The Fight Against Smuggling between Lebanon and Syria: All Smoke and Mirrors

Two opposing views: one links the problem to illegal trafficking of goods, and the second wants to tighten the noose around Hezbollah.

At the Qaa-Jousseh border post in 2017, the Syrian authorities consider Lebanese and Syrians as one people. AFP photo

Ever since the government announced in mid-May its decision to intensify the fight against the smuggling of goods between Lebanon and Syria (one of the conditions set by the International Monetary Fund with which it is currently negotiating), security operations have increased on the borders as well as on illegal passageways.

Truckloads of fuel oil destined for Syria have been reportedly seized in the northern region of Akkar while trucks smuggling food, household appliances and cleaning products into Lebanon have also been confiscated.

But such efforts, according to government critics and principally the Lebanese Forces, remain below the expectations. What is required is a "clear decision" concerning Hezbollah's arsenal as the critics believe that the ongoing smuggling, Hezbollah funding, its weapons and military involvement in Syria are deeply intertwined. The Shiite party, on its part, insists on the need to separate the two files, by advancing dialogue between the two neighboring countries to fight illicit trafficking of goods, without compromising its military activities.

Why is the Lebanese-Syrian border so porous? Why has the Lebanese Army never been able to close the illegal crossings in a drastic way? Moreover, can the issue of smuggling goods on the Lebanese-Syrian border be separated from the political reasons which prevent the authorities from ending it?

Refusal to recognize Lebanon

Smuggling between Lebanon and Syria dates back to the first years of Lebanon’s independence. However, no figures are available on its volume. "As recounted in history books, the smuggling was so lucrative that candidates from peripheral regions were seeking to be elected so that they could benefit from it," said Karim Bitar, IRIS associate researcher and associate professor at Saint Joseph University. "Politicians were thus engaged in all kinds of trafficking, using their personal cars or those of their immediate entourage," added the Middle East specialist. This is how "considerable fortunes" were made.

Historical and ideological considerations are at the origin of these unregulated trade relations between Lebanon and Syria. "Syria did not consider Lebanon to be an independent entity," said Kassem Kassir, an analyst with close ties to Hezbollah. Even after the drafting of the national pact (which recognized the creation of an independent Lebanon), this practice persisted, given the interactivity between Lebanese and Syrian families on both sides of the border, and existing Lebanese enclaves in Syria. "Lebanon and Syria share a large border that is impossible to control completely,” he added. While Shiite regions are generally blamed for the smuggling, "the illegal routes of Akkar and Arkoub (Sunnis and Alawites) are just as infamous," he noted. "During the Lebanese war, they allowed smuggling of weapons for the Palestinian factions."

Many attempts to end smuggling have been in vain. "And this was long before Hezbollah," said Kassir. Back then, illegal trafficking took place mainly from Syria to Lebanon, because the Syrian currency was weaker. Goods were much cheaper, and residents of the border regions used to shop in Syria. It was enough to slip a few bills or cigarettes to customs officials.

"But today, Syria, which is under embargo and suffers from the plunging value of its currency, needs flour and fuel in particular, hence the traffic of these products, subsidized by the Lebanese state, into its territory," said Kassir. It is a net loss for Lebanon, which sees its efforts to contain the rise in the prices of bread and fuel serving the interests of the Syrian regime, at a time when the two countries are facing their greatest financial crises.

Lebanese and Syrians: two populations striving to survive

The fact remains that illegal trafficking is taking place in both directions, along the Lebanese-Syrian border. "This traffic has four aspects," said Amine Issa, the political coordinator of the National Bloc, listing them as "historical, linked to the Syrian refusal to recognize the independence of Lebanon; politico-military, linked to Hezbollah's need to cross the borders without constraint, given its military engagement in Syria; mafia-like, with traders involved and covered by corrupt authorities; and finally social, because it represents an alternative for border villagers neglected by the Lebanese state."

For Shadi Nasrallah, a resident of the northeast border village of Qaa, shopping in Syria is essential for the "survival" of the border population, faced with the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, the absence of the state, and long distances. “Here, everything is expensive," Nasrallah said, noting how hard it is to make a trip to the city of Zahleh, which is located 85 km from Qaa, while public transportation is not available.

In contrast, Syria is close and everyone has family there. So, the Lebanese find it easier to go to Syria where they "buy subsidized products in addition to food supplies, household appliances and pharmaceutical products," he said, adding that they also go there for medical consultations and to complete their university studies. Therefore, he believes it is normal that Lebanese subsidized products are being sent to Syria. "This is not contraband. Both Syrians and Lebanese are benefiting, the Lebanese even more."

Bashir Matar, the head of Al Qaa Municipality, sees things differently, referring to "an unhealthy situation which benefits the mafias, the Syrian state, the refugees who go back and forth, but which harms the Qaa’s farmers."

Matar explained that the region is "flooded with Syrian goods which unfairly compete with local products," such as poultry, meat, milk, and agricultural products. "Fuel oil and flour are being illegally sent to Syria, while the Lebanese are having difficulty finding fuel oil." Moreover, this Christian border town which was the scene of jihadist terrorist attacks in 2016, “ still fears for its safety."

The situation in Baalbek is not much different. Smuggling takes place with the complicity of local forces, mainly Hezbollah, "which allows trafficking to the point of regulating it at times, when it becomes too obvious," according to some local sources. "The illegal passageways are wide open towards Syria, mainly for the traffic of fuel and flour."

