US Senate introduces amendment to sanction Lebanon natural gas deal
On 29 September, Cruz proposed an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), which would make any "energy-related transaction" with the Government of Syria subject to Caesar sanctions.
Specifically, the amendment defines a "significant transaction" with the Syrian government as including "any natural gas, electricity or other energy-related transaction … that provides material support to … the Government of Syria."
The Caesar Act requires the US government to sanction any individual who engages in a "significant transaction" with the Syrian government, except in particular fields, such as food or medicine.
The proposed amendment would make a planned energy deal for Lebanon, brokered in part by the Biden administration, subject to US Syria sanctions.
If Cruz's amendment passes, the Biden administration would likely have to issue an explicit exemption for the natural gas deal, something it has been reluctant to do in the past.
Lebanon announced in August 2021 that it was planning to import Egyptian natural gas through Jordan and Syria, generating electricity along the way.
The plan, with US approval, would help solve Lebanon's crippling energy shortage. Currently, the country's national power grid provides 1-3 hours of power a day, and most of the population relies on private generators to cover shortages.
Cruz's amendment is part of an evolving fight between the US legislative and executive branches over Syria policy – specifically the application of sanctions to early recovery efforts in Syria.
The Biden administration reportedly assured the Lebanese and other partners that the transaction would not be subject to Syria sanctions.
It argued that because the Syrian government would be paid in-kind – through electricity provision – rather than with a financial transaction, the natural gas deal would not be sanctionable.
The administration also said that the natural gas deal did not fall under the scope of the Caesar Act, given that it was humanitarian in purpose and related to Lebanon.
US lawmakers have objected to the deal, saying the electricity and natural gas that flow through Syria to Lebanon would help bolster the Assad regime's grip on the country.
Some in the beltway have argued that surplus electricity given to Syria could be used to power detention centres, notorious for torture.
On 1 February, House and Senate Foreign Relations Committee members sent a letter to the Secretary of State expressing their concern over the natural gas deal and its potential benefit to Assad.
"We have serious concerns that the administration has provided a blueprint for circumventing Caesar sanctions in the future…. Not only would such deals likely benefit Assad financially, they would exacerbate corruption in Lebanon," the letter said.
Once operational, the natural gas deal would provide 450 megawatts of additional electricity to Lebanon or about three more hours of state-supplied power per day.
Despite an earlier flurry of meetings related to the natural gas deal, not much progress has been made since early 2022.