The New Year has some new looks and some old threats along Lebanon’s borders. Part of the good news is that Lebanon’s five official border crossings with Syria are all open, some of them closed for five years. Maybe more importantly for the Lebanese, the government has finally removed security barriers in the downtown section around Parliament Square, which were not only an eyesore, but a death knell for the businesses that once thrived in the area.
When I visited Lebanon in 2006 with my children, there was no better time than being part of the happy crowds strolling along the streets watching the World Cup and savoring the nightlife of Beirut. The area was closed off after a show of strength by Hezbollah in response to the government trying to reign in its illegal ITC network. Then the area was the site of large-scale demonstrations during the trash crisis.
This made it a flashpoint for anti-government actions with the result that the area was barricaded except for a bit of foot traffic. One of the most attractive centers that Solidere built in the reconstruction of Beirut’s downtown became a virtual ghost area, soon to lose its luster to Beirut Souks, a misnamed tribute to the original shopping district of the city.
According to a recent article, “Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri ordered the roads leading to the Parliament Square open days after the square witnessed its largest New Year's Eve celebration, with thousands of revelers, as part of a government initiative to revive the area. Berri on Wednesday urged business owners, restaurants, hotels and offices in the area to reopen after many of them had closed down, having given up on the area attracting visitors again.”
Well, that was one source of optimism. Another is that the last official border crossing at Qaa between Lebanon and Syria that had been closed is now opened. With a large sign “Welcome to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria” greeting those who use the crossing, there is a not so subtle reminder on the sign that “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people that live in two brotherly lands.”
The Syrian government, under Assad father and son, insisted that there was no need for an ambassador to Lebanon as the countries were one peoples divided by the Great Powers. While this sentiment once had some popularity in Lebanon, that faded under the Syrian presence after the civil war and has diminished even more with the hosting of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
While the opening is good news for local residents on both sides of the border with property, family, and friends now accessible, it is not seen as an indication that Syrian refugees may soon begin to return home. At this point, the main beneficiaries are Syrians who can come to Lebanon and finds goods and products unavailable in war-ravaged Syria.
The newly opened “Chtaura-Homs road,” according to one article, “Used to be a busy artery, with hundreds, if not thousands, of cars crossing the border every day. But clashes between different rebel groups operating from Syria and the Lebanese army forced its closure.” This past year, with the territory back under government control, “All five official border crossings between Lebanon and Syria are now open and controlled by the Syrian regime.”
Chtaura is a key city in the Bekaa valley, a major agricultural area in Lebanon long under the control of Hezbollah. Locals are hoping that in time the situation will normalize and customary business will resume. This is critical for the Bekaa, which is “one of Lebanon’s poorest regions and houses a disproportionate number of Syrian refugees compared to the rest of the country because of its proximity to the border. There are a little under 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom roughly 350,000 live in the Bekaa Valley. However, Lebanese officials believe that the number of Syrians that fled to Lebanon because of the war is closer to 1.5 or 2 million people,” according to an article in Al-Monitor.
The article noted that “Those who are tempted to go home are still wary of the economic situation back in Syria. Askar, a young agricultural worker, fled Homs to Qaa several years ago with 100 extended family members. “[God willing] we will go home soon. But there are still problems. We will not be able to live like before. For now, the situation is still better in Lebanon, as I can find work here.”
According to a Lebanese security official interviewed by Arab News, “the whole issue could be limited to local residents only, because there are Lebanese citizens who have properties in Syria, and there are Syrian citizens who have relatives in Lebanon, otherwise we do not expect the return of Syrian refugees to inland Syria.” He estimates that there are about 30,000 Syrian refugees in the border area.
Noting that the open crossing with enable better control of the movement of refugees, “the actual return of refugees is still awaiting a political solution for the war in Syria, which involves tackling the issue of refugees.” However, the source said that “opening the border crossing is part of field preparations for any future step in this direction.”
An indication of how unresolved the situation is was a statement from Prime Minister Hariri’s office that “those who think the war in Syria is over are mistaken.”
Without a formal rapprochement between the two governments, which will be difficult given the enmity between the Prime Minister and President Assad, the opening is symbolic and functional, no more.
From the Lebanese side, the regional representative of Lebanese General Security, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, inaugurated the new General Security center without coming to the Syrian side. He said in a speech that the inauguration of the center “is of great importance at these exceptional sensitive times. We are here to set the borders of our homeland with efforts and sacrifice.” He also said that “the cooperation with the Syrian side is within the limits imposed by the procedures and laws,” stressing that “the policy of dissociation has nothing to do with opening the border crossing.”
Of course, Israel is looking closely at any movements by the Syrian government or its ally Hezbollah to change the status of the current borders, an issue I will explore in my next blog.