BEIRUT — Lebanon is to begin the second phase of a two-step process to fill security gaps along its border with Syria, the head of Lebanon’s Joint Border Security Committee has told Defense News.
There are four land-based regiments operating along the northern and eastern borders between Lebanon and Syria, established in 2009 to fixed military posts, Gen. Joe Haddad said, and Lebanon’s military worked in parallel to shut down smuggling routes.
“But after some time, it became clear that there are some gaps that can only be covered through watchtowers equipped with the latest technologies,” he explained. Thus began the two-stage plan.
“The first stage established a central, local network of electronic monitoring-based towers linked to the Joint Operations and Information Center, [or JOIC], at the Lebanese Army Command, within a plan of action that relies primarily on permanent day and night monitoring, while providing early warning to the deployed units to move and control any violation,” he said.
The second stage of the project is now ready to being. ”It consists of linking coastal surveillance radars to the aforementioned network to enable JOIC to have a integrated monitoring system that plays the role of early warning in times of crisis,” Haddad said.
Land border regiments use several detection and inspection devices at the borders to counter smuggling and illegal transit to and from Lebanon. Some of that technology includes metal detectors, radiation detectors, fiber-optic inspection tools, hand-held contraband detection equipment, ground-based surveillance radars, motion sensors, mobile sensor platforms, night vision goggles and long-range thermal cameras.
“The effectiveness and efficiency of the Lebanese border control is a combination of an infrastructure designed specifically for this purpose consisting of a series of watchtowers, forward-operating bases, advanced logistical facilities, and a central communication and monitoring system, in addition to the continuous training of border regiments on the latest technologies and delivered systems,” Haddad said.
What do the regiments do?
Each of Lebanon’s four land border regiments operate in a set area that is territorially contiguous but separate from the others. Aram Nerguizian, senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has studied these units.
He said the 1st Land Border Regiment controls the border from the Mediterranean to the west to the town of Wadi Khaled to the east — essentially the length of the northern Akkar district. Within its area of responsibility are Syrian refugee camps and clusters of displaced people. Significant challenges include smuggling amid a difficult economic situation.
The 2nd LBR controls the length of the upper half of Baalbek-Hermel’s frontier with Syria, including the area adjacent to Arsal. Local risks include unexploded land mines and improved explosive devices left by organizations such as the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front, both of which battled Lebanese forces on the eastern border in a military operation dubbed Fajr al-Joroud and have kidnapped military personnel. Farmers and cultivators are also active in the cross-border region, and smuggling across the frontier remains common.
The 3rd LBR is responsible for the border region adjacent to Rashaya. It continues to struggle with human smuggling, and the mountainous terrain is challenging for the troops.
The 4th LBR is responsible for the lower half of Baalbek-Hermel, a key frontier region with Syria. Border control is a particular problem here given the prevalence of politically protected illegal border crossing points; some of that support comes from Hezbollah. Additionally, the terrain is challenging, and weather and effective communications remain key obstacles.
“The one area along the eastern border region that is not under the control of the four LBRs is the area to the east of Zahle, which includes the Masnaa border crossing. This area technically falls under the control of the 6th Intervention Regiment. This is probably one of the most porous regions because of a mix of smuggling routes that are politically protected by Hezbollah and its allies,” Nerguizian told Defense News.
He said the key takeaway is that the Lebanese Armed Forces have the means and resources to detect, deter, defend and deny in its eastern region.
“However, if the LAF is to extend that level of control fully, it will need a level of political support from the government of Lebanon that, frankly, it has not enjoyed since Gen. Michel Aoun became president [in 2016],” Nerguizian said. “In the current economic downturn and defense budget crisis, it is frontier units that are especially affected” because personnel find it difficult to travel to their posts due to fuel shortages and geographic challenges.
“That is an area that partner nations need to think long and hard about, given how much has already been invested to develop such a unique and frankly formidable border management superstructure.”
Local geography, foreign support
The Lebanese border regions, which are partly made up of forests and mountains, are the “main obstacles” to security forces performing their jobs effectively, Haddad said.
“The northern borders are characterized by a variety of terrain, from flat plains to mountains covered with thick forests and woods, in addition to valleys and waterways, and the presence of more than a dozen villages through which the borders pass. As for the eastern border, it is characterized by harsh, rugged mountainous terrain and sparsely populated,” the officer added.
This means troops require wheeled and foot patrols day and night in the border villages as well as continuous updates to changes in terrain, Haddad explained. “While in the rugged mountainous areas of the eastern frontier, additional considerations are required such as long-range surveillance with specific equipment for day and night reconnaissance, and adapting the navigation to the nature of the terrain through the extensive use of [all-terrain vehicles], [utility terrain vehicles] and snow tracks.”
Lebanon’s northern and eastern borderline with Syria is 375 kilometers long, and its southern border with Israel is 79 kilometers. The southern border falls under the purview of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which partners the Lebanese Army with the U.N. Interim Force In Lebanon. The resolution was issued Aug. 11, 2006, after Lebanese and Israeli forces agreed to a cease-fire the month before. Haddad described the cooperation as “critical to the success of the mission, and this tactical coordination is carried out through the Joint Operations Center in the Army Command.”
“The Border Control Commission is a platform to enhance coordination between the various border security agencies by developing the legal and regulatory framework for joint action, by developing contingency plans, standard operating procedures and preparing a memorandum of understanding based on ensuring cooperation between agencies through the exchange of liaison officers,” he said.
Lebanon’s military also receives aid directly from the United States and European nations, among others.
“The bulk of U.S. funding — tied to what was originally a [British]-funded effort — was through the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. DTRA funding was critical to building the cyber backbone that links the four LBRs and ties them into LAF HQ in Yarzeh,” Nerguizian said.
For its part, Britain donated this year 100 armored patrol vehicles to Lebanon, and before that it supplied troops, constructed more than 75 border towers, provided 350 Land Rover vehicles, and trained more than 11,000 LAF personnel to counter extremists and smugglers seeking to infiltrating Lebanon from Syria.
And Canada signed a memorandum of understanding with Britain to secure an additional $500,000 for the land border regiments project.
U.S. Central Command also plays a crucial role in “expanding and operationalizing high-endurance drone ISR” to support the border forces and the military writ large, Nerguizian said. The LAF currently operates two types of reconnaissance drones: four RQ-11 Raven systems (each includes three UAVs) and two Scan Eagle systems (each includes 12 UAVs).
Explained Haddad: “Land frontier regiments are equipped with drones for close reconnaissance, while drones are used at the JOIC level to support those regiments on demand. When the drone is operating for one of the land frontier regiments, the operating centers of the command and the regiment in question make it possible to view the operations in progress on the monitors.
“We hope for the continued arrival of aid that increases our operational capabilities in light of the harsh conditions Lebanon is going through and to face future challenges.”
Agnes Helou was a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.