Surge in Lebanese crossing into Syria for supplies, new year celebrations

Due to the economic crisis in Lebanon, hard-pressed citizens have been returning to Syrian markets to stock up on home supplies. (AFP)
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Updated 07 January 2020

Surge in Lebanese crossing into Syria for supplies, new year celebrations

  • Cheaper prices for food and domestic products coupled with lower health care costs have been cited as the main reasons for the sudden influx of Lebanese into Syria

BEIRUT: Officials in Syria on Monday reported a surge in the number of Lebanese citizens crossing into the war-torn country for supplies, and new year celebrations.

Of the 26,500 people who passed through border controls on Dec. 30 and 31, at least 11,000 of them were Lebanese, Al-Watan newspaper quoted a Syrian source as saying.

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Lebanese visitor numbers to the country have dropped significantly, with the majority of those entering being Syrian workers, merchants, foreign relief workers and diplomats.

However, a customs official at the Al-Masnaa border post with Syria told Arab News: “The movement of Lebanese entering Syrian territories on Dec. 30 and 31 was very active … Talking about 11,000 Lebanese is very reasonable and perhaps the number is greater than that.

“We have not seen such a movement (of Lebanese citizens) since the beginning of the war in Syria. (The movement was) mostly confined to the Syrians.”

Cheaper prices for food and domestic products coupled with lower health care costs have been cited as the main reasons for the sudden influx of Lebanese into Syria.

Due to the economic crisis in Lebanon, hard-pressed citizens have been returning to Syrian markets to stock up on home supplies.

Khaled Al-Husseini, who owns a communications store in Chtoura near to Al-Masnaa crossing, said that $100 was equivalent to 85,000 Syrian pounds, which could buy a month’s supply of food items such as sugar, rice, pasta, grains and other consumables, including cleaning materials, in Syria.

Meat was also cheaper in Syria than Lebanon, he added, with the price of a kilogram of lamb in Syria being 19,000 Lebanese pounds ($12.58) compared to 30,000 Lebanese pounds in Lebanon. This was “after its price increased due to the liquidity crisis and the high dollar exchange rate in Lebanon,” said Al-Husseini.

He noted that there were many reasons for Lebanese crossing the border into Syria. 

“It may be for a visit to a religious place and to buy home supplies, clothes and shoes at the same time because these things are cheaper in Syria than Lebanon, especially sports shoes. Some visitors go to Syria for medical care because the costs there are cheaper than Lebanon.”

A money changer at an exchange located on a road leading to the border at Al-Masnaa, said business was brisk. 

“There are some Lebanese people who enter the free market at the Lebanese-Syrian border point to buy cigarettes and tobacco because it is cheaper than Lebanon, and they pay in hard (foreign) currency.

“And there are those who take dollars with them to Syria, and most of them are families of members of Hezbollah who get paid in dollars.”

One resident of a town near the Syrian border, said: “There were people, especially the younger generation, who spent New Year’s Eve in Syria, and they told me that the evening was very enjoyable and cheaper than in Lebanon.”

It takes less than one-and-a-half hours to drive between the capital cities of Beirut and Damascus with travel times even less from central Bekaa to Damascus where many Lebanese saw in 2020.

The customs official pointed out that restrictions applied to Lebanese citizens on the quantity of food and other items they could take out of Syria. This was limited to an estimate of personal needs and larger quantities meant for trade were not allowed.

A treaty signed between Lebanon and Syria allows Lebanese to reside in Syria for up to six months, while Syrians can stay in Lebanon for 15 days provided that they have hotel reservations. However, Syrians with a Lebanese sponsor have the right to stop in Lebanon for one year.

Lebanon hosts about 1 million Syrian refugees on its territory. 

Their return to Syria is conditional on obtaining approval from the Syrian authorities.


Eritrean navy urged to free dozens of Yemeni fishermen from custody

Fishermen work on their boats in the southern city of Aden, Yemen, in this file photo taken on March 18, 2015. (AP)
Updated 25 min 22 sec ago

Eritrean navy urged to free dozens of Yemeni fishermen from custody

  • Naval attacks getting more brazen, say Yemenis

AL-MUKALLA: There have been calls for Eritrea to release dozens of Yemeni fishermen who were caught last week after sailing into a maritime flashpoint.

On Wednesday 15 armed boats from Eritrea’s navy seized 120 Yemeni fishermen from the Red Sea between Hanish Islands and the coast of Khokha.

Eritrea briefly occupied the Hanish Islands in 1995 before retreating after the international arbitration court granted Yemen sovereignty over them. But Yemeni authorities complain that the Eritreans have attacked and seized hundreds of Yemeni fishermen over the last couple of years.

The most recent incursion triggered a brief clash with the Yemeni coastguards that ended with the capture of seven Eritreans, local security officials said. On Thursday the Eritreans released 62 Yemeni fishermen after confiscating their boats.

“We demand all concerned authorities to work on releasing our colleagues and their boats that are in Eritrea’s custody,” Khaled Al-Zarnouqi, the head of Yemen’s Shabab Al- Khokha fishery association, told Arab News on Saturday. “We demand the international community, the (Saudi-led) coalition and the (Yemeni) government to protect us from the repeated attacks by Eritrea’s navy that violates Yemeni sovereignty, attacks Yemeni fishermen and seizes boats.”

Hashem, one of the fishermen who was released on Thursday, said that armed Eritrean vessels approached their boats on Tuesday and asked them to sail to Eritrea’s Ras Tarma.

“They were tough,” Hashem told Arab News, preferring to be identified by his first name. “Before releasing us, they gave us little fuel and rickety boats and asked us to sail back home.”

The Eritreans refused to release their boats. “Each boat costs YER2.5 million ($9,987). They seized the finest and most expensive boats and allowed us to sail back with the worst ones.”

Local security officials and fishermen say that Eritrea’s naval attacks have become more brazen and are getting closer to the Yemeni coastline.

“They have attacked Yemeni fishermen less than 17 miles from the Yemeni coastline,” a local security official who documents Eritrea’s navy attacks on Yemeni fishermen told Arab News. “The Eritreans are also still holding 24 fishermen who were detained in the Red Sea on Dec. 1, 2019 and refuse to release them,” he said, adding that many fishermen were thinking of taking up arms to protect themselves.

Yemen’s coast guard authority crumbled in early 2015 when the Iran-backed Houthis expanded across Yemen after taking over Sanaa, triggering heavy clashes with their opponents.

Since the beginning of its military operations in Yemen in support of the internationally- recognized government, the Saudi-led coalition has trained and armed hundreds of coast guard troops and deployed them along the country’s coastline.

Yemeni officials say they are battling Eritrea’s navy attacks, Houthi arms' smugglers and drug gangs.