Posted by Joshua on Monday, September 29th, 2008
The Syrian move on the Lebanese border is to confront smuggling. Below is a picture of the troops ‘massed’ on the border.
Notice the lack of things like tanks, APCs, or other offensive gear necessary for an assault. It is right there in plain sight. No offensive force. And the number is far less than 10,000 — more like 500. But they did need troops strong enough to deal with the smuggling clans that could easily outpower a few guards at a post.
Meanwhile, the US and others slam Syria for not controlling the border.
The context for this move against smuggling is not Syrian concerns about Salafists in Tripoli or terrorist infiltration. The smuggling of Mazout from Syria into Lebanon, where it brings twice the price, is depleting the Syrian treasury.
The government has decided to stop the hemorrhaging to the Syrian budget caused by the smuggling, not by cutting the subsidies, which would hurt the poor who are the main consumers of mazout, but by raising taxes on the rich. Free market reformers such Dardari have argued for getting rid of the subsidies so that all oil products rise to market prices causing smuggling to stop. Many Syrian officials do not want to do this because it will push many more Syrians below the poverty line. Free market reforms combined with worldwide commodity increases and two seasons of drought in Syria have eroded the purchasing power of the average Syrian dramatically.
Socialist-minded, Syrian officials have decided to raise taxes on the rich to make up for the subsidies. Last week the government more than doubled yearly car registration fees across the board.
Cars with 4 litre engines are now subject to a yearly payment of $3250. This is an astounding duty to pay annually. The larger the engine the higher the fee of course. When the government official was asked why the fee went up by this much, he said that if “people want to show off by buying cars with big engines, then let them pay the fee”. (Thanks Ehsani for these figures)
This dramatic rise in car registration fees will cause considerable pain to Syrian car owners and raise the price of travel for all. It is a sign of how seriously the Syria’s budget problems are becoming – hence the effort to stop smuggling. Syria is not interested in invading Lebanon. The Doha agreement has satisfied Damascus’ security concerns in Lebanon.
Rice and Mouallem talk in New York in the l’orient-le jour. (In French)
The Syrians say the talks went well. Rice said they only lasted 10 minutes at an Iftar and that the two talked peace negotiations and Lebanon.
Neither said that they talked about intelligence sharing and cooperation on the Iraq border, but this is probably what they did talk about.
It was the main subject of the the last Rice-Mouallem talks at Sharm al-Shaykh in May 2007. Syria wanted intelligence sharing and was willing to accept two US generals in Damascus, but it asked that Rice send back an ambassador to Damascus. The Vice-President’s office nixed this plan. Petraeus was outraged and tried to go to Damascus himself to negotiate the resumption of intelligence sharing. He was refused permission by the White House.