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Four-way meeting in Amman a diplomatic victory for Syria

Sep 07,2021 - Last updated at Sep 07,2021

In a rare diplomatic breakthrough for Damascus, a senior Syrian official will visit Amman on Wednesday to participate in a four-way meeting for energy ministers that will also include the host, Jordan, in addition to Lebanon and Egypt. The meeting will focus on technical and logistical details to facilitate the supply of Egyptian gas and electricity from Jordan through Syria to energy starved Lebanon. Last June Jordan’s Minister of Energy and Electricity, Hala Zawati, received the Syria's ministers of oil Bassam Toa”me, and electricity Ghassan Al Zamil, in Amman in a first visit of Syrian officials to the kingdom since 2011.

Last Saturday, a high-level Lebanese delegation headed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Zaina Akar, who is also acting defense minister, visited Damascus and discussed the deal with Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad. It was the first official visit by a senior Lebanese delegation since the eruption of the Syrian civil war more than ten years ago. Syria was quick to respond positively to Lebanon’s request to facilitate the supply of energy from Jordan through its own territory.

Events are happening fast since the Lebanese Presidency announced earlier this month that the US has proposed supplying Lebanon with electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt through Syrian territory. The US move came in response to a declaration by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah that Iran will dispatch a tanker to supply Lebanon with fuel oil to ease the country’s energy crisis.

For the US to adopt such a move raises many questions about short term and long term implications on its Syria policy and beyond. For the four countries to meet so soon means that Amman and Cairo had received the green light from Washington to go ahead with the plan. Both risk facing sanctions under the Caesar Act, but the Biden administration can exempt them from penalties.

While the project faces technical, logistical and financial hurdles, it is the political aspects of it that are intriguing. Both Jordan and Egypt have been pushing for normalizing ties with the Syrian regime as a step towards restoring the country’s seat in the Arab League. King Abdullah had told CNN last month, while he was in Washington, that President Bashar Assad has legitimacy and that the regime is staying. He urged the US and the Europeans to open dialogue with Damascus in a bid to change the behavior of the regime as a substitute for regime change.

While Jordan is looking for economic benefits from opening a trade route with both Syria and Lebanon, it is also hoping to secure its northern borders from militants who could be linked to Al Qaeda and Daesh as well as from pro-Iranian militias.

This week’s Amman meeting could pave the way for further diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government. Amman had opened the border crossing with Syria briefly before closing it when Syrian rebels in Daraa retook territory from the Syrian army. Russia had tried to mediate a last minute deal with the rebels with little success. The Syrian army has been pounding the old city of Daraa and is closing in. For energy to go through Syria to Lebanon, the Daraa province has to be secured. Even then, it will take no less than a year for Syria to rehabilitate its electricity grid and gas pipeline.

The US plan hopes to achieve two immediate things; one is to help the beleaguered Lebanese government resolve its energy crisis, at least partially, and second to derail Hizbollah’s bid to make Lebanon dependent on Iranian oil. By doing both, it also hopes to speed up the process of forming a new government in Lebanon in order to facilitate economic aid and prevent that country from imploding.

But a deeply polarised, as well as politically and economically paralysed, Lebanon is divided over normalising ties with Syria. Since the eruption of the Syrian civil war Beirut had adopted a policy of disassociation from the conflict even though Hizbollah had sent fighters to defend the beleaguered regime.

But by approving contacts with Damascus, Washington is also hoping to distance Syria from Iran. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have been criticised for not having a clear Syria strategy. The Caesar Act has been criticised for harming ordinary Syrians rather than hurting the regime. Geopolitically, it is the Russians, Turks and Iranians who have made gains in Syria at the expense of the Americans. The energy deal may be seen as a symbolic step to re-engage the Syrian regime in other issues as well that could cover a new political process to end the decade-old conflict.

The plan will be a boon for Damascus as it will enable it to repair and upgrade both the gas pipeline as well its electricity grid and it can only do that with the financial backing of the World Bank with Washington’s approval. Syria will also exact fees for allowing gas and electricity to pass through its territory. On the short run the fact that high-level contacts with Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt are restored is by itself a major victory for the regime.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator baaed in Amman

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