Syria exit leaves a messy border

Tighter security has led to a dispute with Lebanon, complicating relations between the two countries.

When Iraqi teenager Nihad Rahim was allowed to accompany his truck-driver father, Ayad, on a trip to Beirut, it was supposed to be a reward for passing his school exams.

But instead of being a break from his war-torn homeland, Nihad and his father have become caught up in a border crisis between Beirut and Damascus that has left hundreds of truckers stranded for a week on a remote seven-mile no man's land between the Lebanese and Syrian customs posts.

"It usually takes two minutes to drive from one to the other, but I have only moved a few inches in a week," Ayad Rahim says.

The dispute, which is estimated to be costing Lebanon some $300,000 a day in lost business, underlines the difficulties the two countries face in trying to build a new equal relationship following the end of Syria's 15-year domination of its small Mediterranean neighbor.

Damascus blames the delays on increased checks to prevent weapons and explosives being smuggled into Syria. But many Lebanese say Syria is acting out of spite after having been forced to relinquish its grip on Lebanon in the wake of the assassination in February of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister .

Syria is making a "political statement that it is a strong adversary, if not an 'enemy' of the 'new Lebanon' that came out of the ballot boxes after the era of Syrian tutelage," wrote Nassir Asaad, a columnist for Lebanon's Al Mustaqbal newspaper.

On the highway snaking through the barren Anti-Lebanon mountains along the border of Syria and Lebanon, hundreds of trucks are double parked bumper to bumper. Some are carrying perishable goods such as fruit and vegetables for markets in the Gulf, forcing drivers to keep engines running continuously to work the refrigeration units.

"I have run out of fuel and I have no money and all my fruit has gone rotten," grumbles Abu Khaled, a truck driver from Tripoli. "All I want to do is go home."

Lebanese suspicions notwithstanding, Syria has embarked upon a sweeping security clampdown against suspected militants. One truck entering Syria from Lebanon was found carrying 500 pounds of TNT and another was discovered with weapons and ammunition hidden beneath sacks of cement, according to the London-based Ash Sharq Al Awsat newspaper.

Some 1,300 suspected Arab militants of various nationalities were rounded up in Syria and deported recently. One of the first challenges facing Lebanon's new government will be resolving the border crisis and establishing a new relationship with Syria.

But the wounding of outgoing Lebanese minister of defense Elias Murr by a car bomb on Tuesday suggests that Lebanon's difficult transition from Syrian domination to full sovereignty is far from over.

Lebanon's only other neighbor is Israel, with which it is in a state of war, thus making Syria an unavoidable trading partner.

"It's only geographic contiguity that really makes economic dealings important," says Habib Malek, a politics professor at the Lebanese American University. "The Syrian system is a leftover from the command economy of the socialist era, and it's a Third World version, which makes it very out of step with the system we have here which is freewheeling and laissez faire."

Last year, trade between the two countries was valued at $400 million, with Lebanon exporting goods worth $145 million to Syria. A free-trade agreement would boost Lebanon more than Syria, analysts say. "Syria is a big market and Syria is a country that was closed and is now opening up," says Nabil Sukkar, a Syrian economic consultant.

More important, perhaps, to Lebanon's future economic well-being is the end of the pervasive racketeering system in which senior Syrian officials and their Lebanese frontmen, usually politicians, accrued massive fortunes in the 1990s. Almost no sector was immune: construction, oil and gas, electricity and telecommunications, with Syrian-backed monopolies selling goods and services at inflated rates.

Even the world famous Casino du Liban was stripped daily of around half its takings.

"The Syrian system was a racket with clear and defined rules. The Syrians practically took the money out of the government's coffers," says Joe Faddoul, a Lebanese financial consultant who has calculated that by 2001 illicit earnings totalled some $41 billion, greater than Lebanon's public debt which today stands at about $38 billion.

But Syria's disengagement is already having an economic effect. Before Syria's troop withdrawal in April, shares in the Casino du Liban were trading at $165 each. Yet despite a downturn in the number of tourists, a potential economic recession and continued political turmoil, the share price has soared to $300 each. The reason is simple, says Mr Faddoul. "Everyone knows the Syrians have gone, so the shares have gone up."

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