Who cares about Lebanon sovereignty?

October 8, 2011
Ana Maria Luca, October 8, 2011.

Ali al-Khatib was originally from the Syrian border village of Meshrfeh, but married a Lebanese woman and moved across the border to the East Bekaa village of Ersal. The farmer was the reason two Syrian army tanks crossed the border into Lebanon on Thursday night, the second time this week, without sending either a notification before or an explanation afterward to the Lebanese authorities.

They shot Khatib dead before returning to their side of the border.

The entrance of Syrian troops into Lebanon to pursue Syrian nationals raises complicated questions on how much Lebanon can defend its own sovereignty and how the Syrian regime still has such a strong grip on Lebanon’s army and government. The Lebanese government did not file a complaint and did not summon the Syrian ambassador to Beirut to request an explanation.

"We asked Foreign Minister [Adnan Mansour] to summon the Syrian ambassador to inform him about Lebanon’s protest on this crossing, but he didn’t,” lawyer and former Labor Minister Boutros Harb told the National New Agency. "This is a [planned] crossing of the border between Lebanon and Syria, and a lack of respect to Lebanese sovereignty. Not summoning the Syrian envoy means that the cabinet is a partner of the Syrian regime in violating Lebanese sovereignty,” he added.

The March 8-led government’s Justice Minister, Shakib Qortbawi, defended the cabinet’s decision not to issue a statement on Tuesday’s incident, saying that the "issue is being handled by security forces.” There was also no reaction from the cabinet. Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel Karim Ali said that the Syrian incursion was blown out of proportion in the Lebanese media for political purposes.

Analysts say that had this happened anywhere else, the reaction to the incidents would have been much greater: they would have triggered a
diplomatic scandal, the ambassador of the offending country would have been publicly summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and presented with a complaint and a warning, and there would be a complaint filed with the Security Council.

But Lebanon’s March 8 government, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, did no such thing.

According to March 14 MP Mouin Merhabi, the incidents in Ersal are not the only occasions the Syrian army has crossed into Lebanon. Merhabi, who kept track of similar incidents in North Lebanon, said that "Two weeks ago, two men were kidnapped by the Syrian army from Akroum, North Lebanon, and then returned.”

"There was another incident when they shelled Lebanese army vehicles and broke one down. This is an infringement of Lebanon’s sovereignty,” he added. According to lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Sakr, there is no treaty that can provide an excuse for the Syrian incursions. The cooperation agreement signed between the Syrian Defense Ministry and its Lebanese counterpart in 1991 implies that a Syrian military operation cannot be conducted on Lebanon’s territory without prior consultations with the Defense Ministry in Beirut.

According to the Defense Agreement, both Syria or Lebanon have to "ban all military, security, political and media activity that might harm the other country” and "refuse to give refuge to, facilitate the passage of, or provide protection to persons and organizations that work against the other state's security. If such persons or organizations take refuge in either of the two states, that state must arrest them and hand them over to the other side at the latter's request.”

According to another lawyer and human rights activist, Nabil Halabi, in situations such as the ongoing Syrian anti-regime uprising, the security cooperation treaties between the two countries are replaced by international humanitarian law because of the human rights violations being committed by the Assad regime against the protesters, thousands of whom have attempted to flee into Lebanon since the crackdown began.

"[The situation in Syria] calls for the freezing of all bilateral agreements and the local laws and resorting to only international agreements and the international laws for human rights, which forbid any security authority from allowing the pursuit, the detaining or killing—as we saw Thursday—of any Syrian opposition activist,” Halabi noted.

Constitutional lawyer and analyst Antoine Saad said that military intervention on the territory of another country is illegal, but he also pointed out that "It is quite clear the Lebanese authorities can’t stand up to Damascus.”

"We know that Syrian opponents who sought refuge in Lebanon were apprehended by the Lebanese authorities and sent back to Syria. We know that all our political problems depend on Syria and Bashar al-Assad. That’s why there is never a reaction,” Saad said. "They always went around the law and the Lebanese-Syrian agreements. This is because [the government] is afraid and is always obedient to the Assad regime.” 

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