As Lebanese trucks started to cross the border into Syria last week, following several months of being stranded at checkpoints, fears remain that the crisis is far from over.
Stricter Syrian customs inspections starting last June resulted in a massive backup of trucks carrying Lebanese products out of the country in July. According to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, however, the problem is now resolved.
“It has been confirmed that the situation is fine,” said Mahmoud Fawaz, the prime minister’s press officer. “There are routine checks but that is normal.”
Privately, though, officials say the flow of traffic has yet to return to normal and there are still often delays.
“Sometimes it is fine and the trucks and cars are passing through, but other times, it is just like before with the restrictions and hours of waiting,” said a Lebanese security source. “The situation is definitely not like it used to be between the two countries.”
Many Lebanese claimed Syria implemented the stricter inspection regime for political reasons. Lebanon’s only land outlet to export products to the rest of the Arab markets is through Syria since the border with Israel remains closed.
According to officials, land exports make up some 60 percent of Lebanon’s entire exports and by slowing the trucks, Syria severely damaged the economy.
Lebanese officials, truckers, unions and associations remain angry at the losses already amassed and Damascus’ failure to produce a valid excuse for what they say are violations of the trade agreements between the two countries.
The president of the Federation of Agricultural Producers in Lebanon Antoine Howayek said that direct losses had been “between $300,000 and $500,000 per day, but it is the indirect losses that are worse. The prices have dropped and that is a long-term disadvantage.”
“Being precise about the losses is hard to determine and we are estimating based on guess work,” Fadi Abboud, the head of the Lebanese Industrialists Association said.
“For industrial products alone we have lost something close to $20 million dollars throughout this period. This is without the agriculture losses. That would be around $35 million, he added.
Damascus said trucks were stopped because there were suspected explosives in one vehicleheading into Syria, adding that another car bomb might also be heading to the border.
In what should have been the solution to the crisis, Siniora headed to Damascus on 31 July to mend relations with top Syrian officials and the restrictions were lifted.
Two days later, the problem had shifted from the eastern Masnaa and northern Abboudieh-Dabboussieh border crossings, to the Jdaydet Yabous checkpoint and actually worsened. When one checkpoint opened, another closed and the problem kept shifting from one crossing to another, according to drivers.
Truckers’ syndicate president Moussa Ajoui said: “Now the situation is better. The second time the problem occurred it wasn’t a crisis like the first time. The second time, last week, was a matter of traffic.”
“Once the northern borders had been closed, trucks from Tripoli and Beirut port began heading to the Bekaa and Masnaa border points,” said Moussa Ajouni, the president of the Truckers’ Union.
“So whereas before at Masnaa you had 80, 85, 90 trucks, you had double that amount. Syrian border officials can only let 130 or so trucks pass per day, so after a few days, you had 400 trucks waiting. Now, with the northern border eased, the situation is back to normal.”
Ajoui added that the government needs to form special committees to study trade agreements and follow up on trade relations with Syria.
“The transport minister [Mohammed Safadi] and the finance minister [Jihad Azour] came to visit us at the border yesterday. So what? Does that mean the problem is solved?” he asked. “They have to meet with their Syrian counterparts and find a solution to this once and for all.”
After a 30 year tutelage over Lebanon’s politics, Damascus withdrew its troops from its smaller neighbour on 26 April after months of heavy international pressure and a resolution demanding that it cease interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
Since then relations between the two countries have steadily deteriorated, most noticeably taking form in Syria’s refusal to allow Lebanese trucks carrying produce to cross its borders.