Lebanese border watchtowers anger Syrian regime

Britain emphasizes the importance of border watchtowers in protecting Lebanon and maintaining its security – January 2019 (Daily Mail)

Britain emphasizes the importance of border watchtowers in protecting Lebanon and maintaining its security – January 2019 (Daily Mail)

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Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

The issue of Lebanese watchtowers on the Syrian border continues to create a state of political tension between Lebanon and the Syrian regime, following recent comments from the regime on the matter.

On March 17, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces party, stated via “X” that the Syrian government had sent a letter of protest to Lebanon in recent weeks regarding the towers Lebanon had built on its soil to control its borders, to stop the smuggling of drugs, weapons, goods, and banned materials. The message’s objective was to claim that these towers threaten Syria’s national security.

Geagea criticized this notion by saying, “What first draws attention and surprise is the Syrian government’s talk of a national security that does not exist these days, amidst Iranian militias and Russian, Turkish, American armies, among others. So, what national security is this government talking about, and which Syrian sovereignty?”

He also pointed out that the towers, which Damascus objects to, are located at the border within Lebanese territory, while affirming Lebanon’s right to establish towers to monitor and control the smuggling of banned substances, materials, and drugs.

Geagea considered that what most upset the Syrian regime was the tracking of its drug smuggling, being the main drug dealer in the region, and in the world. The clashes on the Syrian-Jordanian border are the most evident proof of this. He also called on the Lebanese officials, and those still conspiring with the Syrian regime, to stop their conspiracy with an outdated regime that contradicts the interest of Lebanon.

The Lebanese response

Geagea’s statements came after Lebanon’s Nida al-Watan newspaper (published since July 2019) highlighted, on March 16, the response of the Lebanese Army Command to the Syrian letter concerning the watchtowers.

According to the newspaper, the response sent to the Syrian officials matches the one sent by the Lebanese Army Command to Damascus in 2017, after receiving a similar Syrian letter.

The Lebanese Army clarified in its response that the purpose of the towers is to protect the borders and prevent smuggling through the joint border points, to monitor and stop the infiltration of smugglers, or the trafficking of weapons and drugs into and out of Lebanon. It also indicated that the equipment on the towers is solely associated with the Lebanese Army, with cameras directed towards the Lebanese territory, not the Syrian side, and not used by external parties.

Furthermore, the Lebanese response clarified that the objective of these towers and fortifications is to protect army personnel and secure communications among them, especially considering the harsh weather conditions on the border. It noted that the construction of the towers was completed with the help of a friendly country, but their management is in the hands of the Lebanese Army.

Syrian regime protests

Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, reported on February 23 the Syrian regime’s protest against the British towers. It stated that after years of watching the American and British activities on the Syrian border, the Syrian government decided to send an official note to the Lebanese government regarding the towers spread along the border from the mouth of the al-Kabir River in the north to beyond the Rashaya area in the Bekaa.

The memo sent by the Syrian Foreign Ministry to the Lebanese side considered the towers, built by the British for the four land border regiments of the Lebanese Army on the Syrian border, as a threat to Syrian national security.

According to the Syrian regime’s account, the equipment included in the tower system can survey deep within Syrian territory and gather information about the Syrian interior; consequently, the information obtained is available to the British, and Israel benefits from this data for its strikes into the heart of Syria.

The regime also referred to visits conducted by British officers to the towers, insinuating that the British are playing a negative role towards Damascus and have been participating with the Americans and other Western forces in their war against Syria since 2011, as per their narrative.

The Syrian stance relied on international law related to the shared borders between countries, which requires the first state (Lebanon), in the absence of warfare between the two states, to provide the second state with the information obtained from the monitoring towers established along the second’s borders.

First of its kind

As reported by the Lebanese LBC TV channel, the statement from Damascus is the first of its kind after a cautious policy in dealing with the Lebanese state since the beginning of diplomatic representation between the two countries in 2009, even during the peak of the military operations in Syria.

On February 27, the Lebanese Foreign Minister, Abdullah Bou Habib, told the Lorient Today website that he is awaiting responses from the concerned parties before formulating a reply, which is likely to be discussed in the cabinet, with suspicions that the Syrians are concerned about the possibility of sharing the information collected by the army on their borders with a third party.

According to the Lebanese official, the majority of these towers, except for those in Akkar and North Bekaa, do not have a direct view of the Syrian side, according to Nicholas Blanford, a researcher at the Atlantic Council. Even the towers with the most exposure do not offer a broad perspective.

