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Arms Smuggling on the Lebanese-Syrian Borders | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Resolutions issued by the United Nations Security Council [UNSC] have on several occasions expressed fears that reflect “deep concern regarding the repeated reports on arms smuggling and the re-arming of fighters in Lebanon”. Several reports issued by United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki moon and by international missions that visited Lebanon to correct the status of the border have talked about the ongoing flow of arms across the Syrian border into Lebanon from the Al-Biqa region.

However, the Syrian authorities always rejected any indication of control over its border with Lebanon, specifically after the July war and the issuance of Resolution 1701. Syria’s supporters in Lebanon backed it in its rejection and accused those who ask for defining the border of being agents and of seeking to cause a rift between the Lebanese and Syrian peoples.

But after several incidents took place, Syria decided to implement Resolution 1701 but on the northern Lebanese border. It deployed its army despite the presence of the “Al-Hajanah” or the border guard at every crossing point between the two countries – regardless if these crossings are official or natural – under the slogan of protecting itself from the terrorism threatening it. The whole picture turned upside down and the international community forgot what it had been reiterating over the past two years about the need to set the border in Lebanon and about the usage of the “huge numbers” of illegal crossing points to smuggle arms and armed men from Syria to Lebanon. The flow of arms to Hezbollah is not a secret. The party leaders have confirmed that they have succeeded not only in replacing the weapons that they lost during the July war with Israel but also in obtaining more weapons. Logic says that the safest and most secure passage for these fresh weapons is the Syrian border, specifically in the areas that are under the control of the party in the Al-Biqa regions. The irony is that the Lebanese border is wide open to the Syrians but the opposite is not true. Some sources say that there are only 8,000 soldiers from the Lebanese army along this border that is 359 kilometers long (198 miles). Moreover, these soldiers lack the equipment, training, and armament that are required to secure the border and enable them to foil gun smuggling operations. Furthermore, the international observers have concluded on several occasions that the Lebanese army lacks the will needed to stop the gun smuggling to Hezbollah. The army’s past experience has shown that any Lebanese security force entrusted with securing the border will find itself forced to deal not only with the gunrunners and smugglers but also with the Hezbollah fighters that abound in the party’s training camps in the region. Also, such a force will clash with the military bases of the Palestinian organizations that owe allegiance to Syria, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command [PFLP-GC] and Fatah Al-Intifadah. These organizations are stationed in bases connected to Syrian territory by unguarded sand paths that are usually used for smuggling weapons and fighters to Lebanon. Reports published by the United Nations point out that what magnifies the problem is that the long border between Syria and Lebanon was never officially demarcated and still rely on maps drawn up by French military geographers in 1920. Some studies indicate that Syria has seized part of Lebanese territory along the border between the two countries estimated at 4.5% of the total area of Lebanon. Furthermore, numerous disputes erupt along the border between Lebanon and Syria that often lead to armed clashes between the villagers on the border. This is especially true when smugglers from both sides disagree or when the Lebanese farmers are barred from reaching their land that is under Syrian influence. The open borders in many regions cannot be ignored. These begin from the Shaba Farms on the sides of Jabal al-Sheikh [Mount Hermon] in southeast Lebanon passing by the eastern range and the plains of Al-Qa and Al-Hirmil townships in the northeast and the villages of Wadi Khalid and the townships of Sahl Akkar at the southern Al-Nahr al-Kabir at the edge of northern Lebanon.

This state of affairs reflects the major imbalance on both sides of the border. It generates the fears of observers in the wake of Syria’s repeated talk about the presence of takfiri groups [those that hold other Muslims to be infidels] holding Lebanese, Syrian, and Gulf nationalities that are using Lebanon as their base and moving against Syria to target its security with the support of Arab and international quarters. There are reports that the Syrian intelligence service has documented information about the movements of hard-line fundamentalist groups in various parts of the Al-Biqa region, especially in several villages close to the border with Syria in the central and western Al-Biqa. Commenting on these reports, an expert following the border file told Asharq al-Awsat: “Of course, it was Syria that sent them or facilitated their entry when it was here [in Lebanon]. Syria knows where these are. Thus, what Syria is saying about the presence of these groups is true but it is not the whole truth”.

