Crime & Justice

Hizbullah smuggles low-grade heating oil to Lebanon through Syria

By Nohad Topalian

A convoy of tankers is seen crossing Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in recent weeks. [Al-Mashareq]

A convoy of tankers is seen crossing Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in recent weeks. [Al-Mashareq]

BEIRUT -- After years of smuggling mazout (heating oil) into Syria, Hizbullah and criminal elements linked to the Iran-backed party are now secretly transporting large quantities of red diesel oil into Lebanon, activists said.

The red diesel oil, named for its colour, is of inferior quality and does not meet Lebanese standards, they said, as it contains a high percentage of sulfur and is harmful to the environment and to public health.

Lebanese TV news channels recently broadcast videos of a convoy of 50 tankers with a total estimated capacity of 2.5 million litres of mazout crossing through the Bekaa Valley, in areas close to the Lebanese-Syrian border.

The smuggling operations, which began about two months ago, are concentrated in the Duris area, and pass through crossings adjacent to al-Qaa and Hermel.

The low-grade mazout smuggled by Hizbullah into Lebanon is characterised by its redness. [Al-Mashareq]

The low-grade mazout smuggled by Hizbullah into Lebanon is characterised by its redness. [Al-Mashareq]

The mazout is sold in the southern suburb of Beirut -- Hizbullah's stronghold -- as well as in central Beirut and the Chouf at prices below official market rates.

A group of attorneys have submitted a report to the Public Prosecution Office at the Court of Cassation, documenting the smuggling operations and sale of smuggled materials at the Hizbullah-affiliated Amanah fuel stations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported November 10 that a convoy of oil tankers and trucks carrying weapons were bombarded as they headed into the Albu Kamal countryside in Syria from Iran after crossing through Iraq.

They were headed to Lebanon, the Observatory said.

In September 2021, Hizbullah brought dozens of tankers loaded with Iranian oil to Lebanon, through Syria, following Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah's repeated statements that Iran would export free fuel to Lebanon.

Many Lebanese were outraged by the move, which they saw as a flagrant act of defiance that would expose Lebanon to additional sanctions, which would be rather costly for the country and its people.

Illegal crossings

A Hermel-based anti-Hizbullah activist who asked that his name be withheld said the smuggling of mazout to Lebanon "is done through illegal crossings by Hizbullah, which has military and security control" of certain border areas.

"There are more than 20 Hizbullah-controlled crossings from Hermel to Nabi Sheet through Labweh and Brital," he told Al-Mashareq.

Nabi Sheet, where warehouses are situated for storing fuel on the Lebanese-Syrian border for distribution in both directions, is also controlled by Hizbullah.

"These convoys of tankers pass through in broad daylight and are not smuggled in," the activist said.

"They can be brought into Lebanon, and material can be smuggled into Syria, only with the approval of the Syrian intelligence services, Hizbullah and some Bekaa-based tribes, who receive large sums of money in exchange," he noted.

Al-Qaa mayor Bashir Matar said he saw convoys of tankers loaded with mazout smuggled from Syria to Lebanon pass through crossings adjacent to al-Qaa, a town near the Lebanese-Syrian border, in the direction of Hermel.

"These convoys pass through in plain sight," he told Al-Mashareq.

"Hizbullah is behind them, according to news reports, and at a time when prices in the local market are very high," he said. "High fuel prices are depriving homes and schools in our town of heating, and there is no accountability."

Convoys after midnight

An official with the Association of Petroleum Importing Companies of Lebanon (APIC) told Al-Mashareq that the pace of smuggling of mazout from Syria to Lebanon has increased in the past few weeks.

"As a group of oil-importing companies, we are sure that convoys of tankers carrying red mazout have entered, based on accurate information," he said.

"We do not know the volume of mazout that is coming in, but it is certainly a large amount. Some say 80 million litres of fuel oil entered Lebanon a month ago, and it continues to enter Lebanon to this moment."

"Smugglers used to bring in the tankers during the day, and now they drive their convoys stealthily after midnight to avoid being photographed," he said.

"They reach areas in the Bekaa Valley, the south, the Chouf and Beirut, where a tonne of mazout is sold somewhere between $150 and $250 below the official Lebanese market price."

The fuel "does not meet the specifications of the Lebanese market, as laboratory tests have confirmed that it contains a very high percentage of sulphur, which has a harmful effect on the health of citizens and the environment", he said.

Moreover, he said, "the smuggling is a circumvention of the Caesar Act and sanctions imposed on Hizbullah."

'Economic disaster'

Massive amounts of hard currency are leaving Lebanon because mazout is being purchased outside the official banking system and outside the control of the Central Bank (Banque du Liban), which has the right to approve money transfers by oil companies to import fuel and oil derivatives, the APIC official said.

Lebanon "has been suffering from the problem of smuggling fuel to Syria, in which Hizbullah has the main role" since 2019, economic journalist Antoine Farah told Al-Mashareq.

This has led to a rapid depletion of foreign currency reserves, as many items, especially fuel, were subsidised by the country's Central Bank and citizens have paid the difference between its real price and the subsidised price, he said.

"Lebanon lost between $3 billion and $4 billion over the last three years as a result of the smuggled subsidised fuel to Syria," Farah said.

Lebanon suffers from a "parallel economy through smuggling", as goods bypass customs to enter the country, he said.

"The volume of smuggling has become equal to the volume of the legal economy, which is a disaster by all measures," Farah said.

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