Syria, Lebanon agree new crossing to control border chaos
Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima
The approval of the Lebanese government to open the Mitriba border crossing with Syria raises questions about the economic benefit that can accrue to both the Syrian regime and the Lebanese government and the objectives of opening a new crossing at this time.
The Lebanese Minister of Public Works and Transport, Ali Hamiyah, said in a press statement on 16 March that the Lebanese government had “approved the establishment of a new crossing with Syria in the Hermel district,” explicating that its purpose is to relieve the people of the area from the burden of heading to al-Qaa or al-Masnaa border posts when entering Syria.
A number of Lebanese families live on the Syrian side and own lands there, often having to detour around the Jusiyah crossing to reach their lands in the Hermel area.
According to what the expert and economic researcher Khaled Turkawi said in an interview with Enab Baladi, the recent establishment of Syrian-Lebanese crossings is, in theory, an attempt to triumph over the black market and the underground economy that exist in both Lebanon and Syria.
In the Lebanese case, and since mid-2019, there have been attempts by the Lebanese government under American and Western pressure to close illegal crossings, in particular the crossings used by Hezbollah to enter and exit Lebanon, in addition to the crossings under the control of the Fourth Division from the Syrian side that is under the supervision of Ahmed Jibril’s son, Khaled Jibril (Assistant General Secretary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command, and commander of its military wing), and other crossings under the control of certain corrupt smugglers on its outskirts, according to Turkawi.
The Lebanese army attempted to control the illegal crossings but was only able to close one area where Syrians flee the Syrian Tal Kalakh and Wadi Khaled to get to Lebanese territory, given that the army’s influence is much stronger in these areas than in others for reasons related to the class and sect inhabiting these regions, according to Turkawi.
In February 2021, the British Ministry of Defense announced the delivery of 100 military armored vehicles to the Lebanese army to control the border with Syria.
The Ministry pointed out that the vehicles would improve the chances of “preventing terrorists from entering Europe, and stopping drug and arms smugglers crossing the borders.”
The British Ministry of Defense reminded that the United Kingdom has supported, in recent years, the deployment of four regiments, the construction of more than 75 observation towers, the provision of 350 Land Rover vehicles, and the training of more than 11,000 personnel, to prevent the infiltration of “extremists and smugglers” from Syria.
The British announcement came after statements made in 2019 by the commander of the Lebanese army, General Joseph Aoun, in which he said that his country controls 80 percent of the border strip with Syria, acknowledging its inability to control the entire border.
He explained that what prevented control over the remainder of the border was that it was not demarcated, along with the overlapping geographical nature, whose fortification required double the numbers of military personnel.
In 2020, it was reported that units of the Lebanese army were closing illegal crossings in the Hermel district (where the government opened the new crossing), offset by official denial of the closure of all border crossings in those areas. The border in the area where smuggling operations abound is up to 35 kilometers long and requires a large number of military personnel, which is unavailable due to the suspension of volunteering in the army.
Legal entry of goods
The idea of opening border crossings arose after giving in to smuggling operations and working to resolve them by permitting the legal entry of goods, especially in the Hermel area, where smuggling operations and the movement of cars and motorcycles had not ceased.
Researcher Khaled Turkawi believes that the crossing is, first and foremost, an “argument” against those who use illegal smuggling crossings but will only benefit the Syrian regime or the Lebanese side if it is well controlled. It could therefore benefit the Lebanese government and exert pressure on the Syrian regime.
Hezbollah-led local rejection
Prior to the announcement of the establishment of the crossing, sources told the LebanonOn website that great resentment and annoyance prevailed among the people of Hermel and its villages, considering the creation of the crossing a “fait accompli” imposed upon them.
The sources noted that “personal interests led to the proposal to create a border crossing between Lebanon and Syria through the Mitriba crossing,” noting that “all studies confirmed that it was not fit to be a crossing,” according to the website.
According to said sources, contacts are underway between locals led by Hezbollah and the general director of the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, to illustrate a lack of public social and economic benefit from the crossing.
Smuggling operations into Lebanese territory are frequent and are active through groups from both countries across the land borders, especially with the large number of militias affiliated with the regime forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Baalbek region of the Hermel district is considered one of the strongholds of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside the Syrian regime against opposition factions since 2013, with hundreds of people wanted for crimes most notably of which is drug trafficking.
No direct economic benefits
Syrian researcher and Ph.D. holder in Economics and research director at the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), Karam Shaar, believes that the main purpose of the crossing is to relieve some of the pressure on the other official crossings between the two countries.
Speaking to Enab Baladi, he explained that the Hermel crossing, between the al-Masnaa and al-Qaa crossings, helps facilitate the passage of people through it. Shaar ruled out that the primary purpose of advertising the crossing would be economical.
Shaar believes that the purpose of establishing the crossing is that the unofficial crossings between Syria and Lebanon in Lebanon outnumber the dozens of official ones, which are entirely outside the control of the Lebanese government. He, therefore, did not expect a new official crossing to be added.
The Associate Professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and participant in the project “Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria,” Dr. Joseph Daher, also stressed during an interview with Enab Baladi that there is little economic benefit, as trade exchanges between the two countries have remained the same in recent years.
Also, smuggling operations will not stop at this crossing, nor will smuggled goods be prevented from crossing from Lebanon into Syria.
The border between Syria and Lebanon extends to 375 kilometers. With the opening of the Mitraba crossing, the number of official crossings increased to six: al-Masnaa, al-Dabousiya, Jusiyah, Tal Kalakh, and al-Arida.
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