It is hard to get to the whole truth. However, the field tour of several border villages and townships in the Al-Biqa region gives a clear picture of the worrisome imbalance. This is particularly true of the areas that are under Hezbollah’s control since it is very hard to obtain information. The first stop in our tour was the region of Al-Hirmil. This stop showed the difficulty facing the media to operate without monitoring or instructions. Here, the joint force does not exist as is the case on the northern border; here, there is no hope of implementing Resolution 1701. The excuse that Syria is using to justify the deployment of its army along the northern border cannot be used along the Al-Biqa border. The reasons are numerous and as diverse as the diversity of the special features of this border region and the intersection of interests in it.

The Demarcation of the Border Between Lebanon and Syria

Lebanon and Syria agreed to resume the official demarcation of the border between the two countries during Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s visit to his counterpart Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on 12 August 2008. The statement that was issued about the meeting said: “The two presidents agreed to resume the work of the joint committee to delineate and demarcate the Lebanese-Syrian borders on the basis of a mechanism and a list of priorities on which the two sides shall agree to serve the aspired objective and the necessary administrative and technical measures shall be taken to do so”.

However, the Syrian authorities always tied this operation to the liberation of the Shab’a Farms after Israel’s withdrawal from these farms. The United Nations had asked Syria to demarcate the border, especially in the areas where the border line is not verified.

However, a review of the Lebanese-Syrian border file shows how difficult it is to demarcate this border. After the departure of its army from Lebanon, Syria argued that the request for demarcation is an Israeli demand. Al-Assad stated this on one occasion when he said: “In one aspect, this demand focuses practically on a total and final separation between the two sides of the Syrian-Lebanese track on which Syria’s strategy was based”. On another occasion, he said: “The problem is not between Syria and Lebanon; it is between Lebanon and Israel. There are Lebanese lands that are occupied. When this problem is solved we will be ready to demarcate the border with Lebanon”. Syria’s allies in Lebanon had proclaimed a mobilization on the border demarcation issue. In this context, retired Brigadier General Amin Hutayt says in a lecture: “The demarcation of the border with Syria is a path that would lead to sedition, discord, and conflict. It is a resolution that has no legal value except that it complicates the Lebanese-Syrian relations and paves the way for a future intervention that is being prepared. It is a resolution that paves the way for future resolutions putting pressure on Syria”. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also referred to the difficulty of the process of demarking the border between Syria and Lebanon during his visit to Egypt a short time ago. He said, “The fact is that there were no borders between the two countries. They should be demarcated and we are ready to assist them if we are asked”. An old timer from the Majdal Anjar township says that border townships between the two countries were interconnected. He lived there when he was young and worked with a French unit that operated in the Lebanese townships on the border using maps, title deeds, and other documents. He says: “In the 1920s and during the [French] Mandate, the unit placed huge iron fences to delineate the line dividing the two countries. The Syrians, however, removed the fences and erected a barrier the way they wished”.

In the 1980s, a resident of the Irsal township in Al-Biqa filed a lawsuit against influential Syrian figures to regain his plot of land on the border. These influential figures had seized the land and destroyed it because he refused to pay protection money for the piece of land that they said was within the Syrian border. The man, who is in his seventy’s, was not intimidated by the threats against him and by the destruction of the land and the uprooting of the trees. He has been filing complaints over the past 30 years and his case is still under study in the Balabakk criminal court. There are some maps that show the line separating the two states. These maps show that the Syrians have seized large tracts of land along the border.

Experts affirm that it is not true that several border outlets between Lebanon and Syria have not been surveyed. The maps and the deeds available in the Ministry of Defense – that some municipal councils in Al-Biqa have obtained – “geographically” delineate the beginning and the end. A number of decrees that France issued in the 1920as determine the line separating Lebanon from Syria in a large number of areas. In Irsal, for instance, the “Maqlab al-Miyah” [the water flow], that is, the line passing at the tops of the mountains between the Qabu township on the northwestern side of Al-Biqa and “Bir Jabab on the northeastern side of Balabakk.

