The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is intensifying efforts to open a new border crossing between Lebanon and Syria, local sources and Arab media reported this week.
The Iranian-backed Shiite group has been constructing an unofficial crossing along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria, according to pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.
Workers commissioned by Hezbollah have been working intensively in recent days to pave a road for the crossing, said a local source in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley region.
The source, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Hezbollah, told VOA that militants affiliated with Hezbollah have been using the route for years to transport fighters and weapons between the two countries, “but it looks like they want to prepare it for civilian use as well.”
Backed by Iran
Hezbollah has been a major actor in Syria’s civil war since 2012, siding with the government of President Bashar al-Assad. With support from Iran, the group has deployed thousands of fighters to Syria in recent years.
A voice recording about the development was widely circulated on social media last week. In the clip, a Hezbollah commander purportedly said the construction of this border crossing “is a message to the enemies inside and outside [Lebanon that] soon convoys will pass through here.”
VOA couldn’t independently verify the authenticity of the recording.
Hezbollah officials have not made any public statements about these reports. Two pro-Hezbollah members of the Lebanese parliament did not respond to VOA's request for comment in time for publication.
Jerry Maher, a Lebanese political analyst, said Hezbollah and its networks have long been using illegal routes for smuggling between Lebanon and Syria, but the opening of an “actual border crossing” would likely facilitate further activities by the militant group that violate international sanctions.
“Hezbollah benefits from such activities by smuggling certain foodstuffs and medicine from Syria into Lebanon and selling them to its supporters [for] relatively cheap prices,” he told VOA.
Caesar sanctions’ impact
Lebanon has been going through a major economic crisis because of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued political turmoil. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
Hezbollah, which largely controls the Lebanese government, has accused the United States of preventing the flow of dollars to the tiny Middle Eastern country. U.S. officials, however, accuse Hezbollah of hoarding and smuggling dollars.
The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Through illegal border crossings such as the one being constructed now, analyst Maher said, “Hezbollah smuggles out fuel and U.S. dollars to help the Syrian regime and by extension the Iranian regime.”
“In the past, Hezbollah’s use of such illegal routes was to benefit its allies in Syria and Iran,” Maher added. “Now, however, these activities will boost up Hezbollah’s finances as it goes through difficulties.”
The U.S. last month introduced new economic sanctions against the Syrian government under a measure known as the “Caesar Act.”
The new sanctions are named after a Syrian military photographer who fled Syria in 2013 with thousands of photos documenting torture of people by security forces in government prisons.
Experts believe Lebanon's dependence on Syria’s economy will exacerbate its financial crisis. Hence, Hezbollah has begun looking for ways to increase its revenue.
“In terms of commercial needs, [illegal border crossings] serve Hezbollah’s drug smuggling and handle some of their trading going on in Syria,” said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“I’m not saying it’s not easy for them to use more official transit routes, but this way they can manage them much better and pay fewer kickbacks to Syrian or Lebanese authorities,” he told VOA.
The newly paved road, which would be used for the crossing, is reportedly outside the reach of 30 watchtowers set up by the British military in support of the Lebanese military.
Britain has helped install watchtowers along Lebanon’s border with Syria to prevent potential infiltration by Syrian-based extremist groups, including Islamic State.
“The Lebanese army can easily control these borders and stop the smuggling if there is a serious political decision to control the borders, especially since there are observation towers provided by the U.K. that have been installed along the eastern borders," Khalil al-Helou, a retired Lebanese army general, told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya news channel on Thursday. "Four U.K. ground regiments have been formed for the Lebanese army to monitor these borders.”
Al-Helou added that Hezbollah militants have used about 160 illegal routes and border crossing points between Lebanon and Syria over the years.
Contacted by VOA, the Lebanese Ministry of Defense declined to comment.
Israel considers Hezbollah a major threat to its security. Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Israel has frequently carried out airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria.
In recent months, Israeli officials have voiced concerns that Hezbollah is seeking to build production facilities to make precision-guided missiles.
Smyth of the Washington Institute said the new border crossing would be “very important for [Hezbollah] due to weapons smuggling, particularly pieces for their rockets and guidance equipment.”
But Jonathan Spyer, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said Israel should be able to observe the area effectively since “Israel’s intelligence coverage of Lebanon and Syria is generally considered good.”
“If weapons and guidance systems are in the vicinity, they will be as vulnerable to Israeli air power as other sites in Syria,” Spyer told VOA.
“I think Israel’s interest in the area will be limited to the issue of weapons."