Is Syrian Gas Company a stumbling block to Egypt-to-Lebanon gas deal?
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
Waiting for American guarantees that Egypt will not be subjected to the US Caesar Act sanctions, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria concluded the final contracts for the agreement to transport Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Syria, and the question remains for every party dealing with the Syrian regime about Washington’s procrastination despite its promises to provide facilities for the project since August 2021.
During an official ceremony held on 21 June at the Lebanese Ministry of Energy in Beirut in the presence of Egyptian and Syrian officials, the countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt signed an agreement to transfer 650 million cubic meters of gas annually from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria.
Walid Fayyad, the Lebanese Minister of Energy, announced during a press conference after the signing that the implementation of this project will provide an additional four hours of electricity and that by signing the agreement, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria have completed all steps to secure electricity for Lebanon.
He also stressed that Lebanon is looking forward to the final US guarantees in regard to the sanctions to ensure the implementation of the project.
Washington welcomed on 23 June the agreement as an important step to support the Lebanese people while emphasizing the United States’ work with the World Bank to review the details of the agreement.
“This is an important step towards regional cooperation in support of the Lebanese people. We look forward to working with the World Bank to review the details,” said Ned Price, the spokesperson for the US State Department.
A US State Department spokeswoman, who preferred not to be named, said, “We look forward to reviewing the final contracts and financing terms from the parties to ensure that this agreement is in line with US policy and addresses any potential concerns related to sanctions,” according to Alhurra TV on 23 June.
She added, “We have not, and will not, lift or waive the sanctions imposed on Assad and his regime until real and lasting progress is made towards a political solution. We also oppose reconstruction (in Syria) under the current circumstances. We have been clear about this with our partners.”
In a previous interview with Alhurra TV, Amos Hochstein, The US Special Envoy for International Energy to Lebanon, said during his recent visit to Lebanon that the US supports the Arab Gas Pipeline project as long as it does not contradict and does not violate the Caesar Act, and said that this is “possible.”
While a source in the Syrian Oil Ministry revealed to the pro-Syrian government al-Watan newspaper on 21 June that the role that the World Bank will play in financing this agreement will mean an implicit acknowledgment of its financing of purchases that will benefit the Syrian government and that the World Bank cannot complete this step if it does not remove the Syrian Gas Company out of the US sanctions lists.
The Syrian Gas Company, established in 2003, is one of the companies of the regime’s Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources, which is responsible for investing, processing, and transporting natural gas in Syria.
The Ministry was added to the US sanctions regulations in November 2020 as part of the Syrian petroleum sector, which is punished under the Caesar Act for being one of the influential financial resources of the Syrian regime.
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 is United States legislation that sanctions the Syrian regime, including its head Bashar al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian people and obliges the US President to impose sanctions on Assad’s allies.
The Act was approved by the US House of Representatives on 15 November 2016 and was signed into law by former US President Donald Trump on 21 December 2019 and came into force on 17 June 2020.
The Caesar Act is named after a Syrian military photographer who leaked 55,000 photos of 11,000 detainees in 2014 who were killed under torture, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) confirmed its authenticity. The photos aroused world public opinion at the time and were shown in the US Senate.
The law includes all those who provide military, financial, and technical support to the Syrian regime, including companies, people and countries, even Russia and Iran, and it targets all those who provide private aid under the name of “reconstruction” in Syria.
During a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on 8 June, Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, refused to determine whether the energy plan for the four countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) would be exempted from US sanctions or if the exemptions would be necessary.
However, she stressed that the US position will not change regarding non-normalization with the Syrian regime, lifting sanctions, or opposing reconstruction in Syria, until “real” political progress is achieved, where Assad and his regime stand in the way of achieving this goal.
Abdulmajid Barakat, the coordinator of the Caesar Law Committee in the Syrian National Coalition, explained in a previous interview to Enab Baladi that the provisions of the law clearly stipulate the imposition of penalties on the regime and those dealing with it, whether they are personalities, entities, or even countries, and therefore there are no exceptions related to projects of this nature or any projects related to reconstruction.
He stressed that the exceptions related to humanitarian aid, food, and medical matters are clear in the Caesar Law. Other than that, they are considered economic activities that contribute to the economic support and continuity of the regime without there being any change at the political and military level and the security practice of the regime.
For his part, Joel Rayburn, the former US special envoy to Syria, made it clear to Enab Baladi on 19 November 2021 that when the gas agreement is drafted, the Congress experts will look into it, and if they find that it violates Caesar’s law, it will not take place.
Adding that, the countries participating in the gas extension project will not receive a response from the Congress directly in 2022, and the response will not be before the beginning of 2023, according to Rayburn.
The former US envoy believes that this deal is not likely to happen, and if it does happen, it will be under the supervision of the Congress, pointing out that any country or company that thinks of participating in a deal of this kind should back off and think carefully about the legal exposure it will be exposed to.
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