Why Israeli gas and Syrian sanctions relief could turn on the lights of Lebanon
Perhaps Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah will soon turn on his lights with Israel’s natural gas, which is produced by an American oil and gas company. How could it be? With the endorsement of the United States and funding from the World Bank, the leaders of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan are seeking to supply Lebanon with Egyptian natural gas and Jordanian electricity.
However, any natural gas from Egypt is mixed with Israeli gas before reaching Jordan, making it impossible to separate the molecules, while much of Jordanian electricity is also produced from Israeli gas. . What a bitter pill this must be for Hezbollah and its leader to swallow. It is not clear whether US officials, or Nasrallah himself, recognize or seek to cover up the role Israel’s natural gas can play in saving Lebanon from its largely self-imposed economic collapse.
To make this energy deal a reality, the United States could grant a waiver of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, which imposes heavy penalties on the regime of Bashar al-Assad, because all gas and electricity coming from Egypt and Jordan – and Israel – must pass through Syria. Joe Biden’s administration can create a loophole that these energy transfers are not “material” and, rather than providing a waiver, choose to ignore the sanctions. Beyond the Caesar Act, the Biden administration will also have to ignore its new rules that prohibit supporting multinational banks, including the World Bank, from financing fossil fuel projects.
The question then becomes why would the United States provide Assad with gas transfers to support the new Lebanese government backed by Hezbollah – a terrorist group designated by the United States and the European Union? Before the United States and the World Bank throw a lifeline on Assad or Lebanon, they should demand concessions that reduce Iranian and Russian influence in the region. The concessions are expected to include a decrease in Iran’s presence in Syria, a decline in Hezbollah’s influence and economic reforms in Lebanon, and the granting of in-kind gas subsidies rather than cash transfers to Assad. Ideally, the United States avoids another regional mistake where the United States again loses more regional influence and reputation rather than demanding concessions that align with American interests.
The energy crisis in Lebanon
Lebanon’s acute energy crisis is a blatant symptom of its collapse and the growing influence of Hezbollah, a descendant of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), within its political and military institutions. Nasrallah became increasingly keen to deflect Hezbollah’s blame for Lebanon’s economic demise, and in August vowed to obtain Iranian fuel that would save Lebanon’s power grid from imploding. As Hezbollah was unable to receive these shipments, Nasrallah blamed the United States and, by extension, Israel. But, in mid-September, Iranian fuel supplies arrived via Syria, further proving the strength of Hezbollah and the failure of the Lebanese state.
Connecting Lebanon to Egyptian and Jordanian energy is not a new concept. However, the Donald Trump administration dismissed the idea because it would materially benefit the Assad regime in Syria and support the Hezbollah-backed Lebanese government without reforms. In fact, Lebanon was set to invest in an offshore natural gas terminal, known as a Floating Storage and Regasification Unit (FSRU), through a consortium between Qatar Petroleum, Italian energy company ENI and an American subsidiary. However, the bidding process was taken hostage by Lebanese political parties and, instead of an FSRU, as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri noted, Lebanon adopted three FSRUs: “ one for the Shiites, one for the Sunnis and one for the Christians ”.
However, no matter how one disentangles this arrangement, Israeli gas is at the center of this proposed solution.
In August, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea voiced U.S. support for the deal, without mentioning how it supports U.S. national security interests. Yet the broad lines of American rationale slowly emerged. Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly raised the issue with President Biden at their July 19 meeting, saying that with Russia’s support, engagement with Syria to connect Jordanian and Egyptian energy supplies would somehow diminish l Iranian influence with Assad and in the region. On September 9, the energy ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon met to finalize this roadmap, which would start with Egyptian gas and then be followed by Jordanian electricity.
Much of the Syrian gas pipeline that connects Lebanon requires major repairs and passes through the rebel-controlled southern zone of Daraa province. On September 8, as part of a deal brokered by Russia and presumably with U.S. backing, Syrian forces traveled to Daraa to regain control of the government – another puzzling step where the U.S. United carried out Assad’s recovery of his dictatorial and genocidal control over the country. And it is still unclear what concessions the United States has obtained, other than another expectation of a change in the behavior of Assad and Iran.
In essence, the United States has rationalized that Lebanon is on the path to normalization with Syria, and somehow Beirut and Damascus will become less aligned with Tehran thanks to the energy subsidies. It is a concept as difficult to conceive as it is to write. Ambassador Jeffrey pleaded on September 9 that America’s declining reputation and inability to demand concessions from American adversaries, who have been severely damaged by the failure of the United States’ negotiations with the Taliban, could beg l ‘Biden administration to do something to support Jordan’s plan. However, the United States, so far, has not communicated what conditions it would demand for its support for this political approach and what steps would be required and taken to ensure this outcome.
While it is clear that King Abdullah is seeking to resolve the burden of Syrian refugees in Jordan, it should not come at the expense of Assad’s actions that created the crisis or US sanctions aimed at holding the Syrian dictator accountable. Therefore, the United States should demand concessions from Assad before lifting the sanctions against his regime. This should include a clear and verifiable reduction of the Iranian and IRGC presence in Syria and start with stopping ground and air shipments of ammunition through Iraq and Syria which ultimately supply Hezbollah and Hamas in the Strip. Gaza. The United States should also prevent any cash compensation from the Assad regime. Any fees paid to Syria for gas shipments to Lebanon should only be made in kind, with natural gas supplies so that Assad cannot materially benefit from the deal at the expense of the Syrians.
For the Lebanese concessions, the American conditions for economic reform should certainly reflect and support those also pushed by the International Monetary Fund. The new Lebanese Prime Minister, Najib Makati, has pledged to reform like his predecessors. However, his cabinet is filled with hand-picked members of the ruling parties responsible for Lebanon’s corruption and dysfunction. It would seem prudent and necessary for the United States to demand some form of disentangling from Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon’s political and economic institutions in return for American support.
Hezbollah’s growing influence with the Lebanese Armed Forces has created an annual debate within the Trump administration and the Defense Department over whether additional US security could be warranted. The Pentagon’s security aid status quo, with the hope of a different outcome, has consistently won the bureaucratic debate, despite evidence that the influence of Hezbollah and, therefore, Iran has failed. has only increased.
In the wake of the Taliban takeover in Kabul, it is to be hoped that such justifications for supporting Lebanon will become more difficult in the future. It will also be fascinating to see how Israel calculates its role in this arrangement, to include its own molecules and electrons from natural gas, which are destined for Nasrallah’s chamber. But together, the United States and Israel, with the backing of close scrutiny from Congress, should determine whether another lifeline for Lebanon and Assad is further eroding American influence in the Middle East.
Matthew Zais is a non-resident principal investigator of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council and vice president of government affairs for Hillwood and HKN Energy Ltd. Most recently, he served as Senior Assistant Under Secretary for International Affairs at the US Department of Energy. Follow him on Twitter: @matthewzais.
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