The first deliveries of gas to Lebanon through the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) are awaited imminently in accordance with a plan announced in August by the US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and officialised by Egypt, Jordan and Syria on 6 October. Despite the optimism expressed by the likes of Syrian oil and natural resources minister Bassam Tohme, who announced on December 14 that “everything is ready”, there are still a number of issues to be thrashed out before Lebanon can receive the much-needed supplies that will ease its critical energy shortages.
Lebanese pipeline out of operation
One of the main concerns to resolve is the maintenance of some 1200kms of pipeline, managed by an array of operators from its point of departure in Al Arish, Egypt, to its arrival in Deir Ammar in Lebanon, via Aqaba, Amman and Damascus. The Egyptian segment, previously damaged by attacks by Wilayat-Sinai, the Egyptian branch of Islamic State , is managed by the state-owned Egyptian Natural Gas Holding (EGAS), headed by Majdi Jalal. Syrian Petroleum Company (SPC), headed by Firas Kadour, recently announced that it had repaired the Syrian part of the pipeline which was in a very poor state of repair after a decade of conflict.
However the 36km of pipeline in Lebanon is still not operational, despite the October 6 agreement which states that each country is responsible for repairing its own section. Lebanon’s energy minister Walid Fayad tried to negotiate the establishment of a technical committee with Syria, but failed. In December the Egyptian-Jordanian Technical Company for Gas Pipeline Operations Service (TGS), which maintains the Jordanian section of the AGP, agreed to send a team of Jordanian technicians to Lebanon after negotiations between Fayyad and TGS chief Hesham Radwan, who heads TGS alongside the Jordanian Egyptian company FAJR and Egyptian Natural Gas Company (GASCO).
Win-win for Damascus
Another issue to be resolved is the promised lifting of US Caesar Act sanctions against Syria to allow the gas to transit through the country. The transit agreement between Beirut and Cairo cannot be implemented until the sanctions are lifted by Washington and the governments on both sides have been blaming one another for not doing more to get the Biden administration to act swiftly. Egypt’s oil minister Tarek El Molla recently said “We do not want to find ourselves helping Lebanon but meanwhile penalized”.
The Syrian regime, meanwhile, is watching developments with some amusement. Not only is the AGP deal helping to rehabilitate Syria, which has been chosen to host the next Arab Energy Conference in 2024, Damascus is also moving forward with parallel energy projects with Iran, as Tohme has boasted, as part of closer economic cooperation between the two countries. The Russian-speaking Kadour, who studied in Minsk, is keeping a close watch over the contract between the SPC and Russia’s Stroytransgaz owned by Gennady Timshenko, an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin.
Egyptian gas exports
Egypt, which has traditionally been an importer of gas, is having to rethink its gas circuits to enable export to Lebanon. EGAS upset Shell and Malaysia’s Petronas, its partners at the Idku gas terminal close to Alexandria, when it ceased supplying gas in the second half of last year. EGAS also stopped supplying the Damiette power station, operated by Shell and Italy’s ENI. Cairo can however count on gas from the Israeli Leviathan field to fill the AGP pipeline. Neither Lebanon nor Syria, which know that the pipeline is connected to the Israeli town of Ashkelon, have expressed any opinion on the matter.