The road to nowhere; tackling Lebanon’s smuggling operation

28 January 2021 16:44:00 - Last updated: 28 January 2021 16:52:35

Lebanon cannot control its borders.

Smuggling of goods and people has been active from Lebanon into Syria since the adoption of Cesar law in June 2020. Damascus has been put under sanctions and Syrians now lack basic necessities, such as fuel and flour.

It could be said that Lebanon has moved into an era of losing sovereignty of its border. Smugglers control almost 124 illegal passages between Lebanon and Syria throughout the land border stretching over 340 km.

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There are five legal border points between the two countries, but the Syrian regime has been reluctant to demarcate its borders with Lebanon for decades. With pieces of land intertwined there are often no boundaries or security checkpoints.

A national television network broadcast a report revealing that almost $400 million worth of fuel is smuggled into Syria annually. Going by the black market rate for the dollar exchange to the Lebanese Lira, twenty liters of fuel in Lebanon are worth almost $3. In Syria, it is worth more than $13, that’s of course, if there is any. The Syrian government has announced it will only allow 40 liters of petrol for a car per week due to scarcity of fuel. This has led to long queues of cars in front of gas stations.

The reason why Lebanon still has relatively reasonable oil prices is because the Central Bank is applying a cabinet decision to subsidize fuel.

Banking sources in the Central Bank claimed that smuggling now costs the government over $4 billion annually, amounting to almost $20 billion since 2015.

The subsidizing policy by the Central Bank was put into practice several months ago with the aim of reducing growing inflation following the crash of the local currency’s value to the US Dollar. The policy includes subsidizing flour to maintain the price of bread and medicine. The smuggling activity has concentrated on fuel, but other subsidized goods might be smuggled into Syria too.

The Higher Defense Council overseen by the President of the Republic, Michel Aoun, includes the incumbent PM, a number of ministers and high ranking security officials has taken several decisions to cease all smuggling activities across the borders.

Including the confiscation of smuggled goods, and the arrest of people and networks involved in these illegal activities, it’s unfortunate that none of this has happened. The status quo remains today.

Hezbollah controls many of those illegal passages. Extending support to the Syrian Regime is a basic pillar in the organization’s policies. It has been involved in Syrian affairs since 2011, after the popular uprising.

Almost a year later, explicitly saying it would send paramilitaries into Syria to protect holy places from extremist groups. Tehran followed suit. Both Iran and its executive arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah, cannot accept the downfall of the Assad Regime in Syria. This would cut off a route from Tehran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.

Lebanon’s official position seems weaker than that announced. With Aoun, as President and a Hezbollah ally, little change is expected.

Yet, there are certain passages that could easily be put under state control. There should be a firm political position, not based on exceptions and to introduce change in smuggling activity to put an end to it.

If smuggling does not end, it becomes another reason for Lebanon’s economic misery.

Lebanon’s ailing economy continues its free fall. With the cabinet formation confronting additional complications, and the French Presidential initiative withering away, little hope remains for the Lebanese people.

In short, smuggling from Lebanon to Syria has to stop immediately or else the situation will deteriorate further. Lebanon cannot afford to finance the economies of itself, and that of Syria. This is self-destruction, and political suicide.