Away from the loud slogans, a project is silently infiltrating the political discourse.
It’s a channel, through which opponents and enemies cross “boundaries” and “lines”. It is the “Arab Gas” project that links Egypt to Jordan.
So far, the project looks understandable, even if it also crosses into Syria and Lebanon. But the controversy lies in the fact that it will carry Israeli gas to the stronghold of the “resistance”. That’s the first breach.
The second is that, in theory at least, the project will have to break one of the American “taboos,” the Caesar Act, which imposes harsh penalties on dealing with the Syrian regime.
This “forbidden crossing” necessitated “exceptions” from the administration of President Joe Biden. The latter was capable to achieve limited breakthrough, under the watchful eye of the Congress.
The gas that will arrive in the “Arabian pipeline” from Egypt is “mostly Israeli.” The electricity that will be exported from Jordan is also produced with Israeli gas. There is no problem so far. The issue, however, is that gas and electricity are going to Syria and Lebanon, which constitute both an essential component of the “axis of resistance” led by Iran.
The “godfather” of this scheme is Amos Hochstein, a senior energy diplomat in the US State Department. He is the current “godfather” as part of his efforts to “prevent the complete fall of Lebanon into the hands of Hezbollah.” He was also the former “sponsor” between Jordan and Israel.
Much controversy arose about this project, for political, geopolitical and legal reasons. Many encryptions, both political and legal, had to be decoded. Egypt and Jordan want to move forward with it, each for its own reasons.
The letter arrived from the US Treasury two months ago, but it did not bring satisfactory answers. Rather, it brought questions and warnings about the necessity of not dealing with any designated person or entity or providing funds to Damascus. This message was not enough, and “sufficient guarantees” did not arrive. Where is the way out? What is the solution?
Asharq Al-Awsat publishes summaries on the gas and electricity networks and their political and economic dimensions, based on information from regional officials and a study by the Washington Institute for the Near East, in which experts and former officials participated, including Catherine Boyer, Ben Fisherman, David Schenker and Andrew Tabler, who worked in the National Security Council and State Department in the administrations of Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama:
Lebanon’s complex economic, security and humanitarian crises have taken the country to the brink of disaster, as basic foodstuffs became too expensive. In the midst of this stagnation, blackouts have become the new normal, and the country is “paralyzed by narrow politics, mismanagement and corruption.”
In order to “fill the energy gap and win hearts and minds,” according to the research, Hezbollah launched efforts to import Iranian fuel and petroleum products from Syria, which prompted the United States and its Arab allies to offer a “competitive and much more complex plan, including increasingly providing Lebanon with electricity and gas,” through electricity cables and gas pipelines that pass through Syria.
A two-component plan
The plan includes two main components: the first relates to Jordan, which will generate and transfer surplus electricity to Lebanon via Syria, and the second involves sending natural gas through a pipeline from Egypt (and Israel) to Jordan, then to Syria, to be delivered to Lebanon for use in power stations.
The Jordanian Minister of Energy and Natural Resources announced the plan after a meeting with his Lebanese and Syrian counterparts on Oct. 28. Theoretically, the project will provide Lebanon with 400 megawatts of electricity per day (150 megawatts between 12 am and 6 am, and 250 megawatts for the rest of the day), although a later report indicated that Jordan would provide only 250 megawatts per day.
For their part, Syrian officials noted that the cost of repairing lines connected to the Jordanian network will amount to USD 5.5 million.
The Israeli gas
In order to make the 400 megawatt production goal sustainable, the plan includes increasing the quantities of gas from Egypt to Jordan to replace the Israeli gas that usually goes to Jordan.
According to the study, Israeli gas will then be transferred to Syria, given the current orientation of the Arab Gas Pipeline, a regional network that extends from the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, through Jordan, and through parts of Syria to northern Lebanon.
Rumors are emerging about a deal that involves Israeli gas that goes to Syria, in a barter with Syrian gas, through pipelines to Lebanon. However, a number of technical, logistical, and political challenges remain unresolved.
The Arab Gas Pipeline was built mainly to export surplus Egyptian gas to Jordan and Syria, with a branch line to Lebanon, and the possibility of expanding its scope to southern Turkey. This appears to be the existing infrastructure that can now be used to export Israeli gas to Jordan and Syria, and then to Lebanon, while Egyptian gas is used for domestic consumption, or exported as LNG on tankers to various destinations around the world.
