US-Israel-Egypt led Arab Gas Pipeline for Lebanon: Will Syria be back in the Arab League soon?

US-Israel-Egypt led Arab Gas Pipeline for Lebanon: Will Syria be back in the Arab League soon?

Gastrointestinal poisoning due to interrupted cold chains, hospitals fearful of patients with oxygen devices, and bills for private generators that are higher than the cold rent: electricity is scarce in Lebanon, in in some areas it is only available for two hours a day. Natural gas, which flows from Egypt via Jordan and Syria to the Lebanese city of Tripoli, is now supposed to help. The plan coordinated by the USA to use the so-called Arab gas pipeline again is politically explosive – because it would result in the normalization of Syria. While the US is still maintaining severe sanctions against the regime, the Arab neighbors are resuming economic and diplomatic ties for the deal. For years, the US and Europe kept the Syrian regime away from international politics. Now it is again involved in regional agreements.

The pipeline begins on the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, extends over 1,200 kilometers, costs around one billion euros and was commissioned in 2003. However, militant groups in Sinai and Syria damaged the line several times. At the moment gas only flows as far as Jordan. With the deal signed by Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon and repairs to the pipes, the gas is to come to Lebanon via Syria: From the beginning of 2022, Egypt plans to export around 13 million cubic meters of gas per day through the pipeline. According to the Lebanese energy minister, this should bring six hours more electricity a day. Because the Lebanese state is bankrupt and cannot afford the fuel to generate electricity, the World Bank is supposed to pay for the gas first.

How much is still unclear. Lebanon’s former energy minister Marc Ayoub told the Emirati newspaper The National that Lebanon had asked for $ 250 million. Gas imports would increase the price of electricity “It’s a loan, but who will pay for it later?” asks Laury Haytayan. She is an expert in Beirut on the oil and gas sector and Middle East Director of the Institute for Natural Resource Management (NRGI). “Without financial reforms, this is only a short-term solution. And in a few months we’ll have the same problem again. “ So far, people in Lebanon have been paying for expensive and environmentally harmful generators. The machines hum in every building and can only partially bridge the power failures. Due to inflation, some of them have become more expensive than the basic rent.

The imported gas is also likely to increase the price of state electricity. So far, this has been based on the official exchange rate, which the state has not lifted. With the new deliveries, the price could in future be based on the black market rate for foreign currency – and thus be 16 times more expensive. The Lebanese electricity sector is responsible for around 40 percent of the national debt. For years money was lost there due to corruption and the system is ailing. After the explosion in Beirut, Siemens wanted to donate two gas turbines, but the government refused. The then energy minister said the state could not pay the high cost of the fuel needed. Now gas is supposed to come in, but a sensible infrastructure is not in place. Instead of giving money for an interim solution, the World Bank could, for example, pay for pipelines that connect all power plants in the country, suggests Haytayan. „That would be a sustainable investment.“

A winner in the revitalization of the Arab gas pipeline is Syria. Against the backdrop of the pipeline, the neighboring countries are increasingly expanding their relations with the Assad regime. To discuss possible gas and electricity supplies, a high-ranking Lebanese delegation visited Damascus in September – for the first time since the war in Syria began in 2011. Before that, the former energy minister of Lebanon, the current Egyptian energy minister and his Jordanian colleague had met with their Syrian counterpart at the beginning of September. The negotiations come at a time when Egypt in particular is pushing for Syria to be re-accepted into the Arab League, from which the country was suspended in 2011, a few months after the war began. The move is getting closer, as Saudi Arabia is also considering reopening its embassy in Damascus and allowing Syria to participate in the next Arab League summit. The United Arab Emirates reopened their embassy in Syria in 2018. In November, the Emirati foreign minister met Bashar al-Assad personally in Damascus for the first time.

If Egypt wants to deliver gas to Lebanon, it not only has to sign an agreement with the latter, it also has to pay transfer fees to Syria, and the World Bank pays for repairs to the pipelines in the country. The government in Damascus would therefore benefit not only politically but also economically from the deal. Under the so-called Caesar Act, the United States has imposed economic penalties on all those who trade with the Assad regime. But according to Victoria Nuland, State Secretary in the US State Department, the US will exempt payments to Syria from sanctions because they fall under humanitarian aid. Syria should not be paid out in cash, but receive benefits in kind. The origin of the gas remains a hurdle. Egypt has been receiving natural gas from Israel since 2020. This is mixed with the Egyptian own production and exported further via the Arab gas pipeline. „Once the gas is in the Egyptian market, it is almost impossible to know which gas is going to Lebanon,“ says Haytayan. However, Lebanon is theoretically at war with Israel. „The interesting thing for the Lebanese side is that Hezbollah and its allies don’t talk about it,“ says Haytayan. Instead, the Shiite party and militia organized oil deliveries from Iran. On Friday, November 26th, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah boasted that he had donated $ 2.6 million in fuel to NGOs, communities and hospitals.It remains to be seen, how other regional powers as Turkey and Iran will react to the the US- Israel- Egyptian led peace project expeciailly as Lebanon and Turkey themselves claim that new gasfields in the Mediterrian Sea belong to them and not to Greece, Cyprus, Israel and other states of the Mediterrian Gas Forrum, also a US led interest group.The Lebanese could actually get the natural gas through a direct pipeline from the gas fields of the Mediterranean Sea, but Israel makes claims on it and that’s why Israel is an enemy for Lebanon at the moment, not only for Hisbollah The other simple solution of Israel building a pipeline directly by sea to Lebanon is not possible because of Hezbollah and Lebanon’s claims to gas ownership in the gas fields near the Levant and in the Mediterranean that are supposed to belong to Lebanon. Also the idea by the USfor this sort of peace project is to include Assad geopolitically and perhaps to push Iran out of Syria and Lebanon and to prevent a possible Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon pipeline.

