July 10, 2005
Long Lines at Lebanese-Syrian Border
After the extended political crisis that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence from Lebanon, followed by the election of the anti-Syrian former opposition coalition to a majority of the seats in the Lebanese parliament, Syria has started to demonstrate the kind of leverage it still possesses over its smaller neighbor.
For the past few weeks, traffic across the Syrian border has been dramatically slowed, particularly in the case of trucks, which according to This Middle East Online reprint of an AFP article are taking four to five days to cross the border. The article also records that the Syrian government claims the slowdown has been caused by tightened security measures to prevent Islamic militants from coming into Syria.
Lebanese business leaders are screaming for the governments to come to some sort of agreement, but negotiations attempted by both the government of the outgoing and incoming prime ministers have proven fruitless. All land exports from Lebanon to other Arab countries must pass across the Syrian border, and agricultural products in particular are spoiling in transport.
I crossed the border each way in a bus with a mixed-nationality group. It took us three hours to clear the border going north on the Tripoli-Aleppo route on the 2nd, and maybe half an hour to enter Lebanon on the Damascus-Beirut road. Both ways, there were trucks lined up for at least a mile.
With regard to the "security" explanation, there were among the trucks lined up for inspection a number of completely empty flatbed trucks and car-carriers. One wonders why a Syrian border authority genuinely concerned with potential infiltration would be unable to facilitate the passage of such easily-searched vehicles. On the other hand, I've heard since coming back that this might legitimately be caused by a turf war between the Syrian border police and mukhabarat, neither of which trusts the other to do a decent job inspecting incoming cargo.
Trade stats are pretty thin on the ground here - after an afternoon's mucking about I couldn't find anything solid on the share of Lebanon's exports that go through Syria. if this commercial web site is to be believed (Switzerland???), Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia together account for 27% of Lebanon's exports, which looks like a decent ceiling on the amount of goods being driven through Syria.
EDIT: based on the bilateral trade stats from the Lebanese government, that would be about 33% for 2004.
In public, at least, neither the Syrian nor Lebanese government are saying much about the delays. Since they will be doing as much damage to the Syrian as to the Lebanese economy, it seems unlikely that they'll be kept up for very long. But this Syrian government has demonstrated a capacity to behave self-destructively when it comes to Lebanon in the past.
Posted by tomscud at July 10, 2005 03:32 AM
Filed Under: Levant
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Indeed it does hurt Syria as well, maybe even more so. I doubt the 500,000 to 1,000,000 Syrian workers in Lebanon went there simply to make Lebanon "more Syrian" (although who knows?).
It would be nice if this could somehow result in trade between Israel and Lebanon, but that would probably be impossible due to security risks. But imagine, an Israel actually involved in regional trade... crazy, could even result in Arab-Israeli relations. Ah well. Or how about trade between Egypt and Lebanon? I wonder what the state of their sea shipping is.
Posted by: zurn at July 11, 2005 11:39 PM
Unless this drags on for a very very long time, not likely in my opinion, even talking about opening trade with Israel is a political non-starter in Lebanon. And you're right, it's hard to imagine Israel being particularly cheerful about hundreds of Arab trucks rolling right down through Hizbollah's heartland and over their border.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 12, 2005 01:25 AM
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 12, 2005 01:36 AM