Two myths... and a decision
Since the start of talk about the deal, it has been said that the gas is of Egyptian origin, but this description is misleading, a kind of myth. Egypt may pay for the gas at first, and therefore it can be described as the owner, but most or all of the gas will originate from the offshore Leviathan field in Israel, according to the study.
The second myth is that the gas will come through the Arab Gas Pipeline, which was originally commissioned in 2003, and starts from the northern Sinai city of Arish, where the lines intersect from Egypt and Israel.
Over the past two decades, the political crises in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon have caused interruptions in the flow of gas, which led to a review of the Arab Gas Pipeline. The most important change was Jordan’s decision to rely on Israeli instead of Egyptian gas.
The study said that since 2020, when production from the Leviathan field began in Israel, Israeli gas has flowed at a rate of 3 billion cubic meters annually through a pipeline that passes through Israel and crosses to Jordan just south of Lake Galilee, before it intersects with the Arab Gas Pipeline. From there, the gas flows into Jordanian power stations north of Amman.
Funding... and interests
The current public debate on how to cover the costs of necessary repairs and raise the capacity of essential transmission lines indicates that the World Bank is able to provide the necessary funds.
According to the information, Russia pressured America to move this file forward with the World Bank. But this immediately raises the question of who pays for electricity in Lebanon, where the state treasury is empty, and citizens are currently suffering severe financial hardship. Without satisfactory answers to these questions, the World Bank will not have the necessary assurance that the project will be commercially viable.
From Israel’s point of view, the study says that agreeing to provide Syria and Lebanon with this supply of Israeli gas “will undoubtedly be conditional or have desired benefit in terms of political relations.”
According to the study, this would help prevent the collapse of the state, which would benefit Hezbollah and Iran. Moreover, the inability of Lebanon and Israel to reach a compromise on their common maritime border is mainly due to conflicting claims to oil and gas reserves.
What about Syria?
Eleven years after the start of the war in Syria, a combination of exhaustion and economic pragmatism is fueling a growing trend among Arab states to rehabilitate the Syrian regime and normalize relations with Damascus. The Biden administration inherited from its predecessor what was in many ways considered an ambitious Syrian policy, which sought “to put pressure on the regime and its allies to adopt a negotiated settlement of the war.”
Most of the recent regional engagements with Damascus have focused on the US-backed energy plan in Lebanon as an alternative to Iranian supply. The two proposed plans, the first to transfer Jordanian electricity through the Syrian towers, and the second to transport Egyptian (or Israeli) gas via a pipeline through Jordan and Syria, will benefit Damascus economically.
A Jordanian drive
Recently, Amman has made some of the most remarkable steps to normalize with Damascus, hosting several meetings with senior Syrian officials, and contact has taken place between President Bashar Assad and Jordanian King Abdullah II. The latter conveyed his view to the Western public that, for economic and resource reasons, Jordan cannot ignore its close neighbor.
For Jordan, restoring economic relations with Syria represents great economic potential, both in terms of trade and transit of goods to Turkey and Europe.
But the basis of the calls for the reintegration of Syria is political rather than economic, through the return of Damascus to the “Arab fold.” Some believe that this is a confirmation of Syrian “Arabism” and its distancing from “Persian” Iran.
The US and sanctions
For the United States, the immediate political question is whether electricity, and perhaps natural gas, can be transported through Syrian territory without violating US sanctions on Damascus, including those of the Caesar Act. Electricity is transmitted throughout the region via the Electricity Interconnection Project in the eight countries: Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Libya and Turkey. However, instead of using separate transmission lines, this group includes interconnections between national networks.
According to the study, the Syrian electricity network operates a large number of civil and security facilities across the country. So, while electricity entering Syria from Jordan could in theory be allocated to hospitals or other humanitarian sites along the western spine of the country, the grid directly feeds the countless of facilities targeted in letter and spirit by the Caesar Act. The Syrian electricity network also operates government air bases and helicopters, as well as weapons facilities, which means “a violation of sanctions.”
Away from the sanctions file, the question remains whether the benefits that Damascus derives, come as part of a barter to “motivate the regime” to make concessions, including facilitating the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid, through a decision by the Security Council, under a US-Russian understanding sponsored by the envoys of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden in Geneva.