Syria Imposes New Security Rules

Hundreds of Lebanese truckers are stuck at the border with Syria because of new security restrictions imposed by the Damascus government. Some analysts believe the Syrian measures are aimed at ensuring its continued influence over Lebanese politics. NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut reports.

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Syria has imposed new restrictions along its border with Lebanon. The Syrian navy has stopped and arrested Lebanese fishermen for trawling too close to the Syrian coastline, and large numbers of Lebanese truckers have been held up at the Syrian border for more than a week, costing Lebanon millions in lost trade. From Beirut, NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Hundreds of Lebanese trucks are parked bumper to bumper along the seven-mile stretch of no man's land that separates Lebanon's border with Syria; the drivers wait. There's a long line for tough new security checks. Abdul Karim Qassam(ph), a trucker hauling potatoes to Arab markets, says he's lost time and money. His produce has already rotted in the heat.

Mr. ABDUL KARIM QASSAM (Trucker): (Through Translator) It's something between the governments. It's my fifth day at the border.

AMOS: Syrian officials blame the delays on necessary security to stop smuggled explosives, but Syrian journalist Sami Moubayed says the problem is bigger than the border. Damascus is angered by the constant stream of anti-Syrian statements coming from Lebanon.

Mr. SAMI MOUBAYED (Syrian Journalist): And the Syrians have just decided to retaliate.

AMOS: Tightening the border, says Moubayed, is a traditional tactic.

Mr. MOUBAYED: Every time there's a crisis or every time the Syrians want to pressure the Lebanese into doing anything, they shut down the border to let the Lebanese feel that without Syrians coming in for tourism, without Syrians putting their money in Lebanese banks, without Syrians crossing the border on a daily basis, Lebanon would suffer.

AMOS: Lebanon is suffering. Losses are mounting, in the millions now. What Lebanese commentators are calling the border crisis is just one sign of troubles ahead as Syria and Lebanon try to define a new relationship. In April, under international pressure, Syria withdrew its troops, ending almost 30 years of dominance over Lebanon. But Paul Salem, a Lebanese political analyst, says Syria is not willing to give up its influence yet.

Mr. PAUL SALEM (Lebanese Political Analyst): This might be a fair amount of saber-rattling, that, `Don't think that you can, you know, wander off too far from Syrian influence and Syrian interests.' It's a lot of pressure, and Lebanon is feeling that pressure.

AMOS: Intense pressure as Lebanese politicians remain deadlocked in efforts to form a new government. In the June elections, many politicians ran an anti-Syrian campaign, explains Paul Salem, and they won a majority in the parliament.

Mr. SALEM: Right now the majority is anti-Syrian, and that's a major, major change. Now they still have a strong ally in the president.

AMOS: Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud, is known as pro-Syrian. His term was extended under Syrian pressure last year. Lahoud has vetoed proposed Cabinet members for the new government three times, a sign of Syrian meddling, says Lebanese journalist Michael Young. Use the president you know as an ally, he says, while applying economic pressure on the border.

Mr. MICHAEL YOUNG (Lebanese Journalist): The incident with the trucks being blocked at the border was an effort to shape the formation of the Lebanese government in a way that at least would take Syrian--or some Syrian interests into consideration.

(Soundbite of prayer)

Unidentified Man: (Chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: High above Beirut, a Christian church and a major tourist attraction, Our Lady of Lebanon, a statue that overlooks the city. Akrim Shpir(ph), a young Lebanese businessman, agrees the promise of a new political era is fading.

Mr. AKRIM SHPIR (Lebanese Businessman): And what's happening for the moment now it doesn't look good. It's due to the Syrians. Now they close the borders, and we can see the results. They want a pro-Syrian government.

AMOS: But Lebanon has to deal with Syria, three times its size, says Sofia Saadeh, an author on Lebanese politics.

Ms. SOFIA SAADEH (Author): You have to deal with them even if you hate them. They are your neighbors. It's a geopolitical question, and you have to deal with it, because otherwise, your economy will deteriorate and Lebanon will be bankrupt. It cannot continue like this.

AMOS: Bush administration officials have warned Syria that its actions on the border is in violation of a United Nations resolution, and have called on European governments to step up pressure on Damascus. The head of the Arab League flew to Syria to try to mediate an end to the border crisis. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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