Lebanon's electricity crisis takes on geopolitical significance

Syrian regime wooed by all sides as four Arab energy ministers meet in Amman to discuss supplies to Lebanon

Electrical lines at Burj al Barajneh camp on August 23, 2019. Sunniva Rose / The National

Four Arab energy ministers met in Jordan's capital of Amman on Wednesday and said they agreed on to discuss solving the electricity crisis in Lebanon, thrust in the last few weeks from a domestic issue into the centre of Middle East geopolitics.

The meeting of officials from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria brings two staunch US allies together with officials from Damascus and Beirut, Arab capitals seen in Amman as having fallen under Iran's influence.

But with US encouragement, Jordan and Egypt signalled last month that they were willing to supply Lebanon with gas through regime areas of Syria.

But the prospect is widely seen as being far from imminent, given the destruction to Syria’s infrastructure in the continuing civil war, and the political coordination needed between countries historically mistrustful of each other.

“We want to listen to the Lebanese and understand whether they can benefit from what we can offer”, a Jordanian official who will be at the meeting said.

While the meeting was planned to discuss also supplying Lebanon with electricity from the Jordanian grid, official Jordanian television said the proposal has been postponed and won't be discussed at the meeting.

The Jordanian official declined to say when electricity or gas could be flowing to Lebanon.

Despite the uncertainty, the project carries political potential, observers say.

It could help restore some of the regional influence of Syria's Assad regime, expand Jordan’s role after having been sidelined during the Donald Trump era and emphasise Egypt as a heavyweight, they said.

“Such a project is positive for the Syrian regime in relation to its interests in Lebanon and as a step towards its rehabilitation,” said Jihad Yazigi, editor of the Syria Report, a newsletter specialising in Syria’s business and economy.

Mr Yazigi said that “the Americans are suddenly telling these countries go and talk with the Syrians because of the US goal of reducing the influence of the Iranians.”

“We don’t know if there is a clear American strategy in this but maybe the US is trying to create some competition between the regime and the Iranians in Lebanon,” he said from Beirut.

The Jordanian and Egyptian offers came after Hezbollah said last month that Iran would supply Lebanon with fuel for electricity generation.

Two vessels with Iranian fuel are reportedly in the Red Sea on their way to Lebanon, in possible contravention of US sanctions against Iran.

US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, said last month Lebanon did not need the tankers and should look for a more sustainable solution.

She made it clear that Washington has no objection to fuel or electricity passing through areas under the control of the Syrian regime, which is also under US sanctions.

“We’ve been talking to the governments of Egypt, Jordan, the government here, the World Bank,” she told Al Arabiya television from Beirut last month.

“We’re trying to get real, sustainable solutions for Lebanon’s fuel and energy needs,” the ambassador said.

Quote
Large parts of the network are also from Soviet times and need to be changed. It needs large repairs that would take at least a year
Syrian engineer

None of the governments involved in the project gave any time frame or an idea about the volumes that could reach Lebanon.

In theory, the electricity generation capacity of the Lebanese state meets two thirds of the demand for power in the country, though billions of dollars have been poured in the sector since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990.

A 2020 World Bank report said although one electricity plant in Lebanon is connected with the Arab Gas Pipeline, most of the other power stations in the country are not.

The Arab Gas Pipeline links gas exporter Egypt with Lebanon through Jordan and Syria.

A European official working on regional infrastructure projects said a project to bring electricity and gas to Lebanon “is a long fetch".

“Aside from the lack of infrastructure, such a project needs a high degree of international and regional consensus that does not exist at the moment,” the official said.

Lebanon’s economy has collapsed in the last two years. The government defaulted on its hard currency debt in May and the Lebanese pound fell from 1,500 to the dollar to 18,000.

In the last few months, state electricity has become virtually non-existent in Beirut and other cities, with the government lacking the hard currency to buy fuel.

A Syrian engineer in Damascus well-connected with the regime said even if the four countries agree, flows to Lebanon “are not going to happen anytime soon”.

He said sections of the high-voltage network in south Syria, where electricity is supposed to be transferred to Lebanon, needs replacement from war destruction.

“Large parts of the network are also from Soviet times and need to be changed,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The engineer, who has infrastructure contracts with the government, said the Arab Gas Pipeline is damaged in areas that pass through Syria.

“It needs large repairs that would take at least a year,” he said.

Updated: September 8th 2021, 5:22 PM
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