August 15, 2007
Tired of Energy Ills, Syrians Doubt the West Is to Blame
By HUGH NAYLOR
DAMASCUS, Syria, Aug. 14 — Syria has had a summer of power failures and electricity shortages, and recent suggestions by Prime Minister Muhammad Naki al-Otari that American and French economic pressures are to blame are being greeted with skepticism by a weary public.
Mr. Otari’s claims represent a shift in position in a country that has long held that American pressure has had a negligible impact. But many Syrians say their electricity woes are more a function of government incompetence than of international pressure.
“According to my knowledge, the official line has been that America’s sanctions and its policy of isolating Syria are both failing,” Nidal Malouf, director of the Syrian Economic Center, wrote in an Aug. 5 article on Syria-News.com, a private online news agency. “Now the government is trying to find an excuse for its failure to provide cities with the most basic needs.”
Issam Zaim, a former minister of industry and outspoken political commentator, said the prime minister’s remarks were an attempt to avoid blame for years of procrastination in upgrading a national power grid still operating on technology that is decades old.
“The main problem for Syria is a total lack of planning for the future,” said Mr. Zaim. “Sanctions may be having an effect, but bad governance is the main factor, and we’re seeing none of our officials being held accountable for their mistakes.”
The power failures have occurred in one of the warmest summers in recent memory. In Damascus, which has had daily blackouts lasting as long as five hours, the roar of gas generators is drowning out the city’s notoriously loud traffic. In some suburbs, the lights are on for only six hours a day.
Unconfirmed reports say Syria, a regional supplier of electricity, has had to suspend exports to Lebanon and northern Iraq several times this summer to conserve energy.
“These power interruptions are costing the country dearly,” Mr. Zaim said. “This is affecting our ability to pump water around the country, which not only affects human consumption, but industry, agriculture, just about everything.”
The Bush administration sponsored sanctions, under the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2004, to penalize Syria for allowing militant Palestinian organizations like Hamas to have a presence in Syria, and for what the administration contends is Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs and funneling of Islamic militants into Iraq. In many respects, the sanctions are little more than political symbolism. Direct flights between Syria and the United States are banned, but there had been none. Despite an export ban on most American products, trade between the United States and Syria increased by 30 percent in 2006. A booming black market traffics in American goods.
But Syrian officials say now that the sanctions are affecting power generation. Construction contracts for two large power plants, needed to keep pace with rising energy demand, have gone up for bid on the international market five times over the last two years with no takers.
Of the companies capable of building them, Prime Minister Otari accused the American company General Electric of declining to bid on the job and then persuading Japanese-owned Mitsubishi not do bid, either. Alstom, a French company, was “pressured by Jacques Chirac,” the former president of France, “not to work in Syria,” Mr. Otari said in an Aug. 4 speech in Latakia, a coastal city. “The postponement in constructing these plants is a result of political reasons.”
Andrew Tabler, editor of Syria Today Magazine, said in an interview, “Syria now finds itself in a situation where the number of companies that can build big power facilities are limited, and the ones that can do this have apparently followed the American lead because they fear the repercussions of doing business here.”
Though American companies may invest here legally, some have hesitated, and energy businesses like Conoco Phillips and Marathon Oil have pulled out over the past three years.
This month, the Bush administration said it would seize the assets of individuals who threaten Lebanon’s beleaguered governing coalition, a veiled warning to Syrian officials and their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
“Like the sword of Damocles, Bush has the option of coming down hard on the heads of multinationals dealing with Syria,” Mr. Tabler said.
The government estimates electrical output must increase by 9 percent this year to keep pace with an influx of nearly two million Iraqi refugees, a high local birthrate and an emerging private sector with accelerating levels of electricity consumption. Oil exports, whose windfall revenues once buoyed Syria’s bloated public sector in times of crisis, have plummeted.
Because of pressure from the West, Syria has turned recently to its Arab neighbors, China and Iran to finance privatization. Officials predict that foreign investment will expand by 11 percent this year, to more than $3 billion, much of it coming from oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But none of these countries has the expertise to solve Syria’s electricity problems, Mr. Tabler said. “There are certain things that Western companies dominate, like power generation facilities,” he said. “It’s just hard to get around these facts.”