“I have never seen anything like this in decades,” said Hassun, a taxi driver who makes a living transporting passengers the 85km distance between the Lebanese and Syrian capitals.
“Usually it is easy to cross the Syrian border post at Jdeide, but the past few weeks it has been infernal,” said Hassun after spending 45 minutes stuck at a Syrian military roadblock near the border.
“They interrogated us, searched the car and the passengers and confiscated some consumer goods. The people are fed up,” Hassun said.
The drive from Beirut to Damascus used to take two hours, but things have drastically changed since Syria‘s April withdrawal from the smaller neighbour it dominated politically and militarily for three decades.
“Most people think that these measures are provocative and that they increased since the pullout of Syrian troops from Lebanon. But maybe they are for security reasons,” said Fouad, a Syrian businessman who declined to give his surname.
Last week, Syria announced that two of its security personnel were killed in a firefight with fighters on the Lebanese border.
An “Arab extremist” also died and an unspecified number of fighters were captured, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported, adding that 34 suspects were detained in a subsequent raid.
Damascus has come under intense pressure from the United States to control its borders with Iraq and stop fighters slipping into its violence-wracked neighbour.
As a result, traffic at Lebanon‘s border with Syria has become congested.
Lebanon’s only outlet to Arab
Long queues of cars form outside the Jdeide border post, while hundreds of container trucks, most of them transporting goods destined for Iraq, are blocked at another border crossing in the north.
This has put a strain on Lebanon, whose only outlet to Arab markets passes through Syria, which has been known in the past to seal its borders when relations with Beirut were in crisis.
Interim Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati has sought, in vain, intervention from Nasri Khoury, who leads the Syrian-Lebanese supreme council that manages political and economic ties between the two neighbours.
In May, days after Syria completed its pullout from Lebanon, Miqati travelled to Damascus to discuss future ties, including pending economic agreements, and later said a border post would be established to ease travel and trade.
But results from the visit have yet to be seen.
An agreement under which Syria was expected to supply Lebanon with natural gas has been shelved.
“There is certainly a crisis and it is unbearable, but it should not last because the two countries must have better ties”
It stipulated that Syria would sell Lebanon 1.5 million cubic metres of gas a day at $3 per unit “or 40% cheaper than market prices”, Lebanese Energy Minister Bassem Yammine said.
“But the Syrians have told us that this offer is no longer valid,” after Lebanon said it wanted to renegotiate all its agreements with Damascus, Yammine said, adding that discussions were under way.
Experts have said cheap Syrian gas will contribute to alleviating endemic deficits at the national electricity producer, EDL, estimated to total $400 million, and help save Lebanon $150 million annually.
“There is certainly a crisis and it is unbearable, but it should not last because the two countries must have better ties,” Yammine said.