Quasi-borders for a quasi-state: In Lebanon, partisanship trumps all else

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Syrian refugees arrive at the Masnaa border crossing on the Lebanon-Syria border on August 7, 2014, after fleeing the restive northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal ahead of returning to Syria. (Photo: AFP/STR)

By: Hiyam Kossayfi

Published Friday, August 29, 2014

The issue of protecting the Lebanese-Syrian border is one of the most pressing demands being made in light of the Syrian war. However, the border issue in Lebanon has never been of a military, security, or even geographical nature.

In a French Foreign Ministry document dated May 27, 1938, one finds the following account: “A dispute erupted between the Druze residents of Majdal Shams and the Sunnis of Jubata al-Khashab, both Syrian towns located in Mount Hermon. The two religious groups summoned their coreligionists from Lebanon and Palestine to assist them. The outcome was clashes between the two communities, who ignored the demarcated borders between the three countries.”

It is hard to find a better example than this French document for the true nature of the borders among these three countries, which had collapsed under the weight of sectarianism when the Druze and Sunnis in Lebanon and Palestine scrambled to rescue their brethren in Syria. The incident in 1938 is not that different from what is happening today, under the weight of foreign interventions, and the growingly-easy violation of the borders, as though they do not exist at all.

Borders have long formed the political and sovereign framework that determines the fate of countries, which often fight long wars to preserve their territories. Today, these borders, particularly in the Middle East, are a fascinating topic for researchers studying the impact of the dissolution of the boundaries established by the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the conditions in the countries of the region that still maintain a bare minimum of their territorial integrity like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. In addition, the radical Islamist group the Islamic State has recently torn down some of these borders with a violent show of force, and it is almost certain that this will happen again with other borders.

The conclusion that one Lebanese researcher reached in a paper presented at an American conference on the Middle East, is that “partisanship” of all kinds dismantles borders, and supersedes all kinds of geographical demarcation. It is from the viewpoint of partisanship that we can understand how legal and geographical boundaries are breached when a religious community or a tribe wants to assist its kin, and perhaps what is happening in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq clearly underscores the role of such partisanship.

The situation at the northern and eastern borders in Lebanon is not really an anomalous event compared against both ancient and modern Lebanese history.

In the present day, militants have travelled to and from Syria to “help” their Sunni brethren in Ersal and elsewhere; Hezbollah fighters have crossed to Syria to assist their allies or defend Shia areas in Syria; Alawis have come from Syria to Jabal Mohsen; and Sunnis have gone from the North to fight in Syria. Sunnis and Shia are going from Lebanon to Syria and returning, as though the two countries are one open arena, as the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad suggested in a famous speech in 1976.

Not long ago, some Christians crossed the southern border to Israel, and so did the Druze who wanted to communicate with other Druze in Palestine. Indeed, if it weren’t partisanship that is the main dynamic that overcomes geographical boundaries, then what can explain the solidarity between Christians in Lebanon and Christians in Mosul, Maaloula, and Wadi al-Nasara (the Valley of the Christians)? Or what can explain the reason Shia in Lebanon have scrambled to help those defending the Sayeda Zainab shrine in Damascus?

The borders stipulated in the Lebanese constitution were not what protected Lebanon geographically or politically. This was never the case, particularly when the state of Greater Lebanon was declared, causing confusion regarding the map attached to this declaration, which turned out to be based on maps from the French campaign in 1862.

According to Issam Khalifa in The Lebanese-Syrian Border, this map was not based on accurate topographic data, but rather on general exploratory outlines that contained many irregularities.

Lebanon is one of the states that political science would designate as a “quasi-state,” which needs international and regional sponsorship and care to remain viable, especially since peoples of such states would not have usually been consulted when their states were created and their borders were drawn. From this standpoint, Lebanon never had stand-alone borders that offered comprehensive protection as otherwise suggested by Article A of the Preamble to the Lebanese Constitution: “Lebanon is a sovereign, free, and independent country. It is a final homeland for all its citizens. It is unified in its territory, people, and institutions within the boundaries defined in this Constitution and recognized internationally.”

After all, which borders is the constitution talking about exactly? Who is recognizing them when the Lebanese themselves are violating these borders? Are the borders in question the ones stipulated in the constitution? According to the first article,

“On the North: From the mouth of Nahr al-Kabir along a line following the course of this river to its point of junction with Wadi Khalid opposite Jisr Al-Qamar.

On the East: The summit line separating the Wadi Khalid and Nahr al-Asi, passing by the villages of Mu'aysarah, Harbanah, Hayt, Ibish, Faysan to the height of the two villages of Brifa and Matraba. This line follows the northern boundary of the Ba`albak District at the north eastern and south eastern directions, thence the eastern boundaries of the districts of Ba`albak, Biqa', Hasbayya, and Rashayya.

On the South: The present southern boundaries of the districts of Sûr (Tyre) and Marji`yun.

On the West: The Mediterranean.”

Or are there other borders that the Lebanese have accepted for themselves, when politics, partisanship, and sectarianism trumped all else, as had happened at all major historical events, for example with the conflicts of 1958, 1967, 1973, and 1975, and with the Syrian entry in 1976 and the repeated Israeli invasions through the southern border?