However, in Israel there is now also a debate in the new goverment whether Israel should stick to the Paris Climate Accord and the decrbonization of the world economy and even Israel. Therefore the Jerusalem Post reports about the latest decision of the new enegry minister of the Bennet goverment to halt the offshore search for natural gas fields:

“Israel to halt natural gas search, focus on renewable energy – Energy Minister

“Energy Minister Karin Elharrar announced on Wednesday that the search for offshore natural gas fields will be halted at least until the end of 2022

By Jerusalem Post Staff

Published: DECEMBER 15, 2021 15:10

Updated: DECEMBER 15, 2021 17:15

Israel will halt its natural gas search and production in 2022 to make room for renewable energy resource use, Energy Minister Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid) announced on Wednesday. 

Elharrar announced the new policy at the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy conference.

Israel has managed to double its renewable energy input since June, Elharrar said.

„In the coming year we will focus on the future, on green energy, on energy optimization and on renewable energy, and while we do so we will put aside the development of natural gas, which, as is known, is short term solution,“ she said.

A natural gas policy paper that was circulated in June for public review recommended that the government act to promote the search for another gas field for the next ten years that will supply between 500-1000 billion cubic meters (BCM).

However, Elharrar made it clear that the Energy Ministry will not be adopting the policy paper and not will be launching a fourth tender for permits to search for natural gas.

The Energy Ministry will also open a new Renewable Energy branch, she said.

Elharrar and her Jordanian counterpart recently signed an agreement whereby Jordan will build a designated solar field and export 600 megawatts of electricity to Israel, and work on solar energy storage solutions while Israel will examine the possibility of exporting 200 million cubic meters of water to its eastern neighbor, which would come from a designated desalination plant. 

The head of environmental protection NGO Homeland Guards, Yoni Sapir, praised the decision but called on Elharrar to completely stop the search for natural gas, and not just halt it.

„Every shekel or minute of attention paid to the advancement of the minerals gas industry will come at the expense of advancing renewable energy projects that we so desperately need, given Israel’s deplorable state of affairs in international comparison, our systematic failure to meet targets so far and the climate crisis,“ he said.

„Any project that is set up now could stay with us for decades and delay Israel’s transition to relying on a carbon-neutral economy.“

The Natural Gas Association’s response:

„The energy crisis plaguing Europe proves that alongside the necessary development of the renewable energy industry there is no choice but to continue the search for further discoveries of natural gas.

Anyone who wants to ensure energy security for the State of Israel knows that in the coming decades, natural gas will continue to be a top-notch energy source.

Contrary to the Minister’s decision to close the sea to exploration in many Western countries, the United States and Norway are currently accelerating their efforts to seek more natural gas discoveries.

Natural gas helps reduce air pollution because it replaces polluting and harmful fuels like coal, diesel and fuel oil.

Thanks to natural gas, air pollution caused by electricity production has been reduced by more than 70%, and the use of coal and diesel in Egypt and Jordan has been reduced.

The Natural Gas Association calls on the Ministry of Energy to continue making every effort to promote the field of renewable energy while maintaining the energy security that natural gas provides to the citizens of Israel. „

It will be a question if this offshore search stop will last long as Israel is part of the East Mediterrean Gas Forum (EMGF) which was already established under the Trump administration with support of then US Secretary of State Pompeo. On the one side a big source of revenue for the Israeli state, on the other side a geopolitical project which at that time came in conflict with Turkey- therefor the USA and the EU also supported Greece.

A year after Erdogan sent Turkish troops to Libya, sparked a dispute with Greece over gas reserves in the Mediterranean and also intervened in the Caucasus War, Pompeo already visited Greece in September 2020. MENA-Watch reported on the visit:

“USA supports Greece against Turkey

In the face of Turkish threats, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo backed Greece with a state visit and specific commitments at the end of September – diplomatically, militarily and economically.

Together with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Pompeo visited the American-Greek naval base in Souda in Western Crete on September 29th. There he was received with military honors.

