Debate has returned anew in Lebanon over the existence of serious and increasing international interest in controlling the border with Syria. There has been an increase in positions that shed light on the smuggling phenomenon through 161 corridors on Lebanon’s eastern border, constituting the largest waste outlet of the country’s economic resources. This debate used to intensify and abate according to circumstances. Lebanese political parties allied with Damascus have always opposed restricting and monitoring the border between the two countries, calling for the maintenance of the so-called “military line” between the two countries which allows the movement of goods, individuals and senior personalities without having to go through official screening. On the other hand, powers opposed to Damascus would call for border control by the Lebanese army and security forces and for the closure of all illegal outlets that are protected by Lebanese and Syrian internal powers. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri had announced on 19 May 2020 that he could not stop smuggling across the border with Syria “because there were interests of Lebanese quarters, including Hezbollah, that even Saad Hariri could not stop”.

The cross-border smuggling file on Diab’s agenda

Debate these days relates to the efforts made by the Lebanese government led by Hassan Diab to control spending and come out with an economic plan that would be acceptable for discussion by international donors, especially that Lebanon, that has long relied on financial assistance and grants from Arab quarters, especially Gulf countries, now thinks it inevitable to strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which has become the only gateway required by the donor countries, including those comprising the CEDRE Conference in Paris that promised to offer Lebanon 11 billion dollars to support its economy (the Conference was held in April 2018). Pierre Duquesne, the French ambassador mandated to follow up the implementation of the CEDRE decisions, had spoken in a new and interesting manner during a meeting with the Lebanese government on 18 May 2020 about a tie that has become organic between the Conference decisions and the results of negotiations between the Lebanese government and the IMF.

The smuggling phenomenon is no longer confined, as it was earlier, to smuggling goods imported to Lebanon towards Syria (which could be considered an additional illegal resource of foreign currency for Lebanon). In recent years, the phenomenon has been focused on smuggling goods subsidized by the Lebanese state (especially flour and diesel) in addition to smuggling the dollar available in Lebanon to Syria and Iran.

The positions of Riad Salameh, Governor of the Bank of Lebanon (Central Bank), indicate that the collapse of the exchange rate of the Lebanese pound (lira) against the dollar is attributable to the “plunder” of the dollar in favour of cross-border smuggling. Besides, as announced by the Governor, the Bank’s reluctance to inject dollar into the market is attributable to the fear that any new dollar surpluses would be dried up and withdrawn abroad (Syria). The scandal of smuggling diesel and oil derivatives that are subsidized by the Bank of Lebanon today through securing their import at the official dollar rate (1507) constitutes one of the main reasons for the depletion of the Bank of Lebanon’s foreign exchange reserves within years and for the scarcity of the dollar on Lebanese markets over the last few months. This was referred to officially by the Governor of the Bank of Lebanon Riad Salameh who said a few weeks ago: “4 billion dollars have been depleted from the foreign reserve to finance imports not needed by the Lebanese market”, in reference to the smuggling of petroleum products subsidized by the Bank of Lebanon.

The amounts depleted by smuggling or import in favour of the Syrian markets through Lebanese markets over the last five years are estimated at more than 20 billion dollars, which is the difference between the reserves of the Bank of Lebanon five years ago (more than 40 billion dollars) and their present standing (nearly 20 billion dollars).

Media sources accuse the pro-Damascus member of the Lebanese Parliament Jamil al-Sayyed of putting pressure on the close Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab to put pressure on Salameh to provide the dollars. In a sense, those pressures could be one of the sources of the tension recently noticed between the Prime Minister and the Central Bank Governor. Lebanese security services had launched a campaign that led to the arrest of many exchangers and dollar dealers and exporters to Syria, including some Syrian nationals, who admitted transferring dollars to Syria. It is believed that those renewed pressures are meant to anticipate the enforcement of the Caesar Act within two weeks (June 2020). Endorsed by the US Congress in December 2019, the Act provides for imposing stringent sanctions on the Syrian regime and any associates therewith around the world.

The issue of controlling the Lebanese border with Syria and its complexities

The issue of controlling the Lebanese-Syrian border is not new. It has often been included in the internal and external priorities. Calls have often been made to internationalize that border and deploy UN forces similar to what has been done at the Lebanese-Israeli border in the south of the country. Based on a cooperation agreement with Beirut in previous years, the UK has built specialized towers whose task is supposed to be monitoring that border.

Since 2012, the UK has been providing a programme to “train, equip and direct” the four Lebanese land border regiments and to provide operational training in populated areas at the Hamat and Riyak air bases. Those regiments monitor, limit, deter and thwart the activities carried out by illegal armed operatives in border areas, thus placing the Lebanese border under the authority of the state. Cooperation with the UK aims to enable the Lebanese army to have full authority on its border with Syria. This means that the border will be under increased supervision, allowing the Lebanese army to detect, deter and drive out cross-border illegal activity.

However, addressing the border disorder is not a technical matter that can be controlled by the army, security forces and the Customs services as is the case in the rest of the world; rather, it is a purely political issue that has always been sensitive between Beirut and Damascus since Independence. Indeed, Syria has been keen not to engage in a final process to establish a demarcation line so that the border remained overlapping with no agreed maps between the two countries.

