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Lebanon-Syria border grows ever more gray

Syrian army positions near the Lebanese north-eastern border town of Serhaniyeh.

BEIRUT: Five years ago, the demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian border was in the media spotlight but today it is a largely forgotten issue, despite the frequent security incidents taking place along the border and the influx of Syrian refugees fleeing their country’s unrest.

Lebanon’s borders were defined and delineated under the French mandate in the 1920s, but after Lebanon and Syria gained independence in the 1940s, Beirut and Damascus have failed to take the next step, namely jointly demarcating their shared borders.

From the Nahr al-Kabir River on the Mediterranean and Wadi Khaled and Jisr al-Qamar in the north, to the Orontes River in the northeast and south to Marjayoun, there are more than 36 points of dispute between Lebanon and Syria, and the decades of failure to demarcate the border have led to the blending of dozens of Syrian and Lebanese villages.

As hundreds of Syrian refugees and army dissidents attempt to seek refuge in the country, even more blending should be expected in Lebanese border towns, according to journalist Sanaa al-Jacques, who has extensive experience covering the issue.

According to Jacques, it is extremely difficult to separate families living on the bordering towns since many of them are living on both sides of the border.

“Let us face it,” she says, “Akkar’s residents cannot but welcome the Syrian refugees, many of whom are part of their extended families.”

“You don’t see the [Lebanese] Army at the border ... they are only situated in towns far from the Syrian border,” said Jacques. “You can only see the Syrian border guard on the Syrian side.”

In Hermel, Syrian students walking across the border every day to attend school in Lebanon are a common sight.

A Syrian refugee in the town of Al-Qaa says that Syrian border guards are bribed daily by smugglers of goods and arms.

“Some are bribed by as little as $10 to remove the mines and help facilitate smuggling,” says the refugee, who requested anonymity, fearing arrest.

“Other patrol guards don’t even ask for money to help smuggle arms since they are secretly supporting the Syrian uprising, but have remained in their positions to avoid being executed,” the refugee adds.

Issam Khalifeh, a historian and professor at the Lebanese University, says that while Lebanese officials have failed to push hard on the border demarcation issue, consecutive Syrian governments have shown no interest in demarcating their western border with Lebanon.

“Many documents were discovered in the 1960s that could’ve greatly helped in finalizing the demarcation, but the Syrian leaders were against the idea ... President Hafez Assad and President Bashar Assad have said openly that Lebanon is only a geographical extension of Syria,” Khalifeh says.

According to Khalifeh, officials in the Syrian regime to this day believe Lebanon’s independence from Syria is a mistake dating from World War I.

In 1963, President Fouad Shehab formed the first post-independence committee to try to mark Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, but no agreement was reached with the Syrian side.

Another attempt in the late 1960s by both governments also failed to yield a conclusion.

Khalifeh agrees that most of the demarcation efforts took place during the Shehab era.

“But since then, the issue has failed to grab the interest of Lebanese politicians for political reasons,” said Khalifeh, adding that Syrian army’s incursions into the Lebanese territories date back to 1951.

In his book entitled “The Lebanese-Syrian Borders,” Khalifeh describes the circumstances in which the Syrian army entered the Hasbaya village of Majidieh in 1951 and the later confrontation between Lebanese residents and the Syrian army in Shebaa Farms, which led to the arrest of the Shebaa Farm’s mayor.

The Shebaa Farms were then occupied by Israel in the 1967 June war.

According to Khalifeh, Damascus should realize that demarcating its borders with Lebanon would not conflict with regional cooperation and friendly relations.

“Once borders are demarcated, you can have open markets and unions like that of the European Union ... Sometimes they say, ‘No, we want to demarcate the borders.’ But there is nothing to indicate their willingness to [do so],” Khalifeh says.

“Luxembourg has a population less than a million and is much smaller than Lebanon but it is an independent state and a member of the European Union.”

According to Khalifeh, the failure of border demarcation has led to illegal crossings from both sides of the border.

“The absence of border control between Lebanon and Syria allows people from both sides of the border to cross illegally into each other’s territories,” he says.

Following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, a series of local and international calls were issued to demarcate the Lebanese- Syrian border and in May 2006, the United Nations Security Council urged Syria to cooperate with Lebanon on the state level to establish diplomatic relations and demarcate their common border.

Toni Nissi, the head of the International-Lebanese Committee for UNSCR 1559, which carried out a fact-finding mission after the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, says an area of 460 kilometers square from the Lebanese territories is still occupied by the Syrian army.

“Taking advantage of the absence of the Lebanese Army along the border, the Syrian army has erected earth berms inside Lebanese territories,” Nissi says.

Commenting on the recent reports of Syrian incursions into Lebanon since the start of the uprising in Syria 10 months ago, Nissi takes issue with the idea that the incidents should be termed “incursions,” due to the de facto Syrian military presence.

“The Syrian army is mobilizing its troops within the territories already occupied from Lebanon,” he says.

The fact-finding mission, which closely coordinated its efforts with the U.N., pointed out that despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005, the Syrian army maintained its presence in areas such as Deir al-Ashayer, Arsal, Al-Qaa, Akroum, Majdal Anjar and at least two dozen other places along the border.

“In our mission we coordinated with the U.N., the committee was briefed by the army on 36 points of dispute prior to 1975 along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria,” said Nissi, adding that the number of disputed areas has nearly doubled since then.

Nissi is critical of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government for its failure to demarcate the borders at a time of international support for Lebanon’s sovereignty.

“His [Siniora’s] government was the only government capable of demarcating the border with the support of the international community.”

In 2006, a German technical support team, launched Pilot Project North to help the Lebanese enforce security along their northern frontiers with Syria. According to Nissi, the Lebanese security institutions’ failure to ensure security along the border was primarily due to the lack of expertise and the lack of political will.

“The Internal Security Forces, the Lebanese Army, State Security, General Security and Customs along with the German technical team failed to control [a border area only] 100 kilometers wide in the north,” Nissi notes.

The current tension along the border with Syria, and the continuing commitment of Lebanese cabinets to the resistance against Israel in policy statements, make it unlikely that any serious moves toward border demarcation will take place, despite the public stances of Lebanese officials, whether or not they are in the government.

The Lebanese Army cannot even take serious steps to curb smuggling along the Lebanese-Syrian border if this hinders the movement of arms to Hezbollah, Nissi argues.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 14, 2012, on page 3.

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