BEIRUT, 26 July (IRIN) – Stringent new Syrian customs procedures have left hundreds of truck drivers in Lebanon waiting at the border with dwindling resources since the start of the month. The move is seen as a growing threat to Lebanon’s agricultural exports. A long caravan of trucks carrying Lebanese exports destined for the rest of the region has been stranded for weeks in the 11 km no-man’s land between the two countries. Inspections became stricter than usual in June but the real logjam started in July, according to truckers and local Lebanese officials. Painstaking inspection procedures by the Syrians are only allowing a few trucks through each day, forcing drivers to wait in harsh conditions, given the hot sun and dwindling food and money, while they wait with their cargo, much of it perishable. “Prices have already gone down by almost 50 percent as exporters cannot buy Lebanese agricultural products,” said Antoine Hoyek, president of the Syndicate’s Federation of Agricultural Producers in Lebanon. He estimated that the delays are costing the Lebanese economy $300,000 a day. Adnan Kassar, president of the Lebanese Trade Unions and Farm Syndicates, warned that long-term losses could severely affect the already ailing Lebanese economy, as other Arab countries would stop importing Lebanese goods. Most of the trucks stuck at the border are carrying perishable goods to destinations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, and even Syria, according to truckers and customs officials. Other loads include contain plastic goods, engine parts and wood. The drivers complained of the imminent risk of spoiling cargoes of fruit and vegetables, mostly from the agricultural heartland of Chtaura, in the Bekaa Valley in Central Lebanon. They said they are given an allowance of about US $2,450 for a trip, to include all expenses (such as customs clearance, administrative fees and their own sustenance) and their salary.
The long delays are eating into incomes and threatening their livelihoods.

“I have no more spare diesel. I am carrying potatoes that need to be constantly refrigerated. I am buying diesel from taxi drivers at double the price to keep the produce cool 24 hours,” said Talaat Bek, an Egyptian driver.

“Very soon I’ll be out of funds and the cargo will be dumped once it gets to its destination – if it gets there.”

Local municipalities, such as the nearby town of Majdal Anjar, and individuals, have been trying to ease the drivers’ plight, bringing them food and water.

The Lebanese-Syrian Export Association has passed around a petition to drivers, asking Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to end the unprecedented stand-off.

Syrian authorities have justified the inspection procedures as part of their response to US pressure to prevent any militants from passing through the country on the way to Iraq.

However, Lebanese critics of the procedures maintain that the Syrian government is trying to ruin the Lebanese economy.

Syria is making a “political statement that it is a strong adversary, if not an ‘enemy’ of the ‘new Lebanon’ that came out of the ballot boxes after the era of Syrian tutelage”, wrote Nassir Asaad, a columnist for Lebanon’s Al Mustaqbal newspaper.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister designate Fouad Seniora has stated that, while his country respects Syrian security concerns, the two should be able to cooperate in implementing transit agreements.

Reinoud Leenders, a Beirut-based analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), said there did appear to be a degree of obstruction about the Syrian measures.

“I think it’s clear now that there are some bad intentions from Damascus: that they want to use some economic measures against Lebanon,” he said.

“I suspect that this is a short-term problem,” Leenders added. “Syria cannot afford to be seen causing bankruptcies in Lebanon. The United States will not tolerate that.”

During her visit to Beirut on 22 July, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this was not an example of how good neighbours deal with each other.

United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen briefed European Union foreign ministers on the customs issue during a recent meeting and urged the two disputing countries to end the deadlock.

Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, called for both Syria and Lebanon to maintain good relations amid the apparent crisis after meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in Damascus on 17 July.

Figures from the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce estimate that 60 percent of the country’s exports pass through Syria, which borders the country on the north and east and, with the Israeli border closed, comprises the only land route out of the country.

The ones really feeling the pinch right now, though, are the truck drivers on the border who, day after day, wait for their chance to cross.

“I haven’t had a shower in 12 days. My visa is expired and I have run out of supplies and money,” said Abdel Muttalib, a Pakistani driver destined for Saudi Arabia.

“My boss does not care. He told me to wait like all the other drivers until I can pass. I just hope I do not get fined for my visa expiration since I ran out of funds,” Noli, a Filipino trucker, said.

“Besides, how much longer do we have to wait?”