Is It Even Possible to Segment the Lebanon/Syria Files?

Monday, October 25, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Lebanon’s supporters in the US continue to express concern that, since the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, US policy towards Lebanon has also been hyphenated which treats it as a function of US interests vis-à-vis Israel, Syria and/or Iran, or others. While Lebanon is not a powerful state, they argue, it is a consistent supporter of US interests; is a bellwether for indications of regional responses to American initiatives; has a well-educated and responsive middle class that respects democratic values; and is an integral part of our regional counterterrorism strategy.

Americans who oppose any special relationship point out that Lebanon has long been influenced by external actors who, over time, have their own media platforms, infiltrate and support political parties, and do not hesitate to employ armed clashes through their proxies. By abetting their capacity to feed off a weak state, these outside forces ensure the survival of their allies despite their failure to heal the current crises which have led to significant migration and a deterioration of the private educational and health services that were a Lebanese hallmark. Another liability is that Lebanon is a significant player in global drug trafficking and its borders are porous and have become an economic, political, and security liability.

The intertwining of Lebanon and its neighbors is recently evident in US efforts to both strengthen Lebanon’s capacity to meet basic fuel and power needs, and initiate good faith negotiations on its southern maritime boundaries. Less controversial is the recent visit by Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s Senior Advisor for Energy Security. He met with President Michel Aoun and other leaders to encourage the government to restart trilateral negotiations regarding the maritime borders.

According to a Reuters article, “Hochstein said resolving the border issue would help alleviate Lebanon’s power shortage by allowing it to develop its offshore gas resources.” As importantly, the bulk of the investments for exploration and exploitation would be of benefit in the economically disadvantaged areas of south Lebanon where there are large concentrations of Shia.

The power crisis in Lebanon, which would not be affected by any Lebanese discoveries for perhaps a decade, raises regional complications because Egypt, in the near term, will supply Lebanon with natural gas pumped through Jordan, transiting Syria into Lebanon. It was feared that this could bring into play Caesar Act sanctions designed to inhibit Syria’s outside business dealings. Aware that two US allies are parties to this deal to benefit a third, the American government had to determine if sanctions would be applied.

The Reuters article went on to say, “Asked about a deal to export Egyptian gas through a pipeline going through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon, Hochstein said the United States had been working to make that happen and US sanctions against Syria would not have to be waived to make the deal go through as they likely don’t apply in this case.” This was later confirmed by Lebanese Energy Minister Walid Fayad who told Reuters that Hochstein had “assured him that participants in the project to supply Lebanon with Egyptian gas will be shielded from the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Law.”

This arrangement, put together by Jordan and Egypt as part of their attempts to gradually bring about some degree of separation between Iran and Syria, serves the US interest also in reducing opportunities for Iran to brighten its image with its diesel fuel being shipped to Syria and then trucked into Lebanon by Hezbollah despite having no authority to do so.

The deal has raised the ire of some members of Congress who see any sanctions exemptions for Syria as undercutting US pressure on the regime. To the contrary, Israel and the US indicated during a recent visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid that the US would not support efforts to normalize ties with Damascus, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution.”

Which leads to the question as to why the Iranian shipments are even needed since US partners in the Gulf have more than enough export capacity to take care of Lebanon’s needs? Our diplomatic efforts with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait should have taken precedence over a pipeline deal that raises sanctions issues and won’t be viable until the end of the year. So what happened, and why isn’t Lebanon supported by its fellow Arabs to counter Iran’s ploy to give Hezbollah bragging rights?

This is just another indicator that without a regional strategy and country-specific game plans, the understaffed and under-resourced State Department will not be able to keep up with the twists and turns affecting our interests.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.