The Cairo Agreement

The Cairo Agreement in 1969 was the first official document sanctioning armed struggle against Israel out of the Lebanese border, bearing in mind that following the creation of the PLO, the Arab regimes had agreed among one another not to establish military bases in Lebanon, and that those who join the Liberation Army would not be allowed to return to Lebanon (Farid al-Khazen, The Disintegration of the State in Lebanon).

The Cairo Agreement was the translation of developments on the field since the summer of 1968, with the growing number of Palestinian Resistance fighters (Fedayeen) infiltrating the Lebanese border from Syria heading to the Arqoub region. On June 14, 1968, Palestinian Resistance operations ignored the southern border for the first time, which in principle was protected by the armistice agreement with Israel. The latter agreement states that “no element of the land, sea or air military or paramilitary forces of either party, including non-regular forces, shall commit any warlike or hostile act against the military or paramilitary forces of the other party, or against civilians in territory under the control of that party.”

On October 30, Israel launched its first operation inside Lebanese territory, targeting a Fatah base. In December, Israel carried out an attack on Beirut airport. Since 1968, more and more Fedayeen began to infiltrate from Syria to Arqoub, with growing number of clashes taking place between them and the Lebanese army, the first of which occurred on October 29, 1968 in Arqoub.

In 1969, a series of confrontations erupted in Majdal Silm, Deir Mimas, Udaysah and al-Khiam. With the rising tension and the deepening Sunni-Christian rift over how to deal with Palestinian armed resistance in Lebanon, the secret Cairo Agreement was signed, despite opposition from Raymond Edde, who saw it as a violation of the armistice agreement. The Cairo Agreement facilitated the movement of the Fedayeen through the southern and eastern border, and allowed Palestinian fighters to flock to and from Lebanon, amid broad Sunni support and cover. Khazen wrote, “The Sunni leadership, represented by Rashid Karami, called for a policy of coordination with the Fedayeen… when the situation was aggravated with the Fedayeen, it was not possible to take military action against Palestinian fighters without unequivocal political support from the Sunni poles, especially the prime minister.”

Syria and the artificial borders

The problem did not just involve the Lebanese border with Israel. In 1969 and after clashes between the Lebanese army and the Palestinians, Syria closed its border with Lebanon, on October 22. Since that time, Syria continued to deal with those borders as artificial boundaries, and spared no occasion since it entered Lebanon officially and until it left officially to express its vision for the joint border, as evident from the texts of the Brotherhood and Coordination Treaty between the two countries signed in 1989.

Moreover, the problem of the Shebaa Farms, which Syria seized in 1956, was not the only border dispute between the two countries, though it took on an added political and military importance in recent years in light of the military conflict between Israel and Lebanon, specifically with Hezbollah, which still calls for the liberation of the Shebaa Farms that Israel occupied in 1967. This is while bearing in mind that the National Dialogue Commission in Lebanon had discussed the Shebaa Farms in the course of discussing the issue of demarcating Lebanon’s border, but was soon drawn into a linguistic debate over the “demarcation versus specification” of the borders.

Nor can we forget the number of Lebanese-Syrian incidents along the joint border, which intensified after the Syrian war, or the points that need a clearer demarcation including along the maritime borders, which could take on an additional importance when the issue of Lebanon’s oil and gas resources is discussed in earnest, regionally and internationally.

Israel and the Blue Line

Lebanon lacks modern and clear maps, and Israel deals with the southern border as though it doesn’t exist. However, Lebanon’s problem is that since its creation as an entity, it has failed to demarcate its border in all directions. With the withdrawal of the Israeli army from its territory, Lebanon was forced to accept the Blue Line, which took years to demarcate in coordination with the UN peacekeeping force.

Today, two mechanisms govern the southern border, the armistice agreement and UNSC resolution 1701, which was the result of the 2006 war in Lebanon. The first does not contain a full description of the border, but only states that the armistice agreement “adheres to the international border between Lebanon and Palestine.” This is while resolution 1701 stresses the international community’s respect for Lebanon’s political independence “within its internationally recognized borders,” but also its vehement support for respecting the Blue Line.

The March 14 alliance in Lebanon has tried to take advantage of this formulation to call for implementing the same mechanism along all Lebanon’s borders, to protest Hezbollah’s opening of the border and its involvement in the war in Syria.

However, the main problem with this is that the international resolution had been passed unanimously by the Security Council with the approval of the Israeli and Lebanese governments, something that is not possible at present: Neither is the international community prepared to expand the framework of the international peacekeeping force, nor are the countries concerned prepared to expose their soldiers to the risk of being taken hostage in a region witnessing large-scale slaughter and beheadings. Furthermore, the government in Lebanon would not consent unanimously to turning the border into an internationalized area, in light of the conflict between the Syrian regime and its opponents, especially given the threat of the Islamic State expanding into the Lebanese border.

All this takes us back to square one and the issue of the “quasi-state,” which perhaps needs something more than protection from the international community to survive.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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