In September 2021, at the height of the unprecedented fuel shortage in Lebanon, a tanker carrying Iranian fuel docked at a Syrian port where the fuel was loaded onto trucks and driven through an illegal border crossing into Lebanon. The fuel shipment was brokered by Iran-backed Hezbollah to help alleviate Lebanon’s energy crisis that has been brought on by the country’s ongoing economic crisis. The newly formed Lebanese government made no comment about the shipment while Hezbollah hailed the arrival of the fuel a ‘victory’ and as having ‘broken the American siege’ on Lebanon. Despite it being in violation of US sanctions on trade with Iran, the US ignored the scenario altogether.
Although Hezbollah’s propaganda around the arrival of the Iranian fuel exaggerated its potential impact on Lebanon’s fuel shortage, the incident is significant because of what it signals about regional conflict. Firstly, the Lebanese government’s acquiescence to the shipment effectively means implicit acceptance that the border between Syria and Lebanon is porous. Secondly, the absence of condemnation by the United States signals that Lebanon is viewed as a component of the Iranian ecosystem in the Middle East – of which the Syrian conflict is another major component – rather than a distinct player. Both angles demand a new policy framework in understanding and addressing the dynamics of conflict in the region that goes beyond country-focused approaches.
Western governments including the US and UK have for many years helped provide security infrastructure on the Lebanon-Syria border. For example, the UK has funded watchtowers on the Lebanese side of the border to stop the influx of militants from Syria into Lebanon and control smuggling between the two countries, which flows in both directions. The Iranian fuel entered Lebanon through one of the many illegal crossings along the border. The fact that the Lebanese government turned a blind eye to this shows that no amount of technical infrastructure support by the international community would halt illicit transactions of this kind when the authorities themselves are complicit. It also complicates the distinction between licit and illicit activities.
The company that Hezbollah used to distribute the Iranian fuel in Lebanon, Amana, has been on the US sanctions list since 2020. However, sanctions have not stopped Amana from operating inside Lebanon or from continuing to have financial transactions with entities in Syria or Iran. This shows that while the sanctions have largely succeeded in severing financial ties between sanctioned companies and actors engaged in business with the West, they have not fully cracked the illicit financial system that links countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq. This financial system plays an important role in sustaining actors involved in conflict in these countries as well as their relationships with one another.
Iran and Hezbollah are major participants in the Syrian conflict, as well as other conflicts in the Middle East, and the Iranian fuel incident highlights the regional and national networks that Iran and Hezbollah rely on to operate, which are not limited to non-state actors. The arrival of the Iranian fuel was publicized well in advance and the Lebanese authorities could have, for example, deployed personnel to block its arrival in Lebanon or tried to hold those involved in this illegal transaction accountable. That they chose not to shows the extent of Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese state and that corruption in Lebanon goes beyond taking advantage of state resources; it is systemic and not limited to a few bad apples inside state institutions. This in turn highlights the short-sightedness of any approach to stabilization or security in Lebanon that is merely focused on providing technical assistance to state institutions and does not take into consideration the wider context of the need for good governance and institutional reform.