A woman prepares dinner in her kitchen by candlelight Saturday in Beirut, Lebanon, where fuel shortages have led to power blackouts. Photo by Nabil Mounzer/EPA-EFE
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- Fuel shipments have begun arriving in Lebanon, the efforts of foes and allies, to ease a shortage that has crippled life for months with limited electricity and gasoline.
Tankers from Iraq and Iran are rolling in, while the United States is sponsoring long-term solutions by transporting natural gas from Egypt.
Dozens of trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed Thursday from Syria through an unofficial border crossing into northeastern Lebanon in the first delivery organized by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah.
The convoy was greeted by a jubilant crowd that lined the road in Al Ain village, including women clad in black and children, waving Hezbollah flags. Men fired gunshots and rocket-propelled grenades.
Banners that read "You Broke Their Siege," "From Victory to Victory" and "Thank you Islamic Iran, Thank You Assad's Syria" were raised.
Instead of docking in Beirut as Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah previously threatened in clear defiance of the United States and Israel, the first ship carrying the Iranian fuel to Lebanon headed to the Syrian port of Banyias to discharge its shipment. The move was meant to avoid "provoking anyone," Nasrallah said Monday, announcing the arrival of more such ships carrying petrol and diesel.
The fuel will be distributed free of charge to government hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes, municipalities, civil defense and the Lebanese Red Cross. Other institutions, including mills, bakeries and some private hospitals, will receive the rest at "below cost."
Lebanon received another boost when the first shipment of Iraqi fuel, which will help increase electricity availability by four to six hours a day, arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday.
Last July, Lebanon and Iraq finalized a fuel barter deal under which Baghdad will provide the state-run Lebanese electricity company, Electricite du Liban, with 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil over a one-year period.
The Iranian and Iraqi fuel will help ease Lebanon's acute fuel crisis. However, it will not solve the country's chronic power shortages or fix its acute electricity problem.
Transporting Egyptian natural gas through the Arab Gas Pipeline and possibly Jordanian electricity has recently emerged as a more secure long-term option.
Discussions to secure the Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Syria have been underway for months, with apparent acceptance from Washington and Jordan, which has excess electricity production capacity, the driving force behind it.
The discussions began to take formal shape when a Lebanese ministerial delegation visited Damascus on Sept. 4, with the implicit approval of Washington, for the first time in a decade. The energy ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon met in Amman a few days later to discuss the gas and electricity transit to Lebanon.
That would not have been possible without U.S. willingness to loosen restrictions under the 2019 Caesar Act that sanctions any dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Walid Khadduri, a Beirut-based oil and gas expert, said efforts to help Lebanon solve its energy crisis is being "worked on several levels."
"While Iraq and Iran oil have come, the gas from Egypt will take some time," depending on the status of the pipeline in Syria, Khadduri told UPI. "The gas from Egypt is the best option because you cannot smuggle gas and mafias cannot store it. It will go directly to the power station" in Deir Ammar in northern Lebanon.
He explained that the Iraqi agreement is for one year, and theoretically the 1 million tons of fuel oil should cover enough of Lebanese fuel demands but "don't know how much it will be smuggled to Syria, stored or stolen by the mafias."
Lebanon's severe fuel shortages have been partly blamed on smugglers who actively sneaked the country's subsidized supplies into Syria.
While the Iranian fuel was reportedly paid for by Lebanese Shiite traders close to Hezbollah and the Iraqi fuel will be in exchange for Lebanese medical services, the cost of the Egyptian gas will be covered through the World Bank, which closely coordinates with the United States on the matter.
"So Lebanon is not paying anything," Khadduri said. He, however, noted that "nobody gives oil for free."
Although the new fuel sources will not fulfill Lebanon's whole needs, it will close "a big gap" and the long queues at the gasoline stations and power cuts will be less.
Khadduri added that the three fuel sources came at the same time with different groups: the United States on one hand securing the gas from Egypt via the World Bank; Iraq signing a barter agreement with Lebanon; and Iran, through Hezbollah, securing diesel fuel and gasoline.
"It is rather strange that they are taking place at the same time and didn't start earlier," he said. "It is more than a coincidence... it is a competition with each one taking a different role: one gasoline, one gas and one heavy fuel... and so it is complementary."
Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador in Washington, said "there is an agreement" to avoid Lebanon's total collapse and "not let things go out of control and lead to militias re-emerging and a war with Israel."
"Would the Iranian ships [carrying fuel to Lebanon] cross the Suez Canal, sail in the Mediterranean Sea and reach the Baniyas port in Syria while trucks move the fuel from Syria to inside Lebanon... all that without an agreement?" Tabbarah told UPI. "Why they [the United States] turned a blind eye on that at a time Israel continues to bombard Iranian positions in Syria?"
He referred to "a new situation to ease things in the region within an international framework, but this has nothing to do with Iran-U.S. nuclear negotiations, which are at a much higher level, dealing with issues such as the ballistic missiles."
Tabbarah said the Egypt gas deal has been in the making for months and was being "arranged at different levels."
"Everyone plays its role, and when Nasrallah's turn came, he brought the Iranian fuel to Lebanon," he said.