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Illegal crossings threaten Lebanon's security, economy

By Junaid Salman in Beirut

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This photo of the north-eastern border between Lebanon and Syria shows the ruggedness of the terrain between the two countries. [Junaid Salman/Al-Mashareq]

Illegal land crossings between Lebanon and Syria have been a problem for decades, but the threat they pose to Lebanon's security and economy has grown more severe in recent years, Lebanese officials have warned.

This is because the Syrian war has led to the spread of extremist groups in the region, they said, and because the economic situation in Lebanon has become increasingly perilous, due to growing debt and a decline in economic indicators.

Several Lebanese officials have in recent weeks expressed concern about the number of illegal crossings, which flourish in areas of rugged terrain and where there is no demarcation of the border between the two countries.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil in July decried the "more than 124 smuggling crossings", saying smuggling is the most serious threat to Lebanon's economy.

Smuggling also is "a major contributor to the deficit in public finances and decline in revenue", he said.

He warned that if the problem continues unabated, it will lead to Lebanon’s financial collapse and destroy its ability to make progress, launch development projects or make investment expenditures.

Solving this problem, he said, requires the creation of a working group with representation from all relevant security and customs agencies under a unified operations room, through which deficiencies can be identified and addressed.

Dealing with illegal crossings

In late July, Minister of Interior and Municipalities Raya al-Hassan and Minister of National Defence Elias Bou Saab briefed the parliamentary justice and administration committee on how to deal with the illegal crossings.

Bou Saab said the illegal crossings are located along the 100-kilometre stretch of the border in the north and the 210-kilometre eastern border with Syria.

So far this year, he said, the Lebanese army has arrested 449 smugglers: 290 Lebanese, 145 Syrians and 14 of other nationalities.

He noted the difficulty of controlling a certain 30-kilometre section of the border, where some villages and towns are intersected by the border line.

"Without an actual demarcation of the borders, we cannot say that we [control] 100% of the borders," he said.

Both informal and organised smuggling has been reported, Bou Saab said, with the latter "carried out through 10 to 15 crossings, some of which are not active year-round".

The rest are foot-crossings that have been used in the past for smuggling people and weapons from Lebanon to Syria, he said, cautioning that "terrorists could today be trying to use them once again".

The Lebanese army has set up 200 border posts, he said, of which 74 contain advanced towers provided by the country's allies.

Lebanese MP Wehbe Qatisha of the Lebanese Forces political party told Al-Mashareq these crossings pose a security and economic threat, though they are relatively few in number due to the ruggedness of the terrain.

The army has closed many of these crossings, he said, noting that their number often has been exaggerated.

Preventing smuggling, infiltration

"These crossings are used in smuggling, and whoever smuggles goods also smuggles people," said security expert Riyad Abu Khazam, a retired Lebanese military officer.

"The economic threat they pose lies in depriving the Lebanese state of a large amount of revenue, and the security threat they pose lies in the infiltration of terrorists into Lebanon," he told Al-Mashareq.

Abu Khazam said he believes the army is capable of controlling these illegal crossings in co-operation with other security agencies, especially given the availability of monitoring technology.

Smuggling operations picked up pace after the outbreak of war in Syria, including the smuggling of oil and some goods that Syria lacks, the prices of which surged due to the growing demand for them.

Agricultural and non-agricultural products also are smuggled from Syria to the Lebanese markets, which are flooded with them, with smugglers taking advantage of the low exchange rate of the Syrian pound against hard currencies.

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