BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Hezbollah militant group said it carried more than one million gallons of Iranian diesel to Lebanon from Syria on Thursday, celebrating the move as a way to spit out the United States while providing much-needed aid to a country almost paralyzed by fuel shortages.
With Lebanon undergoing one of the worst economic collapses in modern history, Hezbollah has presented itself as a national savior, intervening where the Lebanese government and its Western backers have failed.
Hezbollah supporters lined the roads in northeast Lebanon as dozens of tankers arrived. They waved Hezbollah flags, sweets distributed, sang heroic hymns and fired rocket propelled grenades into the air celebrating.
The fuel delivery – which a Hezbollah official said was the first installment of more than 13 million gallons – underscored the gravity of the crisis in Lebanon, as well as the government’s failure to address it. Unable to get help from elsewhere, he turned to war-torn Syria and damaged Iran economically.
The move appeared to violate US sanctions involving the purchase of Iranian oil, but it was not clear on Thursday whether the US would push the issue. Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, is already subject to American sanctions. Although the group is part of the Lebanese government, it appears to act independently.
The US Embassy in Beirut declined to comment on Thursday. But when Hezbollah announced last month that fuel was en route from Iran, the US ambassador downplayed any threat of punitive measures.
“I don’t think anyone will fall on their sword if someone is able to provide fuel to hospitals that need it,” Ambassador Dorothy Shea told Al Arabiya English.
The fuel arrived as Lebanon struggled through what the World Bank called one of the world’s worst economic crises since the mid-1800s. Since the fall of 2019, the national currency has lost 90% of its value. and the prices of many products have tripled.
Fuel shortages have caused widespread power cuts and left many Lebanese in line to refuel their cars.
The arrival of the convoy highlighted the virtual absence of the Lebanese state.
Government agencies responsible for monitoring energy imports were not involved in delivery. The trucks passed from Syria to Lebanon over an open expanse of land, not through an official border crossing, with no customs or security checks. It was not clear whether the imports had legal permission or whether taxes would be paid on them.
Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who formed a new cabinet this week and pledged to work to alleviate the country’s woes, made no public statement on the fuel shipment on Thursday. Neither have the authorities responsible for monitoring the borders.
“The country is facing a serious crisis, so the government does not care whether the trucks entered legally or illegally,” said Elias Farhat, a retired Lebanese army general. “We are in an emergency situation.
The shipment was the first 13.2 million gallons that an Iranian vessel delivered to the port of Baniyas, Syria this week, said Ahmed Raya, a Hezbollah media official. The rest will take several days to be unloaded and transported to Lebanon.
TankerTrackers.com, a group that tracks global oil shipments, estimated the ship was carrying less than eight million gallons.
The fuel crisis sparked a sort of confrontation between Hezbollah and its allies and the United States over who could act faster to ease the pain of the population, a competition Hezbollah won, at least for the day.
Almost every step of the fuel journey has been a challenge for the United States, which has imposed sanctions on the purchase of Iranian oil, the Syrian government, Hezbollah and the Hezbollah-linked company that will distribute the fuel inside. from Lebanon.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said the fuel was paid for by anonymous Lebanese businessmen and most of it would be donated to institutions such as public hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, the Lebanese Red Cross and organizations involved in water distribution.
The discounted fuel will also be sold to private hospitals, drug factories, bakeries, supermarkets and private electricity providers, he said.
“Our goal is neither trade nor profit,” Nasrallah said in a speech Tuesday. “Our goal is to alleviate the suffering of the people.
He also said three other Iranian ships, one carrying gasoline and two carrying diesel, were on their way to Syria.
Jessica Obeid, a non-resident energy and academic policy consultant at the Middle East Institute, said the million gallons Hezbollah brought in on Thursday was not much relative to the country’s needs, but could help individual institutions .
A hospital generator, for example, could burn about 26 gallons per hour, she said.
But intervening where the state had failed was a political blow to Hezbollah, whose image as defender of the nation had been tarnished by its participation in the civil war in Syria and its opposition to a popular protest movement. who sought to end government corruption.
Hezbollah blamed the United States for Lebanon’s economic crisis, claiming it has put Lebanon under siege. In fact, US sanctions focus overwhelmingly on Hezbollah and its allies, not the Lebanese state, whose dysfunction and corruption are at the root of the crisis.
The United States is the largest humanitarian aid donor to Lebanon, and the Biden administration last month announced a new $ 100 million aid package aimed at providing assistance with food, health care , security, water and sanitation.
But Hezbollah described the convoy’s arrival on Thursday in heroic terms, saying it had “broken the US siege,” a line of thinking many Lebanese will most likely accept.
“It fuels the image that Hezbollah has won the battle for perseverance against the US siege, and that kind of image is what the organization is trying to reflect,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a member of the Carnegie Middle East Center. in Beirut.
After Mr. Nasrallah’s announcement, Ms. Shea, the U.S. Ambassador, said she was working to put in place another arrangement to help resolve Lebanon’s energy crisis. He calls for Egyptian natural gas to be sent to Jordan and transferred to Lebanon via a pipeline passing through Syria.
A high-level delegation from Lebanon traveled to Damascus, Syria this month to discuss the plan, but details remain unclear, including how long it will take to fix the pipeline, who will pay for it and what. Syria will charge fees for letting the gas pipeline pass through its territory.
This could pose another challenge for the United States, which has sanctions against anyone doing business with the Syrian government.
The deep suffering of the Lebanese made it unlikely that the United States would punish anyone for accepting sanctioned Iranian fuel.
“I don’t know how prepared the United States is to risk imposing sanctions on a population in need,” Hage Ali said. “It would describe the United States as being tough and authoritarian, and it’s a victory for Hezbollah.”