When Lebanon's new president, Michel Suleiman, and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad held a landmark meeting in Damascus last month, one of the agreements reached between them was to delineate and demarcate the 320-kilometer border between their two countries. Although the announcement was widely welcomed, progress is likely to be slow as political realities in Lebanon weigh heavily on what should be a straightforward technical survey and joint agreement between Beirut and Damascus.
Complications are many and varied. The border remains disputed in numerous places, Syrian troops remain deployed on Lebanese soil in several spots, it is a transit route for weapons to Hizballah, home to small military bases manned by pro-Damascus Palestinian groups, and it is an economic lifeline for residents of east Lebanon, long ignored by the state, who survive on commercial smuggling. Defining, demarcating and securing the Lebanon-Syria border, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, threaten this status quo.
Borders can only be agreed upon with the goodwill of both neighboring countries. It takes mutually agreed maps and documents registered at the United Nations for a border to become internationally recognized. If one party to the process hedges then the border remains an open issue. One only has to look at the painstaking ordeal in 2000 of defining the UN-delineated blue line in south Lebanon, behind which Israeli occupation forces were obliged to withdraw, to understand the potential complexities of marking Lebanon's eastern border with Syria. The blue line was intended to "correspond" to Lebanon's southern border with Israel and the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms area; it was not a legal border, just a temporary boundary. Even so, because of the hostility between Lebanon and Israel, both countries squabbled furiously over perceived transgressions of literally a meter or less. If Lebanon and Syria were to apply the same demanding conditions to their mutual border, the project of demarcation would never be completed.
The continuing ambiguities over the exact path traced by the Lebanon-Syria border are due to decades of indifference by the Lebanese state to its wild and impoverished frontier regions and the reluctance of Syria to accept the notion of a separate Lebanon in the first place.
The French mandatory authorities delineated the border in the years following the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920, drawing detailed maps and on-the-ground sketches of the frontier in 1934. The border was supposed to follow the perimeters of four ex-Ottoman qadas: Akkar in the north, Baalbek in the east and Hasbaya and Rashaya in the southeast. For the sake of convenience, the boundaries were defined by the geographical features of the Kabir River in the north and the peaks of the Anti-Lebanon range and Mount Hermon in the east.
But these natural boundaries often conflicted with property rights, where Lebanese-owned land ended up inside Syria and vice versa, and with local demographics. For example, the village of Tufayl, which longitudinally lies just east of central Damascus, is connected to the Bekaa by a narrow finger of Lebanese territory that projects eastward over the Anti-Lebanon mountain range and into the flat semi-desert north of the Syrian capital. Tufayl was included in Lebanon due to its population being Shi'ite, therefore more closely connected to their co-religionists in the Bekaa than the Sunnis and Aramaic-speaking Greek Catholics who are their immediate neighbors in Syria.
In the decades after Lebanon and Syria gained independence in the 1940s, both countries formed several committees to settle border disputes, all of them unsuccessful. In 1975, the Lebanese army produced a map marking 36 unresolved spots along the border stretching from west of Wadi Khaled in the north to the Shebaa Farms in the south.
In May 2005, a month after Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon, I was invited onto a Syrian military base a few hundred meters south of Deir al-Ashayer village in southeast Lebanon. The base, according to Lebanese maps, lay 1.5 kilometers inside Lebanon. But an hospitable yet indignant Syrian army colonel showed me his military map which clearly indicated that his base was 200 meters inside Syria.
"Right now you are sitting inside Syria, not Lebanon," he said.
In fact, the border on the colonel's map was very different from that portrayed on Lebanese army maps, underlining the complexities ahead.
Syria has repeatedly stated it is willing to delineate its border with Lebanon on the condition that the Shebaa Farms area is left until last. Since 2006, a UN team has been mapping the precise contours of the Farms, although its conclusions have not been made public.
Delineating and demarcating the border is only the first step, however. Resolution 1701, which helped end the Hizballah-Israel war in 2006, called on Lebanon to fully secure its borders. A maritime component of the UNIFIL peacekeeping force keeps watch off Lebanon's coastline, and the government has deployed some 8,000 troops along the land border with Syria.
But the troops lack border security training, coordination between different security departments and suitable equipment, such as standardized communications, night-vision capabilities and transport appropriate for the rugged eastern frontier. Commercial smuggling continues uninterrupted. The Lebanese government appears to have chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice, not wishing to enflame local sentiment in one of the poorest regions of the country.
Arms smuggling and infiltration by militants appears to be unchecked. Hizballah has claimed on several occasions that it has more than replenished its pre-2006 arsenal. The Shi'ite group is evasive on how it receives its weapons, but it has long been recognized that the porous Lebanon-Syria border is the most likely transit route. A UN fact-finding team following up on a 2007 tour of the border, reported last month that the "situation along the eastern Green Border and the Green Border [the illegal crossings] remains as penetrable as it was during the mission of team 1 [in 2007]". Now that Hizballah and its allies hold a one-third veto-wielding share in the government, the prospect of the state actively attempting to seal off the border is even less likely.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the Lebanon-Syria border will be fully delineated and demarcated until many of the unresolved questions affecting it--Hizballah's armed status, Syrian-Israeli peace talks, the fate of the Palestinians--are answered first.- Published 18/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org