Lebanon renews efforts to block illegal border crossings

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

Security cameras monitor the surrounding area at a border post on Lebanon's frontier with Syria. [Photo courtesy of Lebanese Army Command, Directorate of Guidance]

Security cameras monitor the surrounding area at a border post on Lebanon's frontier with Syria. [Photo courtesy of Lebanese Army Command, Directorate of Guidance]

Illegal crossings between Lebanon and Syria that facilitate the smuggling of weapons, fighters and other goods into and out of the country have been an ongoing source of concern for Lebanon, political and military sources said.

Most of these crossings are controlled by Hizbullah, they told Al-Mashareq, noting that the Iran-backed party has used them to support its military operations and fill its coffers even as the Lebanese economy is collapsing.

In a renewed effort to tackle this issue, Prime Minister Hassan Diab on May 18th outlined a strategy aimed at addressing the border crossings problem.

A comprehensive border control strategy, to be implemented in line with the demands of the international community, is expected to follow.

On May 13th, President Michel Aoun chaired a Supreme Defence Council session, where the decision was made to "formulate a comprehensive plan for the establishment of military, security and customs monitoring posts".

Lebanese MP Ziad Hawat held a press conference the same day to address the issue of smuggling at illegal crossings, and on May 19th submitted a report on the matter to the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation.

Hizbullah's illegal crossings

"It is enough that Hizbullah's weapons are facilitating the implementation of an Iranian scheme that involves smuggling to internationally blockaded Syria while Lebanon's economy pays a heavy price," Hawat said.

"The party has military crossings through which it moves weapons and fighters to Syria" and through Syria to Iraq and beyond, he told Al-Mashareq.

Hizbullah's engagement in regional conflicts goes against Lebanon's policy of dissociation, he said, and is particularly problematic at present due to "the seriousness of US sanctions on Iran and their impact on Lebanon".

Hizbullah "is putting us all in a difficult position", he said.

"If Hizbullah wants to fight corruption, it can help the Lebanese state close the crossings, most of which are under its control," Hawat said.

The border crossings problem "is an old one" and has never been successfully resolved, said retired Lebanese military officer Brig. Gen. Richard Dagher.

The crossings are wide open for smuggling, the depletion of Lebanon's economic resources and the infiltration of armed groups and terrorists into Lebanon from Syria, he told Al-Mashareq.

"For some time now we have been seeing a new phase of financial and economic repercussions stemming from the free-for-all borders, due to the despotic refusal by Syria's supporters to have the border closed and controlled," he said.

"We also are seeing radical changes set in with [Hizbullah's] entry into the Lebanese political arena, and its bullying of the state and extension of its influence due to its ties with Syria," Dagher said.

Hizbullah wants to keep the crossings open because of the revenue it generates from them, which also supports the Syrian regime, he said.

"If the party and the Syrian regime had good intentions, they would have put an end to the smuggling," he added.

Rampant smuggling operations

Lebanese activist from northern Lebanon Majed al-Ahmed, who is using a pseudonym for security reasons, said smuggling operations are active in the regions of Hermel in the northern Bekaa and Wadi Khaled in Akkar.

They also are active in several villages in Akkar, such as al-Jouma and Fnaydeq, all the way to Hermel and the borders of the Nahr al-Kabir (Great River) that separates Lebanon and Syria.

Most of the illegal crossings "are under Hizbullah's control and are used to smuggle light weapons, precision-guided missiles, fuel, livestock and food", political analyst Rabih Tlais told Al-Mashareq.

Contraband brought into Lebanon from Syria includes furniture, tobacco, Persian rugs and Iranian iron, while contraband brought into Syria from Lebanon includes drugs and counterfeit dollars, he said.

The crossings in question include Jarmash-Qald al-Sabae and Talal Nasirrudine, the busiest crossing in the area, which was closed on May 14th, he said.

Other crossings include Martaba, Hawsh al-Sayyed Ali, Khairrudine, Khidr al-Haj Hassan, al-Mushrif and Hajez al-Muhemma, which is directly run by Hizbullah and which only permits passage to those who hold a party card with a military number, Tlais said.

Smuggling operations are conducted under the supervision of Hizbullah, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian forces, he said.

The revenue generated from smuggling provides both Hizbullah and the Syrian regime with the funding they need for their survival and for financing their military activities.

Smuggling operations now include items subsidised by the Lebanese state, and are thus depriving the Lebanese people of those items as well as depriving the Lebanese treasury of customs revenue, said Syrian economist Mahmoud Mustafa.

Hizbullah smuggles gasoline, mazout (fuel oil) and flour -- which the party acquires at subsidised prices -- into Syria, he said. It then sells these items through a Syrian network, with the revenue shared by the group and the Syrian regime.

The losses to the Lebanese state from smuggling "amount to no less than $1 billion annually, a large part of which goes to Hizbullah", he said.

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