Hezbollah supporters celebrate as a convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon, arrive at the eastern town of Al Ain on September 16, 2021. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: Hezbollah began bringing Iranian fuel into Lebanon via Syria on Thursday, a move the Shiite militant group says aims to ease a crippling energy crisis but which its opponents have said exposes the country to the risk of US sanctions.

Quoting its correspondent, Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV said a convoy of around 20 tanker trucks carrying Iranian fuel oil had entered Lebanon. The Iran-backed Hezbollah has said the ship carrying the fuel docked in Syria on Sunday.

The trucks crossed into northeastern Lebanon near the village of Al Ain, where a banner declared that Hezbollah had broken a “siege” on Lebanon.

“Thank you Iran. Thank you Assad’s Syria,” declared another banner, referring to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

The energy crisis is a result of a financial meltdown that has devastated the Lebanese economy since 2019, sinking the currency by some 90% and sending more than three quarters of the population into poverty.

Fuel supplies have dried up because Lebanon does not have enough hard currency to cover even vital imports, forcing essential services including some hospitals to scale back or shut down and sparking numerous security incidents.

The decision to import fuel marks an expansion of the role played by the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, where critics have long accused the heavily armed group that has fought wars with Israel of acting as a state within the state.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday the ship had docked in Syria to avoid harming Lebanon and to avoid embarrassing some of its allies, an apparent reference to the sanctions risk.

Washington has reiterated that US sanctions on Iranian oil sales remain in place, but it has not said whether it is considering imposing measures against Lebanon over the move by Hezbollah.

Washington designates Hezbollah as a terrorist group and has also targeted it with sanctions.

The United States, a big supplier of humanitarian and military aid to Lebanon, is backing a plan to ease the energy crisis using Egyptian natural gas piped via Jordan and Syria. The US ambassador has said Lebanon does not need Iranian fuel.

Nasrallah has said a second ship with fuel oil would arrive in the Syrian port of Baniyas in a few days, with a third and fourth, respectively carrying gasoline and fuel oil, also due.

What is Lebanon’s Hezbollah
HISTORY: Founded in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and classified by the US and other Western countries as a terrorist organisation, Hezbollah (Party of God) is the most powerful group in Lebanon because of a heavily armed militia that fought several wars with Israel. It grew stronger after joining the war in Syria in 2012 in support of President Bashar Al Assad.
It is both a political movement and guerrilla army, drawing its support from among Lebanon’s Shiite population. The group and its allies helped form Lebanon’s current government.
Hezbollah’s arsenal has been a big point of contention.The group says its arms are needed to deter Israel and, more recently, to guard against Islamist insurgents in Syria. Its opponents say the group undermines the state, taking decisions on war and peace that affect the entire nation.
Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US , Canada, Germany, Britain, Argentina and Honduras as well as Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. The European Union classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group, but not its political wing.
Shadowy groups, which Lebanese security officials and Western intelligence say are linked to Hezbollah, launched suicide attacks on Western embassies and targets and kidnapped Westerners in the 1980s. A suicide bombing destroyed the US Marine headquarters and French military barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 US servicemen and 58 French paratroopers.
One group, Islamic Jihad, was thought to be led by Emad Moughniyah, a senior Hezbollah military commander who was killed in a car bomb attack in Syria in 2008.
Argentina blames Hezbollah and Iran for the deadly bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed in 1994 and for an attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 that killed 29 people. Both deny any responsibility.
Bulgaria accuses Hezbollah of carrying out a bomb attack that killed five Israeli tourists in the Black Sea city of Burgas in 2012.
Banners depicting Nasrallah as the first truck carrying Iranian fuel arrived, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, in Al Ain village. Image Credit: Reuters
Role in government
GOVERNMENT - 2005: Hezbollah entered Lebanese politics more visibly after the killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. A coalition of anti-Syrian factions took power following an election which gave Hezbollah 14 seats in the 128-seat parliament.
2006: Hezbollah and its allies quit a government led by Western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora over the governing coalition’s refusal to give the opposition effective veto power.
2008: Hezbollah clashed with domestic foes and briefly seized west Beirut in the worst civil strife since the 1975-1990 civil war, after the government vowed to take action against the group’s military communications network. After mediation, rival leaders signed a deal to end 18 months of political conflict.
2011: Syria’s civil war led to years of political paralysis in Lebanon. In January, the first government of Saad Hariri was toppled when Hezbollah and its allies quit over the UN-backed tribunal set up to prosecute those behind the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri. Six months later, Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a government dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.
2016: Saad Hariri, who spent years abroad because of security fears, reached a deal making Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun president, and him premier.
2018: Hezbollah and its allies won a parliamentary majority.
2019: Protests broke out against a deep economic crisis. Hariri quit in October. Hezbollah and its allies backed Hassan Diab as premier. He formed a new government in January 2020.
CONFLICTS: UN Security Council Resolution 1559, sponsored by the United States and France and adopted in 2004, called for all Lebanese militias to be disbanded and disarmed. Hezbollah is the only militia to keep its arms since the civil war.
2012: Hezbollah militants deployed in Syria to aid Syrian government forces. The group played a role in helping beat back the rebellion.
2006: Hezbollah crossed the border into Israel, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed others, sparking a five-week war that killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Hezbollah waged a prolonged military campaign against Israeli forces which occupied south Lebanon until their withdrawal in 2000.
HARIRI ASSASSINATION: In 2020, a UN-backed court convicted a Hezbollah member of conspiring to kill Rafik Hariri in a 2005 bombing.
Hezbollah has denied any involvement in Hariri’s killing. Its leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said it was not concerned with the trial and that if any members of the group were convicted, it would stand by their innocence.
Posters depicting Nasrallah, Al Assad, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei near the Lebanese-Syrian border, in Al Ain village. Image Credit: Reuters