Security

Lebanese army tackling complexity of securing border with Syria

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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A Lebanese security forces observation tower is seen in Bekaa, on the country's eastern border with Syria. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese Army Command Guidance Directorate]

Lebanese security forces are working to plug the long porous border with Syria, which is dotted with illegal crossings that allow for the infiltration of militants and the smuggling of illegal goods, officials told Al-Mashareq.

To stem the illegal flow of people and goods the Lebanese army, with international support, has set up observation towers outfitted with high-tech equipment to monitor cross-border traffic.

The efforts are already paying off with the arrest and referral to the judiciary of eight "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) militants who entered Lebanon surreptitiously, the Lebanese Army Command announced May 31st.

The Internal Security Forces (ISF) on Monday (June 17th) said they "tracked down and identified a man in southern Lebanon who actively publishes ISIS propaganda on social media networks and recruits new members" for the terrorist group.

The suspect, a 20-year-old Syrian national who resides in the south Lebanon village of Yater, was in contact with people abroad who helped him set up social networking sites to disseminate ISIS propaganda, the ISF said in a statement.

He also used the sites to discuss plans to carry out ISIS attacks on churches -- inspired by the deadly Easter bombings in Sri Lanka -- and Shia religious centres, it added.

Closing illegal border crossings

The border between Lebanon and Syria "is a complex issue, because the territories of the two countries interlock at more than one point, meaning it is impossible to control it 100%", a military source with the Army Command told Al-Mashareq.

However, he said, the army has been able to close many of the illegal crossings, helping to curb the infiltration of militants.

"We are wary of the terrorists who had fought in Syria and are trying to return through illegal crossings," he said, noting that the army is on the lookout for infiltrators using advanced equipment in observation towers along the border.

"It is not possible to provide a specific number of illegal crossings because there are interlocked lands between Lebanon and Syria, especially at the northern border near al-Kabir River, which is more like a rivulet, which means infiltration and smuggling across it is very easy," he said.

Since the border with Syria is difficult to fully control, the Lebanese army conducts regular patrols, sets up ambushes and builds earthen berms to intercept cars and trucks, said the source.

As for the eastern border region, smuggling takes place through the towns of Qasr, al-Masnaa and al-Suwairi, he said.

In Qasr, the border area "is a vast flat area that is difficult to close off", he said. "The army cannot control the illegal crossings in Qasr even if we set up observation towers in it as we did at the northern border near al-Kabir River."

As for the mountainous areas of al-Masnaa and al-Suwairi, the army was able to close 99% of the illegal crossings and conducts regular patrols to prevent infiltration and smuggling, he said.

In addition to monitoring the border areas, security forces also need to control the situation inside Lebanon to ensure militant sleeper cells are broken up and potential terrorist plots are foiled, he said.

Border security 'an urgent need'

Closing the illegal border crossings with Syria "has become an obligation and measures must be quickly implemented", said Strong Republic Bloc MP Chawki Daccache.

"There are about 136 illegal crossings that must be controlled, otherwise we will have a security and economic problem," he told Al-Mashareq, adding that one of the risks includes terrorist attacks in Lebanon.

"We do not want the recent Tripoli incident to be repeated in another city, particularly as the perpetrator was a [former] ISIS element," he said.

On the eve of Eid al-Fitr (June 3rd), former ISIS member Abdul-Rahman Mabsout went on a shooting spree in Tripoli, killing two army personnel and two members of the ISF.

Securing the border "is an urgent need in order to put an end to the infiltration of terrorists and smuggling of weapons and goods that flood the local market", said Michel Nasr, a journalist who specialises in security affairs.

In addition to crossing into Lebanon illegally, some militants also enter through legal crossings with forged documents, he told Al-Mashareq.

In an October 2018 army operation, a specialist in forging documents at the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp known as "al-Hakim" was arrested, Nasr said.

He added that a large number of militants "were arrested as they entered through legal crossings owing to the fact their names were circulated and the movements of their family members were monitored".

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