There are 39 towers along the Lebanese borders, protecting Lebanon from an invasion by the Islamic State organization, strategically located, measuring 30 feet in height, including seven towers previously used by the British Army in Northern Ireland, as well as utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of a campaign worth £62 million to counter the Islamic State forces in Syria, according to a report by the British newspaper, Daily Mail.

A British team of around 40 veterans trained 11,000 Lebanese soldiers on how to use the towers to monitor terrorists approaching them since the project began in 2012.

In December of 2014, the then British ambassador in Lebanon revealed that his country spent about £20 million to build the watchtowers and supply the Lebanese Army with the necessary military equipment to protect its borders, as conveyed by the Lebanese channel MTV.

A different perspective

During an interview conducted by The Cradle website (specializing in geostrategic, military, and security issues in West Asia) with a high-ranking official in the Lebanese Army in August 2021, the military official, who preferred to remain anonymous, stated that while the official reason for building the towers was the movements of the Islamic State organization, the goal was clearly to achieve full control over the eastern borders, to extend authority over all borders with Syria.

The Lebanese military official highlighted that the Americans and the British understand that Hezbollah brings in its weapons through land routes, hence the real purpose of the towers is to observe Hezbollah and Syrian movements, mentioning the “Model Regiment” project in the south, which was approved for equipment and funding since the Rome conference.

The source, with ties to the Axis of Resistance in Damascus, conveyed through the website that “the Axis” understands the purpose of the border towers and the British and American interests in supporting the Lebanese Army without providing it with weapons that could serve these interests, by focusing on the borders with Israel, and on the Syrian borders, to monitor and capture the Lebanese Hezbollah supply line.

The towers and military equipment are not the only areas of cooperation between Lebanon and Britain. In September 2023, the Lebanese Army conducted military exercises lasting ten days, which are considered the largest ever between the two sides, and took place with participation from more than 65 military personnel from the British Army’s second regiment (Parachute Regiment), along with military from the Lebanese Air Assault Regiment, according to the DEFSEC military affairs website.

The matter is incumbent upon the government

The head of political training in the Lebanese Forces party, Charbel Eid, clarified to Enab Baladi that the party supports the Lebanese army’s statement, since these towers do not affect the “national security” of the Syrian regime. Today Syria is one thing and the Syrian regime is another, in his opinion.

Eid explained that the purpose of these towers is to control smuggling in all its forms, stating that the Syrian regime’s stance is laughable, as national security is contradicting with the presence of four armies and armed militias on Syrian territory, including Hezbollah.

“The towers are a pressing sovereign and economic necessity for Lebanon, and the Syrian regime is accustomed to living at the expense of the Lebanese economy, particularly through smuggling that has expanded to include drugs, as the Syrian regime leads one of the biggest drug smuggling networks globally,” added Eid.

Regarding the Lebanese stance on the regime’s view of these towers, he believes that the Lebanese army’s position is irreversible, but the final decision is in the hands of the government, which follows the Axis of Resistance, a government of Hezbollah and Iran. There is international support for the persistence of the towers, but at the same time, it is not possible to predict the position of this government.

The regime’s renewed rejection of these towers may be tied to the British proposal related to establishing towers on the Lebanese border with the occupied Palestinian territories, to prevent the Lebanese government from undertaking this step with support from the Axis of Resistance, and to bring the subject back to full discussion, according to the official in the Lebanese Forces party.

For his part, the former Vice-President of the Lebanese Future Movement, Mustapha Alloush, believes that these towers could affect the Syrian national security if the state was responsible for its borders and if these borders were not completely violated by Iranian militias.

Alloush told Enab Baladi that the towers, established with British support, are part of Resolution 1701 that called for border control. However, those conducting the smuggling are Iranian agents in cooperation with “what remains of authority in Syria”, pointing out that the current reintroduction of the subject by the Syrian regime might be at the behest of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as it appears that these towers have started to hinder their operations.

Since 2013

According to the British government data in 2015, the border towers in Lebanon have been operational since 2013, and a press statement issued in 2018 by the government talked about Britain’s assistance to Lebanon in building 75 observation towers and forward operating bases along the Lebanese border with Syria.

In November 2021, the British Ambassador to Lebanon conducted a visit to the land borders in the Bekaa, celebrating more than a decade of military cooperation between Britain and Lebanon.

Since 2010, Britain has allocated more than 84 million pounds to enable the Lebanese army to improve, develop, and modernize its capabilities, to become a professional army capable of defending Lebanon and providing security along the border with Syria, according to the Lebanese National News Agency.

 

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