The matter is also political in terms of the nature of the relationship that Damascus wanted to have with Lebanon through the ideological promotion that Lebanon is a part of Syria and therefore there is no need for a border within the “same country”. Indeed, Syria did not exchange embassies with Lebanon until a recent stage (2008) that came about as a result of exceptional Arab and international pressures on Damascus in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.

In fact, the issue of the border with Syria has come to be associated with Iran’s plans to establish a corridor connecting Teheran to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria down to Lebanon. Some western reports had raised this issue over the last few years. On the other hand, in 2017, the Jordanian Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mahmoud Freihat revealed a strategy developed by Iran to achieve this goal. Both the US and Israel have strived to undermine this plan by putting military pressures to prevent Iran from controlling border crossings between Iraq and Syria. Over the last few weeks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights spoke of the existence of US-Russian-Israeli understandings to displace Iranian presence from areas of eastern Syria at the border with Iraq within a plan to disrupt the land connection desired by Iran between its borders and the Mediterranean coasts in Lebanon.

This coordination may have come about in the context of the famous tripartite security meeting between Israel, the US and Russia, held in June 2019 to arrange coordination on Syria. The meeting, which was held in Jerusalem, was presided over by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and attended by Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, US National Security Adviser John Bolton, and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev. In this respect, it is clear that the issue of control by the Lebanese state over the Lebanese-Syrian border is a goal that serves the strategic interests of Israel and the US which seek to stop Iran’s expansion through its arms in a way that would directly threaten Israel’s security through the northern fronts in Lebanon and Syria.

International entanglements of the Lebanese border file

Lebanese media outlets indicate that the ongoing deliberations between the current Lebanese government and the IMF could lead to the requirement that crossings be controlled and monitored. This would mean taking measures that might require international monitoring of the airport and ports as well as the Lebanese-Syrian border. This climate coincides with another in New York that refers to a US-led western endeavour that will be raised by the UN Secretary General António Guterres at the renewal session for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) (August 2020) to develop the tasks of the UN forces deployed along the Lebanese-Israeli border to include deployment at the eastern and northern Lebanese border. Lebanese press has reported this information based on the circles of UN Special Representative in Lebanon Ján Kubiš.

Regardless of the success of those endeavours in view of the likely Chinese-Russian opposition, they create pressing and serious climates that release the potential scenarios for approaching the Lebanese and Syrian issues within any settlement that Russia develops and seeks to promote with the international community to end the war in Syria. Those climates appear to be advanced to a degree that worries Hezbollah in Lebanon and drives its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to reject the idea of internationalizing the border with Syria despite his earlier acceptance (after the 2006 war) of the internationalization of the border with Israel.

Hezbollah believes that the international monitoring of this border would deprive Hezbollah of the logistical lines connecting it to Iran that has over the last few decades provided Hezbollah with military and financial resources and that such an occurrence could lead to an outbreak of war. The Head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council Hashem Saffeidine had announced on 20 May 2020 that the voices calling for the deployment of international troops along the Syrian-Lebanese border “are not in a position to realize this, otherwise they would have imposed it during the July 2006 war”. He warned of the consequences of considering the deployment of international troops at the border. He said: “we know that this would have serious consequences”, implying that a war could break out to prevent it. He added: “after 2006, there were political voices in Lebanon that called for the deployment of international troops at the border with Syria . . . Some had even been seeking to create a joint operations room with the Americans to control movement between Lebanon and Syria, but they failed’.

It was noticed that the tone used by the Hezbollah leadership in rejecting the internationalization of the Lebanese-Syrian border was calm. This could be attributable to the amount of pressures put on it externally and internally. Hezbollah leaders suggested that the solution be through intensive coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian governments and mutual cooperation to prevent the smuggling phenomenon and control the border.

Internal and external problems

The relationship between Beirut and Damascus raises a political problem that divides the Lebanese. In addition to the anti-Damascus position adopted by the political powers that were members of the “March 14 Alliance” as opposed to the position supportive of Hezbollah and its allied powers, Lebanon is reluctant to establish advanced relations with the Syrian regime in a manner that would conflict with the position of the international community (especially donor countries and institutions) which still opposes any normalization with Damascus before the launch of a UN-agreed political process. This puts Beirut in an embarrassing and isolated position.

It is not easy for the Lebanese state to control the Lebanese-Syrian border unless that state is strengthened and unless there is an internal consensus that the state is solely responsible for arms, security and sovereignty in Lebanon, which is still elusive in light of the internal Lebanese controversy. In addition, the pressures put by western powers, particularly the US, cannot achieve that goal without reaching a comprehensive regional settlement that includes Iraq and Syria and within which the extent of the Iranian influence would be clearly determined. It was only after Lebanon was exposed to a destructive war in 2006 that the Lebanese border with Israel was internationalized and Hezbollah accepted the deployment of the Lebanese army and UN troops along that border under Security Council Resolution 1701. In the absence of any Israeli or international plans to proceed to the war logic, the international community is unlikely to impose on Lebanon the deployment of UN troops along its eastern border with Syria.

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