Lebanese Agriculture minister bans Syrian imports
Beirut - The trade balance between Lebanon and its stronger neighbour, Syria has historically been tipped in favour of Damascus. The Syrian government has closed the vital overland route, which used to transport more than 60% of Lebanese agricultural produce to Jordan, Iraq and Arab Gulf markets, on several occasions to pressure Lebanon.
Lebanese Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb reversed the norm in June by imposing a ban on the import of Syrian agricultural products that have been flooding Lebanese markets and harming local farmers.
“The losses in the agriculture sector are humongous. I am trying as much as possible to protect Lebanese interest. It is a technical, economic decision and not a political one, despite our position regarding the Syrian regime,” said Chehayeb, a member of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by MP Walid Jumblat, who is opposed to the Damascus regime.
“There was an utter necessity to take such a move to safeguard our agriculture and protect our farmers,” Chehayeb explained in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
Prior to the abrupt import ban, the ministry had taken a number of escalatory measures to streamline and control imports from Syria.
“Lebanese importers of fruit, vegetables and dairy products from Syria were requested to obtain a pre-import licence, which was granted on the basis of market needs and the availability of the produce locally. The aim was to have a balance between local and imported products and the market prices,” said Chehayeb.
There are realistic concerns over the implementation and outcome of the ministry’s measure because of the porous Lebanese-Syrian border, raising fears smuggling would increase.
“The problem is definitely in smuggling,” Chehayeb acknowledged.
“In the (north-eastern) region of Hermel alone, there are 50 illegal crossings used for smuggling Syrian goods. Syrian produce has been entering Lebanon clandestinely through both the legal and illegal crossings, flooding the market and competing with national products,” he said, stressing that “the Syrian authorities are responsible for putting a stop to the smuggling the same way we are responsible for acting here (in Lebanon)”.
Accusing authorities in Damascus of facilitating the work of smugglers, Chehayeb said: “I know that they can take action against those people. They know them very well and they are actually helping them because they bring in badly needed foreign currency under the current (war) circumstances in Syria.”
“I want to protect Lebanon’s economic borders. When the smuggling stops, we will then be ready to regulate imports between the two countries and reconsider our decisions. They are doing their interest and it is my duty to ensure the interests of Lebanon,” Chehayeb said. “Lebanon is no longer a playground for Syria.”
Syria was a main power broker in Lebanon until 2005 when it was forced to pull out its army from Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, ending three decades of military presence. Damascus was suspected of having a role in Hariri’s death.
Lebanese agriculture was hit hard by the raging war in Syria, which closed the overland route for Lebanese produce to Jordan, Iraq and Gulf countries. According to the customs authorities, Lebanese exports to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members in 2014 amounted to $920 million. Another $256 million worth was exported to Iraq.
After the closure of the overland route more than a year ago, alternative routes by sea and by air proved to be costlier, resulting in a reduction of Lebanese exports.
In 2015, Lebanon exported to Syria around 35,000 tonnes of citrus and bananas, whereas it imported about 95,000 tonnes of vegetables and fruit, according to the president of the Farmers’ Association in Lebanon.
Chehayeb’s surprise import ban triggered condemnation by Syrian authorities, who warned that Lebanese trade activities would also be affected.
The Farmers’ Association in Lebanon applauded the decision, saying it would produce a positive outcome in the early stages of its implementation. However, it warned that the issue could take a negative turn on the economy in the long term if Damascus applies the principle of reciprocity by closing the crossing between Syria and Iraq, which despite the high risks, is still used by Lebanese farmers to channel their products.
Chehayeb warned that any Syrian decision that harms Lebanese interests would be treated similarly. “At present, they need us as much as we need them,” he said, downplaying fears of a Syrian backlash. “If they close the land border with us, we can also retort by blocking the transit of Syrian exports through our ports and airport.”
“However, we hope that we could reach an agreement whereby they would stop smuggling their merchandise into Lebanon and then we can organise trade between us according to our needs and theirs,” he added.