By Filippo Dionigi, London School of Economics
*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.
Rethinking borders as analytical category
Statehood, sovereignty and therefore borders and territoriality have been called into question by the 2011 uprisings that— notwithstanding their domestic causes— have quickly diffused across several Middle Eastern countries. Then, conflicts have fragmented Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq generating a vacuum for non-state actors to assert their presence. Finally, forced migrations have resulted in the displacement of millions within and across state borders; among these the Syrian refugee crisis is the most extensive case.
As a result of these tumultuous phenomena, states and their borders in the Middle East are under a great deal of pressure, yet old regimes have fought back virtually everywhere supported by external regional and global allies.
If we look at the region in early 2017 no major structural change has occurred thus far, but we can hardly look back at the past six years relying on a conventional understanding of states and borders based on Westphalian assumptions. An idea of statehood as self-enclosed national, territorial, and sovereign entity prevents us from understanding trans-border dynamics cutting across domestic, regional and global spheres in both directions: interventions from outside into local realities and the diffusion of domestic phenomena such as social movements, militias, migrations, and economies beyond the borders of their place of origin. The state as an autonomous institutional order and its territoriality as a “society container” are constantly challenged by a dense web of relations which is hardly contained by formal borders.
To better explain the nature of these transborder dynamics, this memo proposes a reconceptualization of borders between Syria and Lebanon as “thin” borders by looking at the case of Syrian forced displacement.
Thin borders are characterised by permeability to fluxes of peoples and things, but retain their border status because they maintain a regulative function. A thin border is not an equivalent for absence of border, weak or volatile border, or open border, but refers to regimes of crossings that regulate the flux of people or things through a set of constitutive layers. These layers are defined by Haselsberger as political, cultural, economic, and physical “boundaries” that form the multi-layered nature of the border. Whereas thin borders establish a regime of crossings for people and goods “thick” borders have the effect of disrupting relational geographies by restraining cross-border fluxes.
The case of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is an opportunity to operationalize the concept of thin border and then discuss the changes in policy that Lebanese authorities have implemented with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis using boundaries as an analytical framework.
Border thinness between Lebanon and Syria
Until 2015, the Lebanese-Syrian border has been an example of thin border because all its boundaries -political, economic, cultural, and physical- have been regulated in a way that encourages the flow of people and goods.
In political terms the boundary between these two states has always been very thin. During the Ottoman Empire the contemporary territories of Lebanon and Syria did not exist, and they were instead divided in wilayat that subsequently became closely related as part of the political project of Greater Syria. During the French Mandate, however, two closely related territorial entities were constituted that subsequently became Lebanon and Syria.
The Syrian regime and some of the Lebanese Panarabist factions have challenged the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon since its origins. The 1958 civil unrest that took place in Lebanon was related to clashing views within Lebanon regarding United Arab Republic. Subsequently, the Syrian regime has confronted Lebanon sovereignty for decades with direct military interventions and military occupation since 1976.
In the late nineties and the 2000s, Lebanese nationalism took the form of a widespread anti-Syrian sentiment, which coalesced in the March 14 alliance between Christian and Sunni political groups and eventually obtained the formal withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory in 2005. Yet, Lebanese dissent towards Syria has been offset by political groups such as AMAL, Hezbollah, and the SSNP which maintain close relations with the Syrian regime and see it a as a benevolent actor in Lebanon.
Other indicators of a scarce political demarcation of boundaries include the fact that Syria has opened an embassy in Lebanon for the first time only in 2008, while the physical demarcation of the Lebanese-Syrian border is currently incomplete.
Also the cultural boundary is thin between these two countries, although contested. Common language, shared historical experience (such as colonial past, Israeli occupations, Panarab ideals etc.), and religion, have weaved a social and cultural relationship between these two countries that some consider the sign of a shared identity. Hafez al-Asad used to describe the Lebanese the Syrians as “one people in two states” for example. Yet, these cultural connections have also been challenged especially from the Lebanese end by groups such as those Christian factions which have promoted Lebanon’s cultural particularism, for instance with reference to Lebanon’s Phoenicians heritage or Christian Maronite religious roots. Similarly, the discourse of “Lebanon First” adopted by anti-Syrian Sunni groups especially after 2005 epitomises the will and interest of certain social and cultural milieus of Lebanon to differ from the Syrian context.