Tanks and smugglers are protected by local groups, in full view of the inhabitants, with the complicity of the Syrian army who lets them cross without even asking for bribes," said Mohammad, a resident of the region. Of course, some passages are checked, but only for a short period of time. "Smugglers are then asked to come back later," he said. Even though the inhabitants are not happy with the rising fuel prices resulting from the illicit trafficking to Syria, which sometimes result in a fuel shortage, they are benefiting from such cross-border activities. Many products are illegally imported from Syria at unbeatable prices. “The cheaper products in Syria are sent to Lebanon and the cheaper products in Lebanon are sent to Syria," a reality summed up by a retired army officer on condition of anonymity. "The smuggling of the poor accounts for 5% of trafficking; that of the militia (the Hezbollah, editor's note) represents the rest. It includes weapons and men, but also all kinds of goods, food products, household appliances, electronics…,” he said.

International Calls for Reforms

Today, Lebanon which is facing the most serious financial crisis in its history, has turned to the international community. It has also asked for help from the International Monetary Fund. But this aid is contingent upon reform measures required by the IMF, which the Lebanese authorities will have to put in place.

At the heart of these reforms are a definitive termination of smuggling which is depriving the state of revenues, the adoption of a plan for the electricity sector, the consolidation of the public service and finally the liberalization of the exchange rate between the Lebanese pound and the dollar. This is not to mention the fact that Washington intends to tighten its sanctions against the Syrian regime and its Lebanese, Iranian and other allies, as soon as the Caesar Act comes into effect on June 17, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). "This is a way for the United States to tighten the grip on Hezbollah a bit more,” said our correspondent Munir Rabih.

"Therefore, the smuggling issue will not be only economic or technical, but eminently political, linked to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and to the smuggling in men and weapons. It is common knowledge that the contraband routes, estimated at more than 200 in total, are mostly controlled by the Shiite party," said Rabih.

In a country reeling from a crisis, Hezbollah’s men have flooded the market with low-priced products illegally brought in without customs duties, hence depriving the state of substantial revenues. When the authorities were confronted with the need to put an end to smuggling (from both directions), "many crossings have been sealed off" by the Lebanese army. " For the Lebanese state, ending smuggling means preventing the flow of subsidized goods and continuing to turn a blind eye to the movement of Hezbollah’s men and weapons," he said. "Proof of this is that the party’s military routes, Brital-Assal el-Ward, Hermel-Qussair among others, are still open.”

The State’s Lack of Will ...

Hence the controversy over the passageways launched in early May by Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, who called for a "clear and official decision." MP Ziad Hawat reiterated the position a few days ago and sent an information note to the Lebanese courts regarding the matter. "No drastic decision has been taken to protect the borders," Hawat said. "All official initiatives that have been announced remain 'folkloric'," he told L'Orient-Le Jour.

According to the Lebanese Forces MP, the fight against smuggling is not limited to preventing illegal smuggling of goods. "We are fully aware that the smuggling routes are open to Hezbollah fighters (who support the Syrian regime militarily)," Hawat said. "However, Lebanon cannot recover as long as Hezbollah's arsenal remains outside the law, and as long as the disassociation policy regarding the Syrian conflict is not being applied. Hence the financial and political embargo that is choking Lebanon in the framework of the US-Iranian conflict,” he observed, denouncing “the state's lack of will."

Indeed, the Lebanese state is lacking the will to stop the smuggling which is financing the activities of Hezbollah," said the retired officer, accusing "the government of turning a blind eye, with the approval of the head of state." The former army member said he assumed that smuggling of goods cannot be separated from Hezbollah's funding.

"It is not a technical question, but an eminently political one, linked to when the Lebanese state decides to be in charge instead of allowing Hezbollah to do so," he said. On the Army decision to close the illegal passageways, the retired officer regretfully said "it is just smoke and mirrors, with the sole purpose of making the international community believe that Lebanon is applying UN Resolution 1701 (which calls in particular for the disarmament of Hezbollah and the extension of the Lebanese government’s authority to all its territory), knowing that as a result, the country is hoping to benefit from international aid."

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah commented on these calls, saying that solutions can be found in Syria. "Even if the Lebanese army deploys all along the border with Syria, it won’t be able to stop smuggling between the two countries," said Nasrallah, who advocates a normalization of relations with Syria and a dialogue with the Syrian regime to solve the problem. He thus made clear that he was not talking about "the crossing of resistance fighters into Syria", saying "this is a different issue."

According to political analyst Kassem Kassir, "the issue of Hezbollah’s arsenal must be separated from the economic aspect of smuggling. This matter can only be resolved by international consensus." Kassir said that certain parties are trying to exploit the situation in order to put forward the idea of deploying international forces on the Lebanese-Syrian border. "Smuggling was never a source to fund Hezbollah, only people close to the party are benefiting from it," he said, referring to the need of "controlling the situation as much as possible, with the two neighboring countries cooperating while respecting their interests."

But "the socio-economic fabric of the residents of the areas bordering with Syria should be maintained," warned Amine Issa, recalling the long-standing influx towards Beirut of the inhabitants of southern Lebanon, forming a poverty belt around the capital. "Before sealing off the borders in these villages neglected by the Lebanese state, it is crucial to consider a holistic approach to the problem."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 30th of May)

Ever since the government announced in mid-May its decision to intensify the fight against the smuggling of goods between Lebanon and Syria (one of the conditions set by the International Monetary Fund with which it is currently negotiating), security operations have increased on the borders as well as on illegal passageways.Truckloads of fuel oil destined for Syria have been reportedly seized in...