A resident of Irsal says that the Syrian side did not bother with the maps, documents, deeds, and decrees. It built a barrier in the center of Irsal at a depth ranging between six meters to eight meters and a length of 50 kilometers.

The Irsal municipal council is basing its charge against the Syrian side for seizing its land on GPS coordinates that are linked to satellites that exactly determine the borders and the sized areas.

Al-Hirmil: Coded Information

Al-Hirmil lies in the northern Al-Biqa at the slope of Al-Jabal al-Gharbi in Lebanon. East of its land lies Ras Balabakk and some of its lands to the north adjoin Syrian territory. Al-Hirmil is 750 meters above sea level; it is 143 kilometers distant from Beirut, 93 kilometers from Zahlah, and 60 kilometers from Balabakk.

Based on what can be seen and since immediately after the July 2006 war and the Nahr al-Barid war, the Syrian military positions here have not witnessed any military changes or transformations worth mentioning. Moreover, the army operations rooms have not received any reports from informants or from stationery or mobile reconnaissance units that talk about an “out of the ordinary” Syrian military deploying along Lebanon’s eastern border from the border point between the Syrian Al-Qa township and the Jusiyat al-Ammar township and extending to the Al-Jardiyat heights toward the east and the west. As is the case along the border regions, there are no serious measures and official deterrents to stop the smuggling operations. As the field visits showed, the smugglers continue to enjoy total freedom of movement.

The positive and negative aspects of the smuggling of foodstuffs and other needs of daily life are well known. On one hand, this smuggling harms the economy of these remote regions and, on the other hand, it allows the residents to obtain Syrian commodities at lower prices. The data on local consumption and the volume of imports that are released by the official Lebanese departments confirm these smuggling operations. Several sides benefit from these smuggling operations. For instance, the smuggling of fuel oil benefits the following sides:

— The Syrian quarters that support and sponsor such smuggling and that receive the lion’s share. In return for closing their eye and facilitating these operations, these quarters are paid a commission that amounts to 70 Syrian liras (2100 Lebanese liras) per one jerry can.

— The owners of the Syrian fuel tanks that are paid about one dollar (1500 Lebanese liras) to transport one jerry can.

— The owners of the Lebanese fuel tanks also profit. In addition to the protection money that they pay to the quarters that overlook such operations, their share is more than $1.50 per jerry can, that is, about 2150 Lebanese liras.

— The owners of Lebanese gas stations. Their commission for every jerry can is 1450 Lebanese liras (about $1). This is three times the commission that they get from the Lebanese state.

–The Lebanese citizen and farmer have an interest in this since he saves 6000 Lebanese liras.

But the real problem lies in the smuggling of arms and the movement of fighters between the two countries. The few in the region that have the courage to talk about this do so without going into details. Every word counts in the Al-Hirmil border region. The information comes in code and similar to riddles and crossword puzzles. Refraining from citing names is normal, particularly when we know the living conditions of the inhabitants. Photographs are not allowed and trying to take them secretly may lead to embarrassment with undesirable consequences. Outwardly, the smuggling operations are confined to the exchange of goods, gas, and timber. My escort says: “On the Lebanese side, the keys to the smuggling are held by those that are supported by the party under the guise of party interests. In the past, these supported Fatah and then Al-Saiqah and then Amal. At present, they support the party. They have no other cause except to fill their pockets”. The people do not produce anything and have no fixed income. There is not much hiring in government departments or in the army. That is why a quick relationship develops between those that volunteer to be informants for the party or for the border guard. In the villages, these informants are known by name. The only control by the state known to the inhabitants comes in the form of a Lebanese army helicopter that flies over the Al-Qasr area and carries out periodic reconnaissance. So far, however, it has not uncovered anything. My escort adds: “The smuggling of drugs to Syria is hard but the smuggling of humans has an active market”.