Security

Lebanon tightens border control as sanctions take effect

By Nohad Topalian in Beirut

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Lebanese soldiers close illegal crossings with Syria in al-Mushrif area of the north-eastern mountain range. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese Army Command's Directorate of Guidance]

The Lebanese army has ramped up border control measures and efforts to close illegal crossings with Syria to coincide with the Caesar Act, now in effect, which imposes sanctions on those who deal with the Syrian regime.

In addition to penalising companies worldwide that deal with the Syrian regime, the sanctions block US reconstruction aid until perpetrators of abuses in Syria's war are brought to justice.

The army has closed a number of illegal crossings, including one used by smugglers in Hermel's Qanafez, the army's Directorate of Guidance said June 6th.

This crossing was blocked with a 60-metre earthen berm, with two other border crossings in the Hermel-Bekaa region blocked in the same way on June 18th.

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Lebanese soldiers close an illegal border crossing in Hermel in June as part of stepped up efforts to stop smuggling operations into Syria. [Photo courtesy of the Lebanese Army Command's Directorate of Guidance]

"The process of controlling the borders and closing the illegal crossings along the entire length of the border with Syria is continuing," a source at the Army Command told Al-Mashareq.

New measures the army put in place "include the confiscation of vehicles and the seizure of smuggled goods by government decree", he said, in contrast to the past, when the army just seized the goods and left the truck behind.

This has led to a significant drop in smuggling operations, he added.

"Despite the difficult terrain of the eastern mountain range, the army set up strategically located positions equipped with observation towers," the source said, noting that these enable it to control the borders and curb smuggling.

Because of the rough terrain, controlling the northern border in Hermel "remains somewhat difficult", he said.

"The same applies to a 35-kilometre section of the border where smuggling takes place, because Syrian and Lebanese territories interlock," he added, pointing out that some Lebanese own land on both sides of the border.

Tighter control of border

The army tightened its grip on the border, with international support, following the successful conclusion of the Fajr al-Jurud (Al-Jurud Dawn) operation in August 2017, the source said.

He noted that one of the army's core tasks is "to deploy on the border and defend it", which it has been doing, though it is in need of additional logistical equipment to control the northern borders.

He also stressed the need to combine the border control effort with "tough court sentences against smugglers", noting that the Supreme Defence Council has discussed raising the penalty imposed on smugglers.

The new measures implemented by the Lebanese army "come to complement previous measures started by the Army Command", said Brig. Gen. Maroun Hitti, former advisor to ex-premier Saad al-Hariri on defence and security affairs.

Everything that takes place at the borders is monitored and videoed, he told Al-Mashareq, noting that were it not for the Land Border Regiments, bolstered by US and the British investment, it would be impossible to control the border.

"A project is under way to improve and modernise the army's monitoring, tracking and control capabilities," he added.

Hizbullah-controlled crossings

Border control has become an urgent issue, especially in light of the new sanctions, he said, noting that the land border regiments have the situation in hand, with the exception of two crossings operated by Hizbullah.

"The first is in Hawsh al-Sayyed Ali, between the Lebanese town of al-Qasr and Syrian town of al-Qusayr, while the second is the Sarghaya-Nabi Sheath crossing that is used for smuggling fuel to Syria," he said.

"The Caesar Act could put an end to the smuggling, provided a decree is issued by the President of the Republic ordering the closure of these crossings."

The Lebanese army "takes the issue of controlling the borders very seriously, especially in light of the Caesar Act", said journalist Michel Nasr, who covers security affairs.

"The army has put utmost importance on controlling the borders and closing illegal crossings since the battles on the eastern mountain range," he told Al-Mashareq, though Hizbullah's control of some crossings remains an issue.

Additionally, he said, some illegal crossings are difficult to close due to the difficult geographical terrain and limited number of soldiers.

"Controlling the border and the illegal crossings requires huge resources in equipment and technologies that the army does not have," he said.

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