Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Lebanon Retaliates

Yesterday, Naharnet and the Daily Star reported that Lebanese authorities and Syrian smugglers clashed somewhere along Lebanon’s northern border. Majdoline Hatoum of the Daily Star claimed that

A gun battle broke out between Lebanese police and Syrian smugglers in the
northern city of Qaa…. One Lebanese officer was slightly wounded and the
smugglers returned to Syria…. A police source also claimed a Syrian border
patrol member shot toward Lebanese Customs Officers.

Naharnet reported that

The shootout took place just outside the Lebanese village of Qaa, 100 kilometers
(60 miles) northeast of Beirut, in an area where Lebanon's border with Syria is
not clearly demarcated. Lebanon recently increased its patrols along the area's
mountain trails to curb smuggling.

This development is good news! It is good news because certain Lebanese authorities are not only retaliating against the recent Syrian belligerency, they are retaliating wisely.

Border Mafia: a Flourishing Enterprise for the Syrian Armed Forces

The smuggling of goods across the Syrian-Lebanese border is an enterprise that has been flourishing since the end of the civil war. Between the Lebanese and Syrian border crossings in Masna’a for example, there is a five-kilometer stretch of highway that crosses what some people refer to as “no-man’s land.” Smugglers got so confident during Syria’s tutelage of Lebanon, that they’d actually drive their over-loaded 1970s pickup trucks down the wrong direction of the highway without any hint of fear from the authorities (Lebanese or Syrian). I saw them with my own eyes – every time I’d visit Syria, at least one of those vehicles would cruise down the highway; in the wrong direction, mind you. Every time I’d see them, my blood would boil in anger and frustration!

One of things I’d do in Syria was seek answers to some of the questions and issues that troubled me. During this one trip for example, I started a discussion with the driver of the vehicle I was in. It revolved around his experience in Syria’s obligatory two-year military service. During the discussion, I learnt something fascinating!

To the Syrian officer or soldier, the most sought-for posting was at border crossings. If they managed to get posted in one (especially a crossing that experienced considerable traffic), it meant that they were set for life! Only those with enough connections (wasta) however, could pull such a stunt off. Furthermore, the armed forces had institutionalized and strictly enforced short-term rotations, so that as many well-connected servicemen as possible could get a taste of that “border honey” as possible.

How did these state-sponsored border mafias make their money? Well, the list is quite long, and anyone who crosses the border with Syria can easily find out.

1. Passport Control: Put in a dollar or two inside of your passport for “express service.” Otherwise, the questions will go on and on, and five or six other passports will be stamped before yours

2. Car Registration: Every time, you enter or leave Syria, you have to register your car. Again, there’s the option of express service

3. Car Searches: You have two options: 1) comprehensive search 2) half-blind search. I don’t need to mention what the variable here is

4. Customs Laws for Goods: The real money is made when Syrian Customs officers search trucks carrying goods to or through Syria. These guys can make life really difficult for truck drives and transport companies especially because the laws in Syria are not exactly “business friendly”.

5. Smuggling of Goods: I’m not too sure what the scale of these operations is. However, considering the intensity of complaints from Lebanese agriculturalists in recent years, it is most-likely quite considerable. The three partners of these operations are (or were) the Syrian military, the Lebanese military and Arab/Bedouin tribes.

Syrian Economy not Hit; but Regime Potentially Hit Hard

There’s no question about it: the economic blockade hurts the Lebanese economy more than the Syrian. Even if Lebanese authorities decided to retaliate by imposing their own barrier on Syrian imports, Lebanese consumers would loose more than Syrian producers. However, considering the nature of the Syrian regime, approaching the conflict from such an angle is simply missing the point.

To the Ba’th dictatorship, pressure from the economic sector comes in a distant second place to pressure from the security/military apparatuses. After the assassination of Hariri, passenger traffic to and from Syria decreased significantly. After the economic blockade, traffic of goods plummeted as well. The only source of revenue that remained untouched (and maybe even increased as a result of the blockade) was the smuggling of goods across the border.

By targeting the smugglers, Lebanese authorities are taking from the Syrian military its last source of revenue in the border areas – the fact that Syrian border guards shot at Lebanese officers could indicate the inevitable frustration. Moreover, in order to have engaged the smugglers the authorities have proven that they are no longer partners in the smuggling operations. When put in the larger context of the overall withdrawal from Lebanon, it becomes clear that the Syrian military has abruptly lost some a major source of revenue.

Taking this reality into consideration, and juxtaposing it on the fact that Bashar’s click in the Ba’th depends overwhelmingly on corruption to maintain the loyalty of the security services, it is easy to see that the regime is really stretching its luck by adopting such a policy. Their country’s economy may not be harmed significantly by the blockade, but the loyalty of their security apparatus may now be considered to be in doubt (especially if the blockade continues into the future).

Do I have a timeline? No. But I do know that the regime in Damascus is prohibiting Syrian officers and soldiers from accessing one of their major sources of (outside) revenue available to them. Unless Damascus can come up with an alternative gold mine, it is easy to conclude that such a policy is not sustainable. So my advice to Lebanese authorities is to keep up the pressure by prohibiting the smugglers from running their operations. If the authorities in Damascus won’t feel the pressure from Syrian merchants, then they’ll hear it from their officers pretty soon – a much more powerful constituent!


Doha said...

Interesting analysis! I believe that other than our officers putting pressure on the smugglers, it is important for us to demarcate the border between Syria and Lebanon. This is extremely important, because then in case of breaches, it would be possible to file charges (while now it's impossible because we can't prove that smuggling is happening on which side of the border.)

LBC actually did an amazing report on the issue of the borders. They showed us stretches and stretches of unguarded, undemarcated areas wherein a Lebanese would find it more expedient to go to Syrian territories to buy necessities and seek health care for instance. Moreover, the reporter interviewed a couple of people driving along this area who claimed that they are free to move around and the reporter actually found out that she's on Syrian territory (ooops!). So there's a lot to do on that end.

JoseyWales said...

Good piece Raja, though I see no evidence that the Lebanese officers got new orders from their gvmt.

I actually have a hard time believing the current (or any) Leb. gvmt. is that smart or that ballsy.

momo said...

Hoohaaaaaa! time to kick ass for a change and stand up for syria