Concerns rise as arms flow to Lebanon

The United Nations expressed 'grave concern' last week about weapons being smuggled across the border from Syria.

Ali Mohammed carefully pours another jerry can of diesel fuel into a barrel, where the blue-tinged liquid glugs down a rubber pipe into a tank hidden in the back of a van. Soon the contraband diesel will be on the road to Beirut, where it will be sold on the black market.

Dozens of remote Lebanese villages in the eastern Bekaa Valley tucked into the rugged mountainous border between Lebanon and Syria traditionally rely on smuggling commercial goods such as diesel, cigarettes, and cement, taking advantage of the price differences between the two countries.

But it is the alleged smuggling of weapons and the transit of militants from Syria into Lebanon that has drawn the attention of the United Nations and raised the prospect of deploying UN troops along the porous frontier.

Last week, the UN Security Council stated its "grave concern" about reports of arms smuggling and the alleged rearming of militants in Lebanon.

Some 8,000 Lebanese soldiers are deployed along the border with Syria, but they lack the training and equipment to successfully thwart arms smuggling. Analysts in Lebanon say that the Army also may lack the will to block weapons destined for the powerful Shiite group Hizbullah.

Hizbullah's leaders say that their arms stocks have been replenished and even increased since last summer's month-long war with Israel. It is widely believed that the fresh arms supplies to Hizbullah came via the Syrian border. A UN fact-finding team reported in June that only some commercial goods had been seized by Lebanese border security units.

"No seizure involved weapons or explosives," the report said, describing the lack of results as "worrying."

US wants UN troops at the border

The US and Israel have been pushing to deploy some of the 13,300-strong UN peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, which currently operates in south Lebanon along the border with Syria, to block weapons smuggling. However, analysts say the UN may balk at policing the remote Lebanese-Syrian border, particularly as the move is opposed by Hizbullah and Syria, the latter having described the deployment of foreign troops as a "hostile act."

"It would mean changing UNIFIL's mandate, and I don't think the Lebanese government or contributors to UNIFIL want a new force along the border given the reactions of Syria and Hizbullah," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut who served with UNIFIL from 1979-2003.

Southern Lebanon, with its population long accustomed to foreign peacekeepers, is mild compared with Lebanon's eastern border, where clan loyalties and tribal politics carry greater sway than the Lebanese state.

"If foreign troops want to stop weapons coming in, that's fine. But we have to eat. And if they stop us bringing in diesel then there will be a war," says Radwan Ayoub, another smuggler helping Mohammed unload the jerry cans.

The UN border team suggested weaning border residents from reliance on smuggling by promoting socioeconomic programs to provide alternative means of revenue. But the smugglers say they have heard similar promises before. In the mid-1990s, pledges by international donors to fund alternative agricultural crops helped eradicate the cultivation of hashish and opium poppies for which the Bekaa Valley was renowned. Although Lebanon was taken off the list of drug-producing countries in 1997, the promised funds never arrived, leaving farmers bitter and leading to a gradual return of hashish cultivation.

Ayoub and his three brothers make $20 each from every consignment of smuggled diesel fuel. His pickup truck can carry 40 60-liter (15-gallon) jerry cans, making a sizable profit shared between his comrades given that diesel in Syria sells at 13 cents a liter compared with Lebanon, where it retails at around 66 cents a liter.

"Diesel is our life," Ayoub says.

A future security force here – Lebanese or international – would not have to contend only with commercial smugglers. The hills around Yahfoufa are home to Hizbullah training camps.

On a 4,200-foot plateau six miles to the south of Yahfoufa lies a sprawling base belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, one of several military bases manned by pro-Syrian Palestinian factions close to the border with Syria. These bases are connected to Syrian territory by unpoliced dirt tracks and are reportedly used to smuggle weapons and militants into Lebanon.

Militants are a 'major obstacle'

The UN border team's report said that the presence of the Palestinian bases represents a "major obstacle to the notion of border security." Last year, the Lebanese government won a consensus to shut down the bases within a six-month time frame. But the decision went unfulfilled and it is unclear whether the overstretched Lebanese Army – engaged in a grueling two-month battle with militants in north Lebanon – has the capability to take on a fresh military confrontation.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the path of Lebanon's 198-mile frontier with Syria has never been formally demarcated on the ground. The border was drawn up by French military geographers in 1920 and generally follows the peaks of the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain. But the boundary slashed through land possessed by Syrians and Lebanese, often leaving large tracts on the opposite side of the border from their owners.

Over time, confusion has grown over exactly where the border lies. An anti-Syrian Lebanese group last month released a report claiming that Syria continues to occupy some 177 square miles of Lebanon along the eastern border, about 4.5 percent of the country, despite the UN having confirmed the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon two years ago.

Nine miles east of the remote village of Aarsal, cherry and apricot trees grow on Lebanese soil but are farmed by Syrians under the protection of Syrian troops.

The spat over the territory, replicated elsewhere along the border, has led to gun battles.

"You sometimes find Syrian-owned land inside Lebanon and Lebanese-owned land inside Syria. It's all mixed up," says Mohammed Hojeiry, the mayor of Aarsal. "It's very important to put up markers on the border so everyone knows where it is."

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