Lebanon’s trade  deficit widened 6 percent in 2012 to a five-year high of $16.8 billion as Lebanese fuel imports, which are partially being re-exported to Syria, soared.
Imports increased by 5.6 percent to $21.3 billion while exports climbed 5.1 percent to nearly $4.5 billion.
Analysts have consistently highlighted that Syrian demand, particularly for hydrocarbons, food and other necessities, has been the chief reason behind the numerical swell in Lebanon’s trade deficit.
While goods imported to Lebanon for re-export to the Syrian market are registered legally on entry via Lebanese ports, some of the shipments are channeled to Syria through illegal border crossings. Such goods are counted as Lebanese imports , but not as exports to Syria, artificially swelling the trade deficit.
Imports of oil and fuels increased 31.8 percent year-on-year to $5.9 billion in spite of the slowing economy , which grew only 1.5 percent in 2012. Non-hydrocarbon imports fell 1.9 percent, hitting $15.4 billion.
In terms of volume, fuel imports surged 18.6 percent to 6.6 million tons. Non-hydrocarbon imports dropped 4.8 percent to around 9 million tons.
Bahije Abou Hamze, the head of the Oil Importers Association, told The Daily Star that the increase in oil imports compensates for the halt in smuggled oil from Syria, which used to account for some 20 percent of local consumption.
“This has completely stopped following widespread fuel shortages in Syria ,” he said.
This trend was reversed in 2012 as oil was smuggled from Lebanon to Syria, though “in small quantities,” according to Abou Hamze.
Citizens in Lebanon’s northern and eastern border provinces used to stock cheaper Syrian diesel , particularly during the cold winter months. Diesel subsidies in Syria made the trade highly lucrative for many years.
But fuel shortages  have become increasingly common in Syria as Western sanctions have been tightened.
Last month, Reuters reported that two cargoes of Russian diesel reached Syria, providing the first significant volumes of fuel needed to power the industry sector and the military, as well as provide electricity for households.
Official numbers show that total Lebanese exports to Syria grew 36.7 percent in 2012, reaching $294 million.
The United States was Lebanon’s biggest source of imports with $2.4 billion, or 11 percent, of total imports in 2012. Italy followed with $1.83 billion.
China exported $1.77 billion to Lebanon, while goods from France stood at $1.5 billion (7 percent), and Germany at $1.2 billion (6 percent).
Imports in 2012 from the U.S. surged by 19.4 percent year-on-year, those from China increased by 9.1 percent, those from Germany rose by 5.4 percent and those from France grew by 2.1 percent. Imports from Italy dropped 2 percent.
South Africa was the main export destination with $864 million (19 percent of total exports), followed by Switzerland with $547 million (12 percent), Saudi Arabia with $359 million and the United Arab Emirates with $352 million (both 8 percent), Iraq with $211 million (5 percent) and Turkey with $157 million (4 percent).
Exports to South Africa rose 28.4 percent while those to Saudi Arabia increased 16.6 percent and those to the UAE rose 9.3 percent.