Beirut, Bekaa Valley, Akkar, Asharq Al-Awsat – It appears that the Syrian-Lebanese border will remain subject to deep discussions on either side of the “unofficial and undefined” borders between the two states. These problematic borders also form the point of intersection in which international accusations converge. The chief accusation revolves around smuggling arms to Hezbollah, which according to its officials has managed to boost its military power. In fact, Hezbollah has reportedly become mightier than ever before despite local and international surveillance on the borders.
Lebanon and Syria share a history by virtue of the geographical reality that has created interdependence between the two states; Lebanon needed Syria’s support as an Arab state while Syria was in need of a wider view of the world which it was able to access through the Lebanese window overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. However, it is that very same geography that is the cause behind the multiple crises between the two countries.
Along with the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1926 came a Lebanese mistrust of Syria’s intentions. Since their independence in the 1940s, there have been no Syrian ambassadors to Lebanon and vice versa; a development that has been interpreted as Syria’s refusal to recognize Lebanon despite the latter’s continuous attempts – including the attempts being made today.
Furthermore, the borders between the two states were never demarcated clearly, which has caused various disputes, the most prominent of which is the Shebaa farms, which Lebanon demands that Israel withdraw from and which the international community considers to be part of Syria – thus far.
Dr. Nabil Khalifa, expert in strategic analysis, published a book in early 2006 about eight concerns that govern the Syrian vision of its position in Lebanon. The chief factor he cited was security matters, pointing out that Soviet strategists always used to warn Syria that “any Israeli attack on Damascus will be carried out through Bekaa Valley.”
The controversial borders have been a subject of great concern internationally. Last year in June 2007, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon dispatched a new team, the United Nations’ Lebanon Independent Border Assessment Team (LIBAT), to inspect and assess the Syrian-Lebanese border with the intention of verifying the allegations of arms smuggling into Lebanon.
In its report to the UN Security Council, the team confirmed the presence of “camps of armed Palestinian groups on both sides of the border which creates a major obstruction to border security and to the ability to detail a thorough assessment of the border.”
The report also indicated that “the lack of demarcation of the (Syrian-Lebanese) borders results in additional difficulties since they cannot be decisively determined. Also, border security loses the will and desire to intervene in areas that are not clearly marked.”
The UN report also made mention of the present existing ease through which arms smuggling and the illicit transfer of illegal materials is carried out, concealed in trucks that operate below the radar and deliver their loads through unknown crossing points along the borders. “There is an urgent need for immediate political agreement over this matter,” the report concluded, furthermore calling for the necessity of defining the borders between Lebanon and Syria.
The independent team proposed 11 detailed recommendations to control and regulate the borders and to improve the capacities that can help curb infiltration, arms smuggling and the infiltration of armed elements.
The first recommendation stresses the need to establish “a mobile force comprised of security and intelligence apparatus that could focus on arms smuggling and which can achieve effective results in a short span of time. It would also be a model for other parties to secure their borders and could become a trajectory to launch a future apparatus entitled with border protection.”
Another recommendation entailed the deployment of “experts on either side of the border” and the “setting up of a body that specializes in protecting the borders as part of a long-term strategy, in addition to the establishment of crossing points under strict and comprehensive control and surveillance. Action must be taken to distinguish between legal and illegal cross-border activities through the establishment of mechanisms to dispel all ambiguities.”
The report also pointed out that, “the Lebanese security agencies demonstrate a good level of understanding of the nature of their duties in relation to the provision of resolution 1701. Despite such measures, the current border control strategy, the nature of the terrain, the current state of equipment available and training, as well as the processes and infrastructures at the official Border Crossing Points makes it still possible for arms to be smuggled undetected through the border line.”
The 40-page report goes into meticulous and precise detail about what takes place in the Green Zone area on the Lebanese-Syrian borders, especially given the overlapping areas between the two territories and the stretch of armed Palestinian presence alongside the border.
The Syrian-Lebanese border extends 260 kilometres on which there are approximately 72 crossing points – four of which are official. The four crossings are: The Masnaa crossing on the Beirut-Damascus road; al Obudeya crossing, which links Tripoli to the Syrian city of Tartus; al Aarida, which is in the north as well; and Jusia, which links between Baalbek and Homs. As for the rest of the crossings, they are comprised of unpaved roads or mountain paths; sometimes they are even little makeshift bridges. A number of these unofficial crossing points are used by the Syrians and Lebanese as trading points for personal transactions.
Retired Lebanese general Nizar Abdel-Kader, former deputy chief of staff for army personnel, views this smuggling to be a chronic problem that the state also suffered in the ’70s, same as it did in 1958.
He explained that, “the absence of cooperation in the security capacity between Lebanon and Syria complicates the matter even further – if not making it impossible altogether.”
“All the borders have the propensity to become crossing points with very little cost and effort,” he stated and added that, “[the Lebanese state] continues to be lenient when it comes to controlling the borders and smuggling some materials across, such as diesel oil from Syria.”
The former general found it surprising that there is a lack of “effective coordination between the Lebanese security agencies, whether in Masnaa or at the airport or anywhere else.”
Abdel-Kader disclosed, “the security agencies are still operating as though they were security pockets independent of one another, and the existing process of political recruitment within the Lebanese [security] agencies makes the possibility of effective coordination, especially in sensitive places such as borders, and the prevention of smuggling operations, particularly in hidden paths, virtually impossible to monitor and regulate.
It is reported that during a visit to Damascus, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon raised the subject of border surveillance with the Syrian authorities but his suggestion to deploy UN forces on the borders to control the arms smuggling in Lebanon was rejected.
Following, in his report about the implementation of Resolution 1701, the secretary-general expressed his concern over the reports and explicit declarations made by Hezbollah that referred to “violations of the embargo on arms”.
He said, “All the states in the region, especially Syria and Iran have a major responsibility in this regard. Such violations [such as Hezbollah’s] threaten to detrimentally affect Lebanon’s stability and the entire region’s.”
On its visit to the Masnaa crossing, Asharq Al-Awsat noted the presence of over 120 trucks, refrigerated trucks and buses waiting to enter Lebanese territory as they were inspected and scanned before entry.
A truck driver, Khaled Mohammed Abu Hakl said, “Looks like we will have to wait for two days in this queue. Just look at the statement declaring the goods; agricultural products, and still they insist on scanning it. My brother, whoever wants to smuggle rockets won’t do it through al Masnaa crossing.”
Adnan Salama, a Jordanian driver told Asharq Al-Awsat, “My load is mixed vegetables from Jordan; I have watermelons and lettuce and it takes me two days to traverse three kilometers. I don’t know if the scanner will ruin my goods or not.”
Over the past two weeks, there has been a tangible boost in military presence; armored vehicles and armed troops are accessing areas adjacent to the eastern border and into the mountainous terrain that had previously been unmonitored.
It should be noted that smuggling operations are not a new phenomenon and that they ‘thrived’ during the years of Syrian presence in Lebanon, assisted by loyalists within and a network of smugglers.
All commodities are smuggled, according to the market demands in both states, on the one hand, and the prices suit the poverty-stricken classes, on the other. Smuggled goods include livestock trade, iron and electrical appliances, all types of foodstuffs, in addition to diesel, natural gas, petrol and other materials.