With fuel from Iran, Hezbollah intervenes where Lebanon has failed


BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Hezbollah militant group said it shipped more than a million liters of Iranian diesel fuel from Syria to Lebanon on Thursday, celebrating the move as a way to spew the United States while bringing much-needed aid to a country almost paralyzed by fuel shortages.

With Lebanon going through one of the worst economic collapses in modern history, Hezbollah portrayed itself as a national savior, intervening where the Lebanese government and its Western backers had failed.

Hezbollah supporters lined roads in northeast Lebanon when dozens of tank trucks arrived. They waved Hezbollah flags, sweets handed out, blasted heroic folk songs and fired rocket-propelled grenades into the sky in celebration.

The fuel delivery — which a Hezbollah official said was the first delivery of more than 13 million gallons — underlined the severity of the crisis in Lebanon, as well as the government’s failure to address it. Unable to get help from elsewhere, it has turned to war-torn Syria and damaged Iran economically.

The move appeared to be in violation of US sanctions over the purchase of Iranian oil, but it was unclear Thursday whether the United States would push the matter. Hezbollah, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, is already subject to US sanctions. Although the group is part of the Lebanese government, it appeared to act independently.

The US embassy in Beirut declined to comment on Thursday. But when Hezbollah announced last month that fuel was on its way from Iran, the US ambassador downplayed any threat of punitive action.

“I don’t think anyone will fall for their sword if someone is able to get fuel in hospitals that need it,” Ambassador Dorothy Shea said. told Al Arabiya English.

The fuel arrived as Lebanon struggles through what the World Bank has called one of the world’s worst economic collapses since the mid-19th century. Since the fall of 2019, the national currency has lost 90 percent of its value and prices for many goods have tripled.

Fuel shortages have led to widespread power cuts and left many Lebanese waiting in long lines to refuel their cars.

The arrival of the convoy highlighted the near absence of the Lebanese state.

The government agencies in charge of monitoring energy imports were not involved in the supply. The trucks drove from Syria to Lebanon across an open stretch of land, not through an official border crossing, without customs or security checks. It was unclear whether the imports were legally licensed or subject to tax.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who formed a new cabinet this week and vowed to make efforts to alleviate the misery in the country, did not make a public statement on Thursday about the fuel delivery. Neither did the border control authorities.

“The country is facing a serious crisis, so the government doesn’t care whether the trucks entered legally or illegally,” said Elias Farhat, a retired general in the Lebanese army. “We are in an emergency.”

The shipment was the first tranche of 13.2 million gallons delivered by an Iranian ship to the port of Baniyas, Syria this week, said Ahmed Raya, a Hezbollah media official. The rest takes a few days to unload and transport to Lebanon.

TankerTrackers.com, a group that tracks global oil shipments, estimated that the ship was carrying less than eight million gallons.

The fuel crisis sparked a sort of showdown between Hezbollah and its allies and the United States over who could act faster to ease the people’s pain, a contest Hezbollah won, at least for that day.

Nearly every step of the fuel journey has been a challenge for the United States, which has imposed sanctions on its purchase of Iranian oil, the Syrian government, Hezbollah and the Hezbollah-affiliated company that will distribute the fuel in Lebanon.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said the fuel was paid for by unnamed Lebanese businessmen and most would be donated to institutions such as government hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, the Lebanese Red Cross and organizations involved in water distribution. .

Reduced-rate fuel will also be sold to private hospitals, drug factories, bakeries, supermarkets and private electricity suppliers, he said.

“Our aim is not trade or profit,” Mr Nasrallah said in a speech on Tuesday. “Our goal is to alleviate the suffering of the people.”

He also said three more Iranian ships, one with petrol and two with diesel, were en route to Syria.

Jessica Obeid, an energy policy consultant and nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the million gallons Hezbollah brought in on Thursday was not much in proportion to the country’s needs, but it could help individual institutions.

For example, a hospital generator could burn about 26 gallons per hour, she said.

But intervening where the state had failed was a political coup for Hezbollah, whose image as the nation’s defender had been tarnished by its participation in Syria’s civil war and its opposition to a popular protest movement seeking to end government corruption.

Hezbollah has blamed the United States for the economic crisis in Lebanon and claimed it has besieged Lebanon. In fact, the United States’ sanctions are primarily aimed at 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 donor of humanitarian aid to Lebanon, and the Biden administration has announced: a new $100 million aid package last month focused on providing aid in the areas of food, health care, security, water and sanitation.

But Hezbollah painted the convoy’s arrival on Thursday in heroic terms, saying it had “broken the US siege,” a line of thought many Lebanese are likely to accept.

“This feeds the image that Hezbollah has won the battle of perseverance against the US siege, and that’s the kind of image the organization is trying to portray,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

After the announcement by Mr. Nasrallah, Ms. Shea, the United States ambassador, said she was working on a new arrangement to solve the energy crisis in Lebanon. It calls for natural gas to be sent from Egypt to Jordan and transported via a pipeline through Syria to Lebanon.

A high-level delegation from Lebanon has visited Damascus, Syria, this month to discuss the plan, but the details remain unclear, including how long it will take to repair the pipeline, who will pay for it, and what compensation Syria will pay. will charge for renting out the pipeline. gas passes through its territory.

That could pose a new 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 the sanctioned Iranian fuel.

“I’m not sure how willing the US is to risk imposing sanctions on a needy population,” said Mr. Hag Ali. “That would paint the US as harsh and heavy-handed, and that is a victory for Hezbollah.”

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