Lebanon’s two largest electric power stations shut down at the end of the week, and Lebanon descended into darkness.
That was no big surprise. Last month, Lebanese cabinet ministers and experts had already warned that if an immediate source of funding for fuel was not found, or if the fuel to generate electricity was not provided to the country free of charge, Lebanon would plunge into darkness in a matter of days.
Granted that a large portion of homes in Lebanon’s major cities and in its villages have long stopped relying on the government electricity utility, which is billions of dollars in debt to suppliers. Over the years, most people have found an alternative network of electricity generators. But even they can’t run on air, and considering the price of fuel, which rose again a few weeks ago, these private networks are expected to fade away one after the other.
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The two remaining suppliers of fuel to Lebanon are Iran and Russia. In September, an oil tanker from Iran docked at the Syrian port of Baniyas, and about a week ago, another tanker off-loaded fuel at the same port. From there, the oil is expected to illegally make its way across the border into Lebanon.
But the pace at which the oil is arriving and the quantities that are being supplied aren’t sufficient to reinvigorate the Lebanese electricity grid. Nor can the meager fuel reserves in the hands of the Lebanese army, which might be given to the electricity authority to operate the power stations. And more than helping Lebanon as a whole, it appears that the Iranian oil will serve the interests of the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, which put together the deal to “save Lebanon.”
Hezbollah has taken control of some of the oil. It also controls distribution points and can now claim major political credit as the only player breathing life into the country.
Transporting oil from Iran to Syria is a violation of two sets of sanctions. One, against Iran, prohibits Tehran from selling oil, and the other, against Syria, which was imposed in 2019 by U.S. President Donald Trump, prohibits business dealings with the Syrian regime, including the shipment of oil from Syria to Lebanon or any other country. But at the moment, President Joe Biden and his administration have kept silent about the violation of the sanctions.
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The declared explanation for that is the humanitarian aspect of providing the oil. Washington doesn’t want to be seen as impairing services at hospitals, clinics and other essential Lebanese institutions by forcibly halting the delivery of oil from Iran.
In recent weeks, the U.S. government has been at work in putting together a much bigger project aimed at openly delivering natural gas and electricity from Egypt to Jordan and Lebanon in an organized manner. Last Wednesday, representatives from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and the World Bank convened in Amman to sign a framework agreement to supply gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan. The arrangement will rely on a gas pipeline running from Egypt via Jordan to Syria and on to Lebanon. Jordan is due to link its electricity grid to the Lebanese grid via Syria, but that won’t provide an immediate solution to the Lebanese conundrum. It will take at a few weeks to a few months before Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity reach Lebanon.
The American project has already raised two questions. Moving electricity and gas via the pipeline to Syria and from there to Lebanon constitutes a violation of the sanctions on Syria. Biden will need to find a way around the breach or initiate legislation that makes it an exception to the sanctions regime.
The second problem is the Israel connection. Egyptian gas is “mixed together” with Israeli gas, and Jordanian electricity is also supplied by means of Israeli gas, and there’s no way of separating the two and shipping “purely” Arab gas to Lebanon. About a week ago, Matthew Zais, a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy and now a scholar with the Atlantic Council, published an article explaining the “Israeli connection” to the Lebanese gas question.
The Lebanese government recognizes this national hot potato and Hezbollah is also aware of the source of the gas from Egypt and the electricity from Jordan. But just as it gave the nod to the Lebanese government to negotiate the country’s economic maritime boundary with Israel, it has remained silent over the gas supply issue.
At the moment, Hezbollah cannot impose conditions that would thwart the project even though it is supported by the American government, because that would put Hezbollah’s public standing as Lebanon’s life preserver at risk. The issue will apparently come up again when a new nuclear agreement is signed between the Western powers and Iran, at which time sanctions would be lifted and oil and gas would be able to move freely to Lebanon via Syria. In the interim, the major diplomatic beneficiary of the project is Syria, which has become an essential partner to it, because without Syria, the project cannot proceed.
Syria already scored a diplomatic breakthrough when Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates reopened their diplomatic missions in Damascus and when the Emiratis declared their intention to take part in the reconstruction of Syria. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad spoke by phone with King Abdullah of Jordan for the first time in more than a decade. That followed a visit to Jordan by the Syrian defense minister and Jordan’s decision to reopen its border with Syria. Following the telephone conversation, Assad’s office and the king’s spokesmen said the leaders spoke about “strengthening cooperation between the two countries and the two peoples.”
It will be interesting to see how Washington relates to economic cooperation between Jordan and Syria, which will run counter to the sanctions legislation, while at the same time, allowing electricity and gas to pass through Syria to Lebanon. The irony is that Lebanon’s deep crisis and the darkness that has fallen upon the country might actually bring Syria back into the heart of the Arab consensus, following its expulsion after the extent of Assad’s slaughter of his own population became known.