Exclusive - Syrian, Russian Measures Fuel Anger at Illegal Lebanese Border Crossings

Exclusive - Syrian, Russian Measures Fuel Anger at Illegal Lebanese Border Crossings

Monday, 16 July, 2018 - 07:30
Lebanese people in al-Qasr traverse a sand barrier on foot to reach the other side of the border. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Hermel (eastern Lebanon) – Nazeer Rida
A few meters separate a Syrian regime military member from Lebanese workers operating a tractor in a Lebanese field. In contrast to the noise of the tractor, the situation in the northeastern-most border region in Lebanon is quiet. Only members of the Russian-commanded 11th troop of the regime military occupy the sand barriers separating the two neighboring countries. Four soldiers man each barrier, which are 150 meters apart from each other.

Inside Lebanon, the residents only harbor bitterness.

“Our livelihoods are at risk and we are living under siege,” complained one local to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“We have not presented 128 martyrs to be choked by the Russians,” complained another. “If the borders are not opened, then we will not hesitate to resist those barring us from accessing our livelihood.”

The residents of this border region were taken by surprise when Syrian troops, under Russian orders, began setting up a barbed wire fence along the border. They started, without prior warning, to plant mines, in a Russian attempt to control the border with Lebanon and shut illegal and smuggling routes to Syria.

In upheaval, the residents informed the Russians through indirect channels that such a move was not welcome and unwanted in the region, said the locals. The Russians consequently withdrew and kept the members of the 11th troop. Days later, the barbed wire fence and mines were removed and the troops remained, deployed in an area of over 30 kms.

The residents do not hide the fact that the closure of illegal border crossings with Lebanon has dealt a blow to the transit along these routes that have been regularly traveled since the 1970s. The closure has also drawn up new rules of engagement that call for separating the peoples of the two neighboring countries, a move that contradicts the long uttered official statements of the Lebanese and Syrian people living united in two countries.

The Lebanese locals now have to travel 70 kms to reach the legal Joussieh crossing to reach their agricultural land that lies only 200 meters away from a sand barrier on the other side of the border. Eight illegal border crossings have been closed and the closest legal one lies in the al-Qaa town near Syria’s Joussieh in the southern Aleppo countryside.

The fact is that the Syrian war, which erupted seven years ago, has never prevented thousands of Lebanese people residing in the region bordering the southwestern Aleppo countryside from traveling to nearby Syrian territory.

Residents of al-Qasr, of a population of some 15,000, said that Lebanese people own agricultural property in the villages of Syria’s al-Qusayr region. Moreover, 30,000 Lebanese people live in the Syrian towns and villages of Matraba, Zeita, al-Fadelieh, Hawik, Jermash, Wadi al-Arayesh and al-Samaqiyat. The Lebanese “Hezbollah” party intervened in the Syrian war in 2013 under the pretext of “protecting” them. The war in that area ended in summer 2013 and the regime once against imposed its control.

Al-Qasr residents told Asharq Al-Awsat that the 11th troop deployed in the area last week and shut all illegal crossings and routes. They set up the barbed wire fence and planted mines along the border. The locals protested to the Russians, adding that the regime forces were informed of their objection.

A prominent source in the town said that the regime “took the objection into consideration and Damascus held talks with the Russians.” Two days later, the Syrian forces began removing the mines and barbed wire fence. The regime forces remained deployed there and they were made to open a small pedestrian crossing that would grant Lebanese residents access to al-Quasyr countryside. From there, they would take Syrian taxis to reach their properties and source of livelihood in Syrian villages.

This was the second such measure taken by the Russian military command in the region. Last month, it ordered a deployment along the border with Lebanon. This was, however, met with “Hezbollah’s” opposition, saying that the move was “not coordinated” with it. The dispute was resolved through Damascus’ mediation that culminated with regime forces deploying at three positions near al-Qusayr town in the Homs province.

This last step directly affects Lebanese interests, smuggling routes and illegal crossings. The only legal crossing is located in al-Qaa in eastern Hermel. Al-Qasr lies 30 kms away from al-Qaa, meaning locals who want to access their property in Syria must travel 70 kms to reach them.

Two points of contention

The real reasons for their opposition go beyond Lebanese property owned in Syria. The Lebanese believe that closing the border has Russian political purposes to cut “Hezbollah” arms smuggling routes. Smuggling operations in this area are much easier than they are elsewhere due to the smooth terrain along the Assi River. Other illegal crossings in the eastern Baalbek region are mountainous, making smuggling a treacherous undertaking. Russian and allied regime forces have not deployed there.

“Russian excuses that the crossings are used by terrorists are invalid. The region has been safe since 2014 and, therefore, there are no terrorists here,” said the locals.

The second reason for their objection lies in economic factors. The locals declared: “We will not allow them to choke us. We will not allow them to isolate and besiege our region.” The Lebanese region is located far from local services and the residents often head to Syria to buy groceries and access medical services, all at a lower cost than Lebanon.

One Qasr resident stated: “I used to buy my groceries from Syria at a cost of 2,000 Syrian pounds. I would have to spend 30 dollars if I were to make the same purchases in Lebanon.”

“If my child falls sick, I take him to Homs by traveling only 20 minutes. I would need more than an hour and a half if I were to seek the closest medical clinic, which is located in Baalbek. Moreover, a doctor’s visit in Syria would cost me 500 Syrian pounds (a dollar and a half), while I would have to pay some 50 dollars for in Lebanon.”

“They have suffocated us,” he lamented.

Easing the tension

As the closure of the crossings began to take their toll on the town, the locals have pleaded with the Lebanese state to resolve their problem and revive the economy. They proposed setting up a legal crossing with the al-Qusayr countryside. Some locals have voiced their readiness to offer some of their property for the crossing to be established.

“We do not oppose the border being controlled. We want the state to be present in our region, we are demanding a legal crossing. Travel across the border was allowed before the Syrian crisis. Why has that changed?” said one local.

“The Russians have arrived to harass us. The Syrian state is also harassing us even though we own property in Syria. What can we do?” he wondered.

“We will not tolerate being suffocated. We will not allow it,” he vowed. “If the Lebanese state does not take action to resolve the problem, then Damascus should. If it is not resolved, then we will resist those seeking to besiege us. All residents are unanimous over this point.”

“We did not present 128 martyrs because of the Syrian war to be later stifled by it,” he stressed in reference to people who mainly sided with “Hezbollah” in fighting Syrian opposition factions in al-Qusayr.

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