While Syria is a large producer of crude oil, its limited refining capacity has long left it dependent on imported gasoline and diesel, and the disruptions in supplies caused by the two-year-old civil war have made those needs more acute. Rebel forces now control the majority of Syria’s oil fields.
The attacks on the fuel trucks underscore how deeply the war in Syria has left Lebanon divided, with most Sunnis supporting the opposition while most Shiites support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“There is a political and military motive for these attacks,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “Fuel is a strategic military weapon. And private companies in Lebanon are supplying the regime with fuel, mostly to operate its military machine.”
In a February report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Syria’s increasing need for heating oil and diesel was prompting the country to seek deals with Russia, Venezuela, Iraq and Iran. The flow from Lebanon probably represents an additional channel, industry analysts say, with the deliveries arranged by Lebanese businessmen who buy fuel from suppliers in European countries such as Greece and France.
Any export of fuel to the Syrian government could be punishable under U.S. sanctions that were imposed to put pressure on the Assad government, U.S. officials say, and the exporter could be subject to measures that could freeze property and bank accounts.
But in Lebanon, the attacks in recent months have made clear that opponents of the Syrian regime feel capable of taking matters into their own hands.
Loay Meqdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said opposition sympathizers have followed the trucks coming from the Lebanese side of the border that have been supplying fuel to the elite 4th division of the Syrian army.
“Any drop of fuel coming from Lebanon supports the killing of our people because they are used for military equipment and are an act of war against us,” Meqdad said. “The Free Syrian Army has the right to all actions that prevent the import of fuel.”
The most recent attack on tankers bound for Syria came earlier this week, when gunmen fired on several trucks in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, injuring one driver seriously, according to local media reports and a senior Lebanese security official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The senior security official said the trucks were carrying blankets and other consumer goods, while other security officials quoted by local media said the trucks had been carrying fuel. The senior security official said that exports by Lebanese companies to Syria had peaked at more than 250,000 gallons a day, but that the volume had dropped somewhat after the recent attacks.