The last official border crossing between Lebanon and Syria that was closed because of the war reopened on Dec. 14.
“Welcome to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria” is posted on a sign visible to travelers exiting Lebanon. “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people that live in two brotherly lands.”
On the day following the opening of the border crossing, the road on the Lebanese side remained decidedly empty, apart from a few vans going back and forth between fields where Syrian refugees work. Since the war in Syria began in 2011, the number of refugees has swollen to 30,000 in Qaa and its surroundings, according to Bashir Matar, the mayor of Qaa, the closest Lebanese town to the border.
Taxi drivers like Souhair Wannous, who decided to try out the Qaa-Joussieh crossing, are rare. “I left Syria this morning, and I’m on my way back now,” he told Al-Monitor. Every day, Wannous drives between Homs, just half an hour away into Syria from the border, and Chtaura, one of the main cities of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Using this crossing instead of the one he normally uses just north of the Lebanese town of Tripoli enables Wannous to cut a six-hour trip down to 3½ hours.
“It’s more comfortable like that,” Wahib Batikh, a Syrian house painter from Homs, told Al-Monitor. Batikh, who paid roughly $65 for the journey, travels to Lebanon every month to shop for goods that cannot be found in Syria. “This kind of mu’assel [a tobacco mix specifically made for shishas] does not exist back home,” he said, showing a pack that he bought in Lebanon.
The Chtaura-Homs road used to be a busy artery, with hundreds, if not thousands, of cars crossing the border every day. But clashes between different rebel groups operating from Syria and the Lebanese army forced its closure. In July 2016, a wave of suicide attacks in Qaa killed five people. The Lebanese army finally kicked out the remaining fighters this summer, with help from Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party that fights alongside Assad. All five official border crossings between Lebanon and Syria are now open and controlled by the Syrian regime.
Today, the Qaa border crossing stands right at the Syrian border, whereas it used to be 11 kilometers (7 miles) farther inland, at the entrance of the town. “It shows that we control our land right up to the border,” Matar told Al-Monitor.
Locals hope that a return of traffic will stimulate the local economy. “People need a few months to get used to using this border crossing again. Hopefully, the situation will be back to normal in a year,” local policeman Elie Matar said, although he recognizes that “the situation needs to calm down first in Syria.”
The Bekaa Valley is one of Lebanon’s poorest regions and houses a disproportionate number of Syrian refugees compared to the rest of the country because of its proximity to the border. There are a little under 1 million Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of whom roughly 350,000 live in the Bekaa Valley. However, Lebanese officials believe that the number of Syrians that fled to Lebanon because of the war is closer to 1.5 or 2 million people.
But most Syrians Al-Monitor spoke to on the Lebanese side of the border were in no hurry to return to Syria. “I can’t go back,” Mohammad Azzo said. He comes from Nizarieh, a town just on the other side of the border. “You think the situation is safe? That the war is over?”
Azzo would not explain exactly why he is afraid of going back to Syria. Nizarieh, only a few minutes away from Qusair, came to the world’s attention in 2013 when Hezbollah helped troops loyal to Assad retake the town. “It is a well-known fact that Qusair has become a critical hub for Hezbollah outside Lebanon,” Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al-Monitor.
Homs, located roughly 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Qusair, is nearly entirely under government control, except for a small stretch of territory. “The rebels in the Rastan-Talbiseh pocket have negotiated agreements with loyalist forces and with the Russians, but the cease-fires remain brittle and the humanitarian situation is dire,” Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, wrote to Al-Monitor in an email.
As a result, only pro-Assad Syrians seem to be using the crossing for the moment. “We love our leader, and we hope our army will end this war quickly,” Batikh told Al-Monitor before he started its journey again to Homs in his taxi. “The reopening of the border gives us hope. It means that the Syrian and the Lebanese states are present.”
Those who are tempted to go home are still wary of the economic situation back in Syria. Askar, a young agricultural worker, fled Homs to Qaa several years ago with 100 extended family members. “[God willing] we will go home soon. But there are still problems. We will not be able to live like before. For now, the situation is still better in Lebanon, as I can find work here,” he told Al-Monitor.
His colleague, Khaled, is Lebanese but married to a Syrian refugee from Yabroud. Their son, Ahmad, is 5 years old and was born in Syria during a family visit, just before the Qaa border closed. They have never been back. “He’s only ever seen Syria on television,” said Khaled. “Now that the road to Yabroud has become safer, maybe Ahmad can meet his Syrian family.”