Photo Credit: SANA
President Bashar al-Assad speaking in Damascus, Aug. 20, 2017

Lebanon is about to begin a new chapter in its relations with Syria, which has agreed to allow its economically crippled neighbor to import gas and electricity through its territory, from Egypt and Jordan.

A spokesperson for Syria said Saturday that it welcomes Lebanon’s request to import Egyptian gas via its territory. The statement followed the highest-level visit to Damascus in years by Lebanese ministers of finance, energy and foreign affairs.

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The delegation, led by interim Deputy Prime Minister Zeina Akar (who also serves as Foreign Minister) met with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Meqdad and Oil Minister Bassam Tomeh.

“The Syrian side welcomed the request and assured it was ready to oblige it,” Nasri Khoury, secretary-general of the Lebanese Syrian Higher Council said in a brief statement after the meeting.

But it is not the simple import of “Egyptian gas” that one might assume.

The plan involves using Egyptian gas to generate electricity in Jordan, which will then be transferred to Lebanon via Syria, according to Reuters.

This arrangement even has a blessing from Washington DC, despite existing US sanctions against the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad, according to the AFP news agency, and oil sanctions against Iran in November 2018.

US Congress members who visited Beirut this past week said the American government is seeking a way to bypass the sanctions to help Lebanon. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea also told reporters there was a “will” to make the plan happen.

Representatives of Amman, Beirut, Damascus and Cairo are set to meet next week in Jordan to discuss the technical and financial issues and decide on a work plan and timetable, according to Lebanese Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar.

Lebanon has had little official contact with Syria since the start of its civil war in 2011, other than the firm support of Lebanon’s Iranian proxy, the Hezbollah terrorist organization – which has a strong presence in the Lebanese Parliament and the country’s coalition government.

It is Hezbollah which issued a statement last month saying Iran would begin exporting fuel to Lebanon. The Tanker Trackers shipping website confirmed this past Friday that the first two Iranian ships had set forth to bring fuel to Lebanon, which is struggling with what the World Bank has deemed the worst economic crisis since the 1800s.

It is likely the oil will be refined once it arrives at port in Syria, since there are no refineries able to do the job in Lebanon – not precisely for “Syria’s use” but an easier way of avoiding the real issue.

The Iranian Embassy in Lebanon announced in June that Iranian oil tankers had arrived in Beirut. “Iranian oil tankers arrived in Lebanon against the trifles of the US ambassador” the embassy tweeted.

“There are much better solutions to the fuel crisis in Lebanon than resorting to Iran,” Ambassador Dorothy Shea told the local Al-Jadeed channel.

The official Lebanese news agency, meanwhile, quoted the country’s General Directorate of Oil as stating it had “not received any request for a permit from any official or private entity to import oil from Iran,” according to Turkey’s Anadolou news agency.

Two months later, in August, Iran allegedly sent through the Suez Canal a “first” oil tanker bound for Lebanon.

A source close to Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary, Ali Shamkhani, said a fuel shipment “bought by a group of Lebanese Shi’ite merchants” had departed Iran for Lebanon. Earlier the same day, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Iran was sending the tanker to alleviate the serious energy shortage in Lebanon.

However, there was no official comment from Iran or Lebanon. The Nour News agency described the export as “strong action taken by Iran and Hezbollah to break the economic siege of the Lebanese people by a western-Arab-Israeli axis.”

Nasrallah added that other shipments would follow, a statement seemingly confirmed by Iran.

“Iran is ready to send fuel again to Lebanon if needed,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said at a news conference quoted by Al Jazeera. “Certain we cannot see the suffering of the Lebanese people.”

Two Iranian oil tankers are now well on their way to Syria, apparently carrying cargo ultimately intended for Lebanon, TankerTrackers has affirmed. Whatever else may be shipped along with it is anyone’s guess.

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.