Delimiting and securing Lebanon’s borders
A conversation with General Nizar Abdel-Kader Interview by Alexander Ramsbotham
Nizar Abdel-Kader is a retired General of the Lebanese Armed Forces and a Board member of the Lebanese Defense Journal. He is also a political analyst for the Ad-Diyar newspaper in Beirut and the author of ‘Iran and the Nuclear Bomb, Nation Without a Fence’ and ‘The Israeli Strategy to Destroy Lebanon’.
Failure to demarcate Lebanon’s boundaries
Article 1 of Lebanon’s Constitution asserts that it is “an independent, indivisible, and sovereign state.” It describes its frontiers to the north, east and south – as well as the Mediterranean to the west. Nonetheless, Lebanon’s borders with Israel and Syria are in fact neither resolved on the ground nor agreed legally.
The history of efforts to demarcate Lebanon’s borders is confused. On 23 December 1920 British and French authorities in Palestine and Lebanon established a joint border committee, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Newcomb (Britain) and Paulet (France), which agreed in February 1922 the demarcation of Lebanon’s borders with Palestine fixing 71 points on the ground. The French Mandate over Syria and Lebanon also undertook to delimit the boundaries between Lebanon and Syria, but only completed around 80 per cent of the demarcation.
Following Lebanese independence in the 1940s, Beirut and Damascus failed to take steps to jointly demarcate their common border. Today, discussions over Lebanon’s border with Israel refer to three different historical boundaries: the 1922 line; the 1949 ‘Green Line’ – part of the Truce agreement reached between Israel and its neighbours following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; and the 2000 ‘Blue Line’ – determined by the UN in relation to Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon.
Following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, then Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban declared that Israel would not be bound by any conditions of the 1949 Truce. In 1978 Israel occupied part of southern Lebanon, declaring it a “security zone”. It did not vacate it for the next 22 years, rejecting the requirement of UN Security Resolution (UNSCR) 425 (1978) to withdraw to Lebanon’s “internationally recognized boundaries.” When Israel finally did pull out in May 2000, the new UN Blue Line did not correspond either to Newcomb-Paulet or to the 1949 Truce.
Consideration of Lebanon’s borders must include the northern part of the village of Ghajar, which sits on the Syrian Lebanese border, the Kfar-Shuba Hills and the Chebaa Farms, key areas along Lebanon’s border which remain disputed with Israel and are points of friction between Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Today, there are thirtysix points of disagreement between Syria and Lebanon concerning the border, the most significant of which is in the central zone around Deir al-Ashayer.
These ambiguities over Lebanon’s borders with Israel and Syria mean that Lebanese sovereignty has always been violated, leading to border disputes and violent clashes –not least the 2006 war.
Lebanon’s borders with Israel
The Blue Line did not end the territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel, but included several points of contention. Beirut insists that Israel has not fully complied with UNSCR 425. After expelling Lebanese farmers from the Chebaa Farms during the 1967 war, Israel did not acknowledge that it had invaded de facto Lebanese territory. Since 1978, Israeli forces have transformed the occupied farms into a buffer zone along the border. Tel Aviv ostensibly waits for Syria’s official renunciation of the Chebaa Farms, knowing that Syria will not do this before recovering the occupied Golan Heights, thereby enabling Israel to maintain a strategic observatory, and control over abundant Mount Hermon water resources.
Hezbollah is also exploiting this occupation to validate its continued armament until all parts of Lebanon are liberated. This situation distorts the domestic political balance in Lebanon, as Hezbollah’s role as an armed “Resistanc”’ has secured for it inflated influence, and the party has been able to dominate the current government of Najib Mikati. Syria also plays a negative role in supporting Hezbollah’s resistance and in addition to refusing to accept the demarcation of the border, especially in the Chebaa Farms.
Natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean
Recent discoveries of huge natural gas reserves off the coast of Haifa have presented another thorny border issue regarding the delineation of Israel’s and Lebanon’s maritime boundaries. The 2000 Blue Line did not establish a maritime boundary, which at that time did not seem important before the discovery of the gas reserves. Beirut and Tel Aviv have responded to disagreement over natural gas with militaristic rhetoric and bravado.
In 2011 the Lebanese parliament agreed to a new draft law to delineate Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and its maritime boundaries. The UN rejected a request from Lebanon to help in this demarcation due to the difficulties it had experienced trying to delineate the Blue Line.
Without UN involvement, the eastern Mediterranean could become another theatre for war between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah is rumoured to have been developing a specialist unit for underwater sabotage and amphibious warfare for use against Israeli gas fields. The Israeli navy, at a cost of US $70 million, has developed a maritime security plan to defend these.
Negotiations, however, are taking place to respond to this disputed area of about 800 km2. Beirut has shared new maps drawn up by Lebanese experts to delineate maritime boundaries with the UN Secretary-General. It is also discussing the matter with Cyprus. The experienced US Diplomat Frederic Hof has been trying to help Lebanon and Israel reach an agreement. External technical expertise or UN mediation could be used to help settle the disagreement.
As Lebanese–Israeli relations are still effectively on a war footing, achieving agreement on maritime boundary delineation is very difficult. Meanwhile, increased tensions between Israel and Lebanon, or Hezbollah, are to be expected over gas or some other matter. Consequently, the potential for escalation could easily become imminent.
Lebanon’s border with Syria
Lebanese-Syrian relations have been marked by political conflict and instability since their independence from the
French Mandate in the mid-1940s, while families, towns and populations span and intermingle across the border.
Syria has always considered Lebanon one of its ‘lost territories’. Frequent border closures by Damascus and military occupation over 30 years have prevented Lebanon from achieving security and political stability.
Following Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, new efforts were made by Lebanon and the international community to convince Damascus to demarcate their 360 km common border. All of these efforts were futile. In October 2008, Lebanon’s historic decision to establish formal diplomatic relations with Syria created a new opportunity to demarcate the border.
The border as set out under the French mandate has been blurred by Syrian action. Visitors to the border will not see
Lebanese army units, but they will see Syrian border guards almost everywhere. Lebanese officials have not pushed hard to make progress on demarcation and Damascus has no interest in accomplishing this. The former president Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar have repeatedly described Lebanon as a strategic extension of Syria.
As part of the October 2008 rapprochement, Lebanon and Syria signed an agreement on demarcation. However, this stressed that the process would begin from the north, postponing demarcation at the Shebaa Farms – with Syria claiming that the area is still under Israeli occupation, and that demarcation is not possible before Israeli withdrawal from the whole of the Golan Heights.
Following the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Syria refused any international efforts to deploy UN observers along its own border. Beirut missed this opportunity to pressure Damascus over demarcation and to benefit from international support for Lebanon’s sovereignty. The only international involvement was a German technical support team that began a project to help Lebanon improve its border security in the north.
Despite this project, the popular uprising in Syria today shows that the border is not secure, due to a lack of both expertise and political will. Current tensions along the border and the commitment of the Lebanese government to the ‘Resistance’ against Israeli occupation make it unlikely that any serious moves towards border demarcation will take place in the near future.
Under current conditions, Lebanese security cannot curb smuggling and the realisation of arms shipments to Hezbollah. Lack of Syrian and Israeli will to address the key issues of the Chebaa Farms, Kfar-Shuba and Ghajar means that these areas will remain potential flashpoints between Hezbollah and Israel. After Israel’s withdrawals in 2000 and in the 2006 war, Hezbollah has increasingly looked to the Chebaa Farms as a focus for its resistance. Lebanese officials have failed to support repeated claims to the Chebaa Farms with documentary evidence. Syria has used the ongoing disagreement over the farms between Lebanon and Israel to defer progress on demarcating its own border.