This week saw Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad call Jordan’s King Abdullah II for the first time since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The conversation discussed “relations between the brotherly countries and ways to enhance cooperation between them,” according to the Jordanian royal court. The conversation took place only four days after Jordan fully reopened its main border crossing with Syria, in an attempt to boost the country’s economy.
The new diplomatic move is taking place in a bigger context, where Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt reached agreement for Egyptian natural gas to be sent to energy-starved Lebanon via Syria using an old but damaged pipeline, and for Jordanian electricity to be exported to Lebanon through the Syrian grid.
This initiative was confirmed in September by US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, signaling a US greenlight for Jordan to reestablish relations with the Assad regime.
One of the ideas to work around sanctions is to have the World Bank funding the maintenance of the pipelines and the electrical grid in Syria, which needs serious repair.
In response to questions about whether the United States encourages or supports a rapprochement between Syria and Jordan, a State Department spokesperson said last week that Washington had no plans to 'normalize or upgrade' diplomatic relations with Assad. However, the spokesperson added that Washington also wanted to ensure that any US sanctions will not impede humanitarian activity.
Although this is a purely humanitarian aid initiative for the US, some Arab leaders think that the US will turn a blind eye if other countries in the region reestablish diplomatic ties with Damascus.
Some believe that bringing Assad back into the Arab fold will allow him to distance himself from Iran, They also believe that Hezbollah’s efforts to bring Iranian fuel into Lebanon will be contained.
Evidence suggests this is wishful thinking. For example, in 2009, a Saudi-Syria rapprochement to end feud over Lebanon, following the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was attempted. This witnessed appointment of ambassadors and exchange of visits by the two leaders of the countries. But the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011, damaged the relations and diplomatic relations ended.
Assad will not distance himself from Iran. He is too deeply embedded to have a choice.
Clearly, Lebanon needs power generation very quickly and the best long-term solution is including Syria in the supply route, but there is no doubt that Assad and Iran will use this opportunity as leverage to gain unwarranted diplomatic kudos.
Assad’s main goal is to rejoin the Arab League, a symbolic victory, with the view to suddenly become a team player. Utter nonsense.
It is not farfetched to see an increased involvement of the Syrian regime in Lebanon’s fragile political scene, which is preparing for parliamentary elections.
Although the Lebanon electricity infrastructure project is essential for the survival of the country’s population, it is also vital that Assad remains the pariah he is. Curtailing any Iranian attempts to boost its international standing must also happen.
Lebanon will now need to work closely with Syria and the other stakeholders to get the project up and running successfully.
There is no alternative for a sustainable electricity supply for the country.
If engaging Assad is an absolute must, several issues must be addressed to tackle the forming of a necessary relationship between Syria and Lebanon, and indirectly any benefits to Iran.
The new collaboration between Beirut and Damascus must be restricted to electricity infrastructure, and sanctions on Syria must continue to ensure any influence Assad attempts to push on Lebanon out with the power project is contained.
It’s also essential that Assad follow a road-map with clear concrete milestones to reach.
The World Bank and Western and Arab states have pledged billions of dollars to help Lebanon, with proper electricity infrastructure acknowledged as a key requirement, but all stakeholders maintain that reforms must be included in the package.
Everyone knows about the deep divisions in Lebanon accompanied by the corrupting influence of Iran, and the potentially soon to be Syria.
A regulator needs to be appointed, the grid modernized, with electricity prices - that haven’t changed since the 1990s - raised. Without reforms, the Electricite du Liban (EdL) will continue to suffer annual losses of up to $2 billion - around one third of Lebanon’s budget deficit.
The Lebanese government will not implement reforms without pressure. This should be exerted on political leaders through amplified sanctions.
Helping to boost Assad’s diplomatic ties to its neighbors and beyond must be avoided. The international community’s focus should remain focused on reforms and accountability. It’s the only long-term sustainable solution for Lebanon.