Syria finds it useful to have a fuzzy border with Lebanon

Lebanon's borders will continue to cause great anxiety as Syria's regime faces an existential challenge that will not soon disappear.

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This past weekend Lebanon’s borders were the site of two very different happenings that highlighted one of the country’s more salient vulnerabilities. While the Lebanese have, until now, been spared the full force of regional upheavals, the incidents were an ominous reminder that this can change at any moment.

Along the southern border, near the village of Maroun al Ras, Palestinian and Lebanese demonstrators tried to cross the Israeli border fence on Nakba Day, which commemorates the “disaster” in Palestine in 1948. Though they were unarmed, Israeli troops fired upon them, killing at least 11.

Meanwhile, along Lebanon’s northern and north-eastern border, Syrian civilians continued to enter Lebanon, fleeing a brutal crackdown by Syria’s army. Estimates are that some 5,000 people have already fled, notably from Tall Kalakh, and unofficial estimates on Monday suggested that dozens had been killed.

Israel and the United States accused Syria of having fomented border incidents in south Lebanon and the Golan Heights to draw attention away from the repression at home. Several reports indicated that the Maroun al Ras march had been financed by Hizbollah, and sources close to the party corroborated this.

However, the nature of Syria’s role is more difficult to discern. And yet there are definite signs, and a widespread conviction in Beirut, that the Syrian regime did indeed exploit the Nakba Day events.

One reason is the statement last week by Rami Makhlouf, the powerful cousin of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, in a New York Times interview. Mr Makhlouf warned of what would happen if the Assad regime were to fall: “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he said. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”

Many interpreted the border rallies as a reminder to the Israelis and Americans of those words; and Washington’s denunciation of Syria as evidence that the message had arrived.

In recent years, Syrian officials had gone further in underlining how essential Syria was to serenity in southern Lebanon, reminding western interlocutors that United Nations troops there were open to attack. UN officials will have read Mr Makhlouf’s statements as an echo of that implied threat. What has disturbed the Assad regime for some time, and with it Hizbollah, is that the UN has pushed for border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria, hoping that clarity on that question would allow the international organisation to end the potential for conflict along Lebanon’s southern border.

The situation is this: in June 1967, Israeli forces occupied the Golan Heights, but also a sliver of land along Lebanon’s south-eastern border known as the Shebaa Farms. It is unclear if the farms area is part of Lebanon or Syria. According to UN maps they are Syrian, but Beirut claims they are Lebanese.

Israel’s occupation of the area has served as a pretext for Hizbollah to pursue armed resistance. The UN, in asking Lebanon and Syria to delineate their frontier, hopes to elucidate the farms’ identity and resolve the land dispute. If the area is Lebanese, the UN could ask Israel to withdraw; if it is Syrian, this would eliminate an excuse for Hizbollah to try liberating them.

The Assad regime has evaded the UN demand in order keep the identity of the Shebaa Farms ambiguous. There are several reasons why: Damascus considers the farms Syrian, but more important, if Hizbollah were denied a reason to pursue “resistance”, this would end any military leverage Syria could use in negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. Syria has always sought to bind Lebanon to its own interaction with Israel, a point Mr Makhlouf subtly reaffirmed.

Lebanon’s boundaries with Syria have caused disagreement between Beirut and Damascus for decades. Various commissions have been set up to sort out the issue, but to no avail. At the same time, demarcation lines have had little meaning, as cross-border relationships are tight. This probably explains why the Syrian army has been attacking towns and villages close to Lebanon. The Assad regime’s intention is to prevent the Lebanese-Syrian border, which is porous in many locations, from becoming a passageway for sustaining the revolt.

Syrian spokesmen have accused Lebanese parties of sending weapons to alleged Islamist insurrectionists in Syria. There is no evidence of this, any more than there is evidence of an Islamist insurrection. However, in Syria’s border area with Lebanon, like those with Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, there are concentrations of Sunni communities. The Assad regime fears that if the crisis in Syria were to become even more violent and sectarian, outraged Sunnis next door would act in solidarity with their Syrian brethren to help undermine Mr al Assad’s rule.

It is ironic that the Syrian leadership, which has long made itself politically relevant by destabilising its neighbours, frequently via permeable borders, now sees these very same borders as potential sources of peril.

What we may be witnessing on the part of Damascus in Lebanon is two-fold: the pursuit of a policy of self-defence through destabilisation by manipulating the vacuum on Lebanon’s southern border, in partnership with a sympathetic Hizbollah; and a policy of pre-emption along the northern border, to thwart any prospect that Lebanon’s Sunnis will eventually lend support to Syrian Sunnis, in an area geographically and politically sensitive for Alawites.

It has often been said that Lebanon’s curse is its surroundings. But being caught between Israel and Syria would have been considerably easier had the country not been wracked by deep domestic contradictions. That’s why the Lebanese borders will continue to cause great anxiety as Syria’s regime faces an existential challenge that will not soon disappear.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle