Syria is selling electricity to Lebanon despite its war-ravaged infrastructure

Damascus is not able to provide for its local market but has started shipping its power to Beirut

FILE PHOTO: An image of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a car's windscreen as Hezbollah supporters celebrate, after the Syrian army took control of Qusair from rebel fighters, in the Shi'ite town of Hermel June 5, 2013. Syrian government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of the border town of Qusair on Wednesday, dealing a major defeat to rebel fighters battling to overthrow Assad. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi/ File Photo
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Despite an eight-year long war and massive destruction of its infrastructure, Syria sold electricity intermittently to its small neighbour Lebanon in 2017 and 2018. Lebanon’s own civil war may have ended 29 years ago, but the country has proved incapable of providing electricity 24/7 to its citizens.

Successive Lebanese governments have repeatedly vowed to reform the sector with little or no result.

The Syrian regime has proven defensive about selling electricity abroad while its population suffers from electricity cuts that were uncommon pre-war, unlike Lebanon. In 2010, local demand peaked at 8,000 Megawatts in the summer, Syrian economist Samir Aita told The National. In an interview with Syrian daily Al Watan in May 2018, Electricity Minister Mohammad Zuhair Kharbotli said that Syria produced only 1,800 MW of electricity.

“We say in short and useful words: providing electricity to Lebanon will not be done at the expense of Syrian citizens,” he added. A few months later, he flatly denied that Syria was selling electricity to Lebanon, Syrian news website Enab Baladi reported. In another interview, he evaluated damage to the electricity sector at $4 billion.

Lebanese statistics show that Syria has indeed been selling electricity to Lebanon but for relatively small sums. Lebanese media reported that expenses related to buying electricity from Syria started appearing again on the Finance Ministry’s monthly reports in September 2017. However, it’s unclear when these sales were initially interrupted. The Finance Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

In the summer of 2017, Lebanon and Syria had discussed increasing electricity transfers, but the plan seems to have fallen through.

A spokesperson for Electricité du Liban (EDL), Lebanon’s national utility company, told The National that Syria’s electricity sales to Lebanon totalled 121 billion Lebanese pounds ($80 million) that year, which is roughly equivalent to 6 per cent the Lebanese government’s electricity expenses.

In 2018, they plummeted to 3 billion Lebanese Pounds ($2 million). EDL spends most of its money on buying fuel from Kuwait and Algeria to generate electricity locally.

“Electricity supply (from Syria) is not continuous. Rather, it depends on the technical situation on both networks and suffered disruptions, especially since the beginning of the Syrian crisis,” said the spokesperson, who did not provide statistics pre-2017.

A 1995 agreement, which is renewed annually, enables Damascus to sell electricity to Lebanon. The two countries have strong historical ties and are connected through an electric power grid which runs through six other Arab countries. Lebanon, unable to meet local demand for decades, has regularly turned to Syria for extra electricity. Lebanon’s maximum production capacity currently reaches 2,080 MW, which is significantly inferior to peak demand of 3,500 MW. Electricity cuts are part of Lebanon’s daily routine and vary between 3 and 12 hours a day.

However, electricity transfers between the two countries have always been limited by the weakness of the Lebanese power grid. “Despite the connection between the country reaching 500 MW, we can only go as high as 150 MW,” said energy consultant Jessica Obeid. The Ksara electric power transmission substation, which is connected to Damascus, should be revamped over the next few years as part of a major investment plan aimed at modernising Lebanon’s infrastructures.

Expanding the crumbling electricity sector has become the new Lebanese government’s top priority. Economy Minister Nada Boustani recently submitted a proposal to the government which is currently being reviewed by a ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

However, political disagreements between the country’s two main Christian parties on how the reforms should be implemented will likely slow them down. The Lebanese Forces have been highly critical on proposals emanating from the Free Patriotic Movement, which has headed the Energy Ministry for a decade.

For Syria, the main interest in selling electricity to Lebanon is quick access to cash after years of war and economic sanctions, experts argue. “It’s just a means to get dollars”, said Mr Aita during a lecture at the American University of Beirut in late February.

It may also be possible that the Syrian electricity grid has been so severely disrupted that it’s easier for Damascus to sell electricity to Lebanon than to transfer it to other regions within Syria, argued Mrs Obeid. “There are no assessments of the exact damages to the electricity sector,” she said.

Other factors, such as the recent increase in power generation in Syria since the regime recaptured oil and gas fields in the northeast of the country, also explain why Syria has recently started selling electricity again to its neighbour.

While this may allow Lebanon to enjoy a little extra electricity, there is a snag. Because of the way the Arab grid is set up, Lebanon must in practice receive Syria’s approval should it want to import electricity from any other country in the region.

“This is problematic,” said Mrs Obeid.

According to her, Syria has repeatedly refused that Jordan, which enjoys excess electricity production, sell any of it to Lebanon, despite enthusiastic talk about exchanging water for electricity earlier this year.