In terms of the number of ships, Souda is the second largest naval base in Greece and the most important US base in the eastern Mediterranean. In a speech, Pompeo underlined the importance of military relations between the USA and Greece, which is evident in the fact that the USS Hershel „Woody“ Williams, „the newest expedition base of the US Navy, will call Souda Bay its home“ as Pompeo said.

This announcement is likely to make Turkish President Erdogan sit up and take notice, especially since the USA does not own many ships of this class. The USS Hershel “Woody” Williams is a 239-meter-long expedition base ship with a 4,800-square-meter landing pad, a fuel and equipment store, magazines, and repair and mission planning rooms. She has work and living quarters for several hundred men and can put small ships at sea and take them back to sea.

The V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft is also stationed on it, which can take off and land like a helicopter, while at the same time being able to fly as fast as a turboprop aircraft with its rotors tilted forward. The V-22 Osprey has proven itself in humanitarian missions such as the rescue missions after Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas in 2019, but could also support military operations – for example, dropping Navy Seals on an island.

The foreign affairs correspondent for the New York Times, Lara Jakes, sees the stationing of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams in Crete a “step that can be seen as symbolic support for Greece in the confrontation with Turkey. Jakes points out that the ship will be stationed less than a thousand kilometers from the Turkish coast. According to Jakes, the Hershel “Woody” Williams “is not the type of ship that could intervene in a high-intensity conflict if the increasing tensions between Turkey and Greece should boil over … But its deployment near the place where Turkey sent surveying and drilling vessels to search for natural gas earlier this year could be read as a symbolic warning of America’s growing anger over Ankara ”.

In his speech, Pompeo said Souda was „literally the perfect choice and symbol of a defense partnership that will continue to expand and grow“. Security cooperation between the two countries is „particularly important as Russia continues to destabilize the region, especially in Libya, where the US is demanding the withdrawal of all foreign forces and support for military de-escalation and Libyan reconciliation.“

Controversy about natural gas

Pompeo reiterated „US support for Greece’s ongoing efforts to diversify energy routes and supplies across the region“ – referring to the plan for a natural gas pipeline connecting Israel and Egypt to Greece through Cyprus, which is threatened by Turkey.

„Free markets“ should decide „instead of Russian Gazprom“ on the energy supply, according to Pompeo. This is to be understood as an allusion to the pipeline projects planned by the Kremlin from a geopolitical point of view: the Nord Stream pipeline, which is also controversial in Germany, which is to connect Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, and the TurkStream pipeline, which has been carrying Russian gas since the beginning of the year the Black Sea to Turkey and from there to Bulgaria.

In a joint declaration, Pompeo and Mitsotakis welcomed the establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) a week earlier and confirmed their support for cooperation within the framework of the “3 + 1 format” between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the USA.

The US Secretary of State last visited Greece in October 2019. At that time, he signed a military agreement that expanded a bilateral partnership that had existed since 1990 and allowed the US to use Greek military bases, including the Larissa and Stefanovikio air bases.

The agreement, which was ratified by the Greek Parliament in January 2020, includes the training of soldiers, the refueling of aircraft and ships, short-term maintenance work, storage of materials and operations in the event of a crisis. American drones are also allowed to take off and land on the airfields. In return, the United States had announced that it would support Greece with maneuvers.

Agreements that were made during Pompeo’s current visit include, among other things, a modernization of the Greek F-16 fighter aircraft and the Greek shipyards.

There was also talk of the planned floating LNG terminal, which is to be built with American support at Alexandroupolis, near the Greek-Turkish land border in Thrace. From 2023, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is to be delivered there by ship from the USA, regasified and delivered to consumers in Europe via pipelines.

The US produces far more natural gas than it consumes, while the EU countries depend on imports to meet their needs. 40 percent of the natural gas consumed in the EU comes from Russia, 18 percent from Norway and 11 percent from Algeria.“

So while a strategic energy axis USA-UK-Greece-Cyprus-Egypt-Greece (maybe Lebanon after the border agreement, if the Iran-controlled Hezbollah should agree) versus Russia-Turkey-Iran is emerging, the USA are strengthening the Greek position, initially more symbolically and signaling to Erdogan that they will only tolerate his expansions as long as they oppose Russia and are not directed against US interests. Especially since Erdogan threatens to exhaust himself not only militarily but also economically. But in Israel there will be a debate about the search stop, but the energy minister also seems to have this in mind as there is a big national and international lobby and states which want to see Israeli offshore search and exploitation beyond its Leviathan gas field near Haifa and therefore he stop is at the moment limited till 2022.The rest Israel will see afterwards. And it could be also important in another geopolitical context as the Arab Gas Pipeline from Egypt-Jordan-Syria_ Lebanon has Israei offshorel gas and is supported by the USA. But for now it is a search halt, not a exploitation or prodcution stop.

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