Borders can pose serious economic and security challenges to the most developed of nations let alone Lebanon, where the border with Syria is a constant reminder of the terrible state of affairs into which the Lebanese state has descended.
Over the past few weeks, smuggling over the Lebanese-Syrian border has visibly increased. Images have circulated over various mediums showing convoys of trucks using illegal passageways to smuggle petroleum as well as flour into Syria. Historically, smuggling across the border is common. Many border towns turned to smuggling to compensate for the deliberate neglect by Lebanon’s central government, which has failed to provide any alternative or introduce any real infrastructure to allow for agrarian or commercial development.
However, the scope and magnitude of the current smuggling operations differ from the traditional mode employed before. Now, smuggling has become a threat to Lebanon’s economic and political national security. This is particularly the case because the two main commodities being smuggled to Syria – petrol and flour – are subsidized by the Lebanese state, which is wasting hard currency to import these items into Lebanon, only for them to be smuggled into Syria.
Hezbollah allegedly sanctions, if not operates, these smuggling rings. The organization uses its control over Lebanon’s eastern border to run its elaborate military infrastructure, which provides cover and quasi-legitimacy to a number of illegal activities. While some of the ongoing smuggling does go through the Lebanon’s norther border with Syria, the majority of the smuggling takes place in the rugged terrain of the Hezbollah-controlled anti-Lebanon mountain range.
The Lebanese government has reported over 124 illegal border crossings resulting in annual losses of more than $600 million, a conservative number that downplays the massive operation conducted between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime that is said to be worth billions.
The recent smuggling operations are noticeable for their high visibility: Long convoys of trucks have been purposely parading on the Beirut-Damascus highway, having previously used backroads to enter Syria.
This begs the question: Why now?
The fact that the Lebanese government has recently started negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to arrange for a possible bailout places these smuggling activities in a much clearer perspective, and exposes Hezbollah’s sinister plot behind them.
Hezbollah has always refused to admit that its weapons and its infringement on the sovereignty of the state has created a fertile ground for lawlessness. Equally, it has refused to acknowledge that it benefits from these many acts of vice, smuggling being one of them.
In a recent televised speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was quick to cheekily affirm his party’s condemnation of smuggling and claim that the best method to combat this phenomena simply requires the Lebanese state to normalize and closely coordinate with the Assad regime – otherwise trying to patrol the border is apparently futile.
Nasrallah never misses a chance to remind the Lebanese and the international community that his party and consequently its Iranian backers hold the Lebanese state hostage – a cooperating hostage, but a captive nonetheless. While Hezbollah has surprised many by publicly endorsing the IMF potential bailout, its underhanded tactics of bringing the underground smuggling rings into the open confirms its true feeling about the IMF. Hezbollah and the Assad regime cannot afford to stop the smuggling of goods in and out of Syria. And with the US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act becoming effective, Lebanon will become even more crucial for the Assad regime and Iran to bypass sanctions. This will naturally put more pressure on Lebanon’s crumbling economy, especially on the ability of the central government to control and curb the demands on hard currency and to subsidize some of the essential supplies such as fuel, wheat and medical equipment.
The IMF and any other bail-out agency will first tackle the issue of lost state revenues. Smuggling will be therefore be a top priority, placing the IMF bailout in confrontation with Hezbollah and its various allies –who will then accuse the IMF of carrying out a Western-Israeli plot to encircle and destroy the so-called resistance. Nasrallah was clear to mention that he refuses international support to patrol the border because this will curtail Hezbollah’s ability to move in and out and rupture the organization’s lifeline with Iran.
By creating a problem and then solving it, Hezbollah hopes that it will appear as having accommodated the reforms of the cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab. However, this wicked scheme is juvenilely shortsighted, as it only confirms to the general public that no reform is possible unless the Lebanese state reclaims its full sovereignty. Hezbollah’s smuggling operation and the current IMF debate are a good reminder that it is not just Iran’s tentacles in Lebanon that have ruined the country, but also the package that comes with Iranian influence: A privilege to some, but a curse to the Lebanese people.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History.SHOW MORE