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Lull in violence spurs surge in truck traffic at Masnaa crossing

  • Dozens of trucks line up at the Lebanese-Syrian border in Masnaa. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

BEIRUT: Lebanese cargo trucks lined up at the Masnaa border crossing with Syria after security conditions reportedly improved on the vital export route. “There are no clashes and battles now on the road [to Jordan].

But the situation remains fragile, if not catastrophic, and we do not know when the road would be closed again,” Antoine Howayek, head of the Farmers Association, told The Daily Star Monday.

Intense fighting in and around Damascus last month and repeated clashes on the Syria-Jordan borders had dissuaded truck drivers and exporters from taking shipment on the route, which extends from Lebanon to the Syrian capital and Jordan, en route to vital markets in the Gulf Cooperation Council, Howayek said. But the relative lull in violence along these roads has led truckers to brave the shipping artery.

One shipping agency employee, who did not want to be identified, said exporters and truck drivers were “taking the now relatively safer roads” to ship goods and produce, before further deterioration in security conditions.

The number of trucks entering Masnaa has soared from around 90 trucks a day to more than 400 over the past week. A lack of security on Lebanon’s northern crossings to Syria could be one reason behind the increase in number of trucks coming through the Bekaa, a source from the region said, citing local officials.

The recent opening of a ferry line between Mersin, Turkey and Tripoli has also contributed to the increased truck traffic at the crossing, Elie Zakhour, a maritime trade expert, said.

Turkish trucks, no longer able to cross the Turkish-Syrian borders, are now crossing over in ferries to Tripoli then enter Syria through Masnaa on their way to GCC countries, he said.

Lebanon’s exports through Syria have endured heavy losses as a result of the volatile situation in the neighboring country, recent trade figures show.

The Lebanese Customs Department reported last month that the total value of exports had plummeted by as much as 21 percent in the second quarter of 2012 to reach $1.34 billion, down from $1.7 billion in the same period of 2011.

But aggregate figures for the first half of 2012 are only around 5 percent lower than in 2011.

In addition to increased traffic, short working hours for Lebanese customs officers are causing delays in Masnaa, Ibrahim Tarshishi, head of the Bekaa Farmers Association, said in a statement issued over the weekend.

He said the Customs Department has promised exporters to extend working hours from 2 to 6 p.m. in line with a similar measure taken by the Port of Beirut to facilitate exports.

But Tarshishi dismissed recent measures to facilitate maritime exports of agricultural products as insufficient to salvage the sector.

“Maritime shipping is not new to us. Since a decade ago, we have shipped produce, including potatoes, grapes and apples. But there are products that cannot be exported via maritime routes, including mint, parsley and tomatoes,” he said.

The same view was echoed by Howayek, who added that farmers and exporters insist the government provide roll-on-roll-off (ro-ro) ferries, which are designed to carry trucks.

He said the ro-ro vessels, which can each carry about 60 trucks, would be the only solution if the shipping route through Syria was brought to a halt. He argued these ships would save costs and shipment time, which is critical for crops with a short life cycle.

Tarshishi also warned that Syrian exporters were flooding the market with cheaper produce. “There are many problems regarding Syrian agricultural produce that is entering Lebanon.”

“Most of these goods, which are not currently in demanded in the local market, are being shipped in unrefrigerated trucks. This could pose a threat to consumers’ health as well as farmers.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 14, 2012, on page 5.
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