Lebanon gov’t delegation in highest level Syria visit in years

Two sides expected to discuss plan to ease Lebanon’s power crisis by transmitting electricity via the Syrian grid.

Pro-Syrian rally in Lebanon
Lebanese officials' visit to Damascus on Saturday will mark the first official diplomatic visit during the 10-year-old conflict. [File: Nabil Mounzer/EPA]

A delegation from the caretaker Lebanese government is due to visit Syria on Saturday in the highest level visit in years, aiming to pave the way for a United States-backed plan to ease a power crisis in Lebanon.

Lebanese government officials have mostly avoided Syria since war began there in 2011 as Beirut adopted a policy of staying out of regional conflicts, even as the heavily armed Shia group Hezbollah fought in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The upcoming visit comes after the Lebanese presidency last month said that the US has agreed to help Lebanon secure electricity and natural gas from Jordan and Egypt through Syrian territory.

Lebanon is suffering energy shortages that have forced even essential services including hospitals to shut down or scale back operations. The crisis is the result of a wider financial meltdown that has devastated the economy since 2019.

The Lebanese delegation that will discuss the plan will be led by Zeina Akar, deputy prime minister and defence minister.

It will also include Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar and General Security agency chief Abbas Ibrahim, Syria’s information ministry said in an invititation sent to journalists.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad will receive the Lebanese officials at the border.

Lebanese security officials and politicians have made several visits to Syria in recent years, but almost exclusively in a personal capacity or on behalf of political parties that support al-Assad’s government.

Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis has plunged more than half the population in poverty.

The dire situation has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion last year at Beirut port that killed more than 200 people and wrecked large parts of the Lebanese capital.

The results include crippling power cuts and severe shortages of gasoline and diesel that have been blamed on smuggling, hoarding and the cash-strapped government’s inability to secure deliveries of oil products.

The fuel crisis deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks after the central bank decided to end subsidies for fuel products – a decision that will likely lead to price hikes of almost all commodities in Lebanon, already in the throes of soaring poverty and hyperinflation.

US sanctions on Damascus are a complicating factor in any effort to help Lebanon via Syria, an issue discussed by US senators who visited Lebanon this week.

US Senator Chris Van Hollen told Reuters news agency that ways were being looked at to address the complication despite the Caesar Act, which Washington applied last year and which can freeze assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality.

The sanctions aim to force al-Assad to stop the war and agree to a political solution.

Dorothy Shea, the US ambassador to Lebanon, has said there is a will to make the plan happen.

Source: News Agencies