept of sanctions and evaluating their impact since the Democratic Party assumed power in the US.

He said the Caesar Act was intended to prevent the Syrian regime from entering into international agreements with individuals or States in order for the sanctions to be effective and change the regime’s behavior at all levels.

Barakat added that the power supply project to Lebanon through Syria would benefit the regime on the political and economic levels. The project would help re-float and promote the regime as an effective party in regional and international economic agreements and confer legitimacy to its rule.  

Workers at Qatar Liquified Gas Company (the company’s official website)

Workers at Qatar Liquified Gas Company (the company’s official website)

Three gas pipeline projects running through Syria

The currently negotiated power project transporting Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon has brought Syria to the center of gas pipeline projects. 

However, the project raised questions on the possibility of implementation with the presence of three previous unsuccessful gas pipeline projects. The first failed project was implemented and then suspended due to military and security situations. The second project was signed but never implemented on the part of Syria, while the third was never signed.

It is worth noting that the three projects, had they been successful, would have impacted Russia’s control and monopoly of gas delivery to Europe.

The strategic geographical location of Syria has turned it into an important route to gas pipeline projects exporting gas from Middle East countries like Egypt, Iran, and Qatar through the Azerbaijan Nabucco pipeline in Turkey to Europe.

If implemented, the latest gas pipeline project to provide electricity to Lebanon via Egyptian gas and through Syria will face several challenges related to political, military, and economic developments, international relations, and complications of sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime. 

The following are previous gas pipeline projects running through Syria:

The Arab Gas Pipeline: A success and then fail

The Arab Gas Pipeline project (AGP) is one of the most important economic projects in the Eastern Mediterranean region. It aimed to transport Egyptian gas through the eastern part of the Arab World to Europe.

The project was established in 2000 and completed in 2003. It has a total length of 1,200 kilometers at the cost of approximately 1 billion and 200 million USD with a capacity of more than 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year. 

The AGP runs through Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria and ends in Turkey, making it the first regional project to run through three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe).

The AGP project was carried out over four stages for the exportation of gas from Egypt through Jordan to Syria and Turkey and then to the European continent; however, the section between Syria and Turkey was never completed as a result of the 2011 Syrian popular protests.

The AGP was attacked in December 2011 in Egypt, while in Syria, it suffered many explosions, causing power outages for several hours before repairing it. The AGP runs through several thermal power plants in Syria, including the Deir Ali power station near Damascus, Tishreen in Latakia, and al-Rayyan Gas Company in Homs.

In a video recording by the Jusoor Center for Studies, the center argued that the AGP is not ready to complete supply operations for the time being, as it needs maintenance works in case the operators wanted to export gas farther than Syria.  

The Friendship Gas Pipeline 

Negotiations on the Friendship Gas Pipeline project running from Iran through allied countries of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to Europe, began in July 2010. In July 2012, a memorandum of understanding was signed for the construction of pipelines within three to five years.

The total length of the Friendship Gas Pipeline is about 2,000 kilometers starting from Asalouyeh port in southern Iran to the Iraqi border, pumping gas into Iraq through two subsidiary pipelines, the Ailam pipeline feeding Baghdad, al-Mansouryah, and al-Sadr, and the Khorramshahr pipeline, feeding al-Basra.

It passes through Syria, providing Damascus with 25-30 million cubic meters of gas per day via a 600 and 700 kilometers long pipeline, ending in southern Lebanon for export.

The total pumping capacity of the Friendship Gas Pipeline is nearly 110 million cubic meters of gas daily and 40 billion cubic meters annually. 

Iran’s revenues generated from exporting natural gas through the Friendship Gas Pipeline are approximately between three and seven billion US dollars annually. 

The Friendship Gas Pipeline project has failed due to armed battles in Syria and Iraq and the United States’ opposition to the project as it violated sanctions imposed on Iran. Moreover, the project’s high cost constrained its success, as all countries involved in the project had debilitated economies. 

The Qatar-Turkey Gas Pipeline: A project on paper only

The projects’ negotiations began during the 2009 and 2010 Turkish-Qatari talks. It starts in Qatar and runs through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria to reach Turkey.

The project was never signed or implemented, with Qatar unable to export its gas through land borders to Bahrain and Kuwait due to Saudi Arabia’s opposition.

 

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