QLEIAAT, Lebanon: For some time, there has been talk of transforming Qleiaat airport into a large-scale facility capable of supplementing Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International airport. But to Abu Ali, a farmer pulling his donkey on one of the many dirt roads near the airport, the plan seems a remote possibility.
For years statesmen thought of the region only as a destination for hunting expeditions, and it was not connected to water and electricity grids until 1962.
Even today, it seems as though Abu Ali may have a point: The 20 km between the Araman barracks and the airport that would serve as a runway doesn’t appear fit for landings. The nearby international highway that connects Tripoli to the northern border has been under construction for 12 years.
Although many believe a renewed airport could strengthen the economic situation of north Lebanon, political considerations mean it is unlikely to be resurrected anytime soon.
Now used by the Army to maintain its helicopters, a banner hanging at the entrance reads: “Rene Mouawad Airbase – Qleiaat.”
The base saw traffic during the Army’s 2007 battles with Fatah al-Islam in Nahr al-Bared, but it is now quiet, surrounded by Cyprus trees and the potato fields Akkar is known for.
According to area residents like Abu Ali, the Qleiaat airport has been a topic of conversation ever since the French Mandate, because of the ample space and connections to international, coastal and internal roads.
The current base is equipped with a 3,600 meter by 60 meter runway. There are warehouses for fuel, areas for maintenance, spare parts, telecoms devices and radar.
After independence, the Iraqi oil company IPC bought some 1 million square meters in Qleiaat and paved the area. Small planes transported high-ranking British engineers and other employees traveling from Iraq and other Gulf countries into the country.
Sources say the airport was next used in 1968, when Mirage planes, purchased from France by Lebanon, were brought in. The space was also used to train Army officers for several years.
In the late 1980s, Boeing 747s began landing in Qleiaat, transforming it to a civilian airport.
Passenger flights operated for some time, until Lebanese MPs returning from the Taef Accords in Saudi Arabia met there in 1989 and elected Rene Mouawad president on the spot.
With demand to revamp Qleiaat building, a supportive statement from Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi still came as a surprise.
He called it “a very vital project for Akkar and North Lebanon,” but cautioned that “the airport needs to be completely equipped first, as its facilities, including the control tower, are unusable. It needs further work that the government cannot currently do.”
Some calls for renovation have come from March 14, who believe the Qleiaat option would remove the dependence on Beirut’s airport, seen by some as controlled by Hezbollah and its supporters who occasionally block the airport road.
There are unconfirmed rumors that March 14 intends to use the airport as a line to Syria, as it is only 3 km from the northern borders.
Syria’s political allies have generally refused to speak about the issue given its sensitivity, and sources have said there is an open Syrian threat to bomb the airport if used to assist the Free Syrian Army.
Brigadier Samir Hammoud, a member of the FSA, told The Daily Star: “We are waging a battle to liberate our country, and we respect the sovereignty and independence of surrounding countries.
“We also highly appreciate the Lebanese people’s supportive stance. Because the Syrian regime is losing control on the ground and will collapse soon, it is coming up with pretexts such as the suggestion that the FSA may use the Qleiaat airport should it be opened.”
Future parliamentary bloc MP Khaled Zahraman said that while he and his bloc back a renovation, it seems unlikely at the moment. “There is no serious Cabinet decision due to clear Syrian opposition,” he said.
“Beirut’s airport is held hostage by Hezbollah – if Qleiaat’s airport were operational it would provide around 500 jobs and benefit the area.
“However, there is a technical obstacle ... The design of the airfield is in the direction of the wind, which means planes could stray into Syrian airspace – this is not possible now.”
March 14 MP Mouin Merhabi spoke out in favor of the plan, saying it will benefit Akkar residents and costs would not be high.
“It will also break Hezbollah’s control on Beirut’s international airport,” he added.
Wajih Baarini, a former March 8 MP, said that while the project would be good for Akkar, “the group which is calling for operating the airport have neglected this project since 1962 until the Syrian crisis. This means they want to operate the airport to use it as part of the Syrian events.”
Another former March 8 MP, Karim Rassi, said he supports opening the airport, so long as “it is not used for political purposes.”
Given that reservations can be heard even in statements backing the airport, it seems likely that for now talk of change in calm Qleiaat will remain just that.