Monday, October 03, 2005

Syria in Lebanon - a small contribution to the discourse

Tony at Across the Bay has posted an entry with a link to a very interesting article published by the Middle East Quarterly. The article is titled Syria After Lebanon: Hooked on Lebanon. It was written by Gary C. Gambill, who was the editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, an e-journal that used to be published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

I present this background information because it is important to be transparent when it comes to such investigative articles. Before anyone starts bashing the author though, I urge that you take a good look at his comprehensive set of footnotes. In short, if you're going to do the bashing, bash his work, not his background.

Tony, if you're reading this, I don't mean to hijack your entry or piggy back on it. It is just that I read the article, thought it was great and also realized that I had written about the financial impact of Syria's departure from Lebanon on the regime back in July when the border blockade was in full swing. The difference between the two pieces is that whereas Gary's main focus was on the underground economy and corruption at the level of the political elite, my focus was specifically on what I termed the "border mafia" - a much narrower field of vision which could be justified given the nature of developments at the time.

In the interest of complementing Gary's contribution I will paste certain portions of my entry which I thought were the most elucidating:

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.

At the time, my analysis focused on looking at the Syrian soldier and officer as Assad's "most important constituents," rather than Syrian merchants who would not have perceived the border blockade economically punishing, in any sense.

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!

Gambill, however, takes the discourse to a whole different level. He focuses on several dimensions of the Syrian regimes financial interests in Lebanon:

  1. The underworld
  2. The corrupt dealings of the elite
  3. Syrian Labor
  4. Syiran Agriculture
The most interesting aspect in his piece was his research. The information he provided was fascinating and will, at the very least, help everyone understand the depth of Syria's "penetration" into every single aspect of Lebanon's socio-economic fabric. It is simply scary!


Anton Efendi said...

I remember your post, and I thought I linked to it at the time (I can't remember). But I don't quite understand the disclaimer regarding Gambill.

What I found most interesting was how he presented the interconnection of business and politics, but not just in Lebanon, but how they were tied to internal power struggles in Syria (which are tangential to sectarian struggles in Syria).

So when people like Juan Cole were first pontificating about the Hariri murder, some talked about it being related to "business." After reading Gambill, readers will hopefully realize how silly and shallow that remark is.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Raja, he did well to further identify the source of the article. That said, there is nothing much in Gambill's article that was not in J. Faddoul's article a year ago, or in Commerce du Levant 6 months ago... Sadder still the situation he describes is not very different from East Beirut under the FL in the 80's, West Beirut under the leftists+Palestinians in the 70's... We are just ruled by different gangs. Time to realize that we have fundamental structural problems and try to find solutions. It is not just a matter of making the Syrians/Cole/collaborators... look bad, but to have a decent country at long last.


Raja said...

Tony, I just don't want people to start commenting on the fact that Gambill works/ed for Zionists, etc, etc.... So I thought it would be a great idea to lay it all out from the get-go.

As for your reasons for finding his article interesting, I agree with you. I also agree with PA, with regards to how dubious and even sinister these arrangements appear.

In the final analysis, my little expose dealt with the small fry (i.e. mid to low ranking officers and even rank & file soldiers). Gambill went after the big fry and how political influence was not just a one-way stream from Syria to Lebanon, but was rather two-way and much more complicated than most would assume (as you suggested, Tony).

It remains to be seen how far the Hariris and the remaining cliques will go to cut Syria's substantial financial interests in the country - if it is possible to do anything of the sort - and if so, whether the Powers in the West will sanction such moves. All questions that Gambill, in one way or another, brings up as well.

Anton Efendi said...

I see. yeah I guess I see your point. And it's not about "making [anyone] look bad." But as I said in my post, it puts the dots on the i's and should make people think about opponents of World Bank and EU or UN calls for economic and administrative reforms that were sabotaged on a regular basis under the Syrians.

The Seniora government and the FM coalition (except for Jumblat) are in on the program, and the Aounist opposition also backs these reforms and addressing corruption and waste (hadr). Which is why I pointed out what I pointed out in my last post (the portofolios etc.) and the one before it.

So I'm not sure about the parallel with the situation in the 80s. I mean that was in the middle of war. It wasn't supposed to be that way after the war was over and the Taef was signed! That's why I keep saying that the opponents of reform are the ones seeking to recreate the Syrian era without the Syrians.

Anonymous said...

Anychance anybody who what happened to
It went of of the air for four days without further notice.Though it was

Raja said...

sorry anon, can't help you there. I don't visit that website anymore, so I wouldn't know. 8:05

Anton Efendi said...

Raja, I have to admit you were right. Check out that idiot Tarek's comment to my last post.

I guess I give people more credit that some actually deserve. But I should've known that demagogy and that good ol' Baathist logic trumps everything that has to do with grey cells.

Anonymous said...

You're forgetting the bread! Ever wondered why there are so many bakeries on the last stretch of road between Stoura and the border? The bread. Obligatory stop for each taxi driver; the bakery. By a pack of bread (or two), and leave them at the top of the luggage in the back. The moment the back swings open, the officer takes out the bread. I've been told they sell them to hotels in Damascus.

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Anon, we shouldn't exagerate, it's true that they don't have enough dollars in Syria but I think that they have bread .