Other cultural contacts between Syria and Lebanon contribute to the thinness of the border and include significant portions of territories in which family connections cut across borders especially in the norther region of the Akkar, and also close religious connections between the Shia community of Lebanon and holy places for Shiism in Syria such as the Sayda Zeyneb Shrine in Damascus. Connections like these establish transnational relations challenging a conventional nationalisation of territory.
The Syrian-Lebanese economic boundary is probably the thinnest layer of the border. Between Lebanon and Syria there is an intense economic exchange. Syria has been for decades one of the main recipients of Lebanon’s exports in competition with countries as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iraq. For example, for the past twenty years exports from Lebanon to Syria have oscillated between 7 to 10 percent of Lebanon total exports making Syria constantly present between the top five trade partners of Lebanon. Furthermore, Syria is a key country of transition for the other major destinations of Lebanon exports such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, thus further showing how the Syrian-Lebanese economic boundary is particularly porous.
In addition to this, Lebanon has been the recipient of hundreds of thousands of Syrian labour migrants for decades that constitute among the key resources of the country for the labour intense economic sectors such as constructions and agriculture. Sealing Lebanon’s economic relations with Syria is the 1992 Treaty of Brotherhood and Cooperation (United Nations Treaty Series 1992) that Syria imposed on Lebanon allowing for the circulation of goods and people across the border with minimal administrative burdens. By virtue of this bilateral treaty, until 2015, neither visa requirements nor passports were needed for border crossings.
The physical boundary with Syria is mainly characterised by the mountain reliefs of the Anti-Lebanon on the east that has the effect of channelling border activities in five official crossing points the most important of which is Masna‘a. The northern border area is less mountainous. Notwithstanding these natural boundaries and the presence of official crossing points, the Lebanese-Syrian border is known also for smuggling and informal crossings.
Thus, all layers constitutive of the Syrian-Lebanese border have been exceptionally loose and have allowed for the flow of Syrians and Lebanese as well as their goods across the border. This leads to the conclusion that the Lebanese-Syrian border is a thin border characterised by a formal and informal regime of open exchange across the border. Some of the political groups especially in Lebanon would prefer a sharper differentiation between the two countries but at least until 2015 a fluid border situation has prevailed over alternative forms of restrictions. Syrian Lebanese border thinness can be contrasted with Lebanon’s border with Israel, which is demarked by a technical fence and is highly militarised on both sides, no crossings are allowed there.
The dynamics of border thinness during the Syrian crisis
Given the thinness of the Syrian-Lebanese border, what were the repercussions of the Syrian crisis in terms of border crossings, especially as concerns Syrian refugees?
The political level of boundary analysis presents interesting aspects. The fact that Lebanese political actors have direct stakes in the Syrian conflict has produced direct repercussions on the Lebanese context. Lebanese political actors allied with the Syrian regime, Hezbollah in particular, have intervened in the conflict directly dispatching troops and military support. Al-Mustaqbal, the leading group of the March 14 alliance, voiced criticism towards the Syrian regime and – especially in the early phase of the uprisings – expected the imminent fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The flow of Syrian refugees into Lebanon was a useful display for the critics of al-Assad highlighting the repression of the regime against its own people at times in which the Arab public on a regional scale was galvanised by the anti-authoritarian protests taking place across the region. Furthermore, the fact that the greatest majority of Syrians fleeing Lebanon could be identified as Sunni, has consolidated the connection between the al-Mustaqbal movement and Syrian refugees, especially in a context in which sectarianism was becoming a key force of the conflict.
There was no need for the authorities to undertake special measures to allow refugees into Lebanon, because Syrians fleeing their country could cross freely into Lebanon officially and unofficially by virtue of pre-existing border conditions. The only part of the Syrian population that faced restraints or even the prohibition to enter Lebanon were the Palestinians of Syria, who were allowed to enter Lebanon only at a later stage and on condition of settling exclusively in Palestinian camps.
Furthermore, with the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Lebanese politics was beginning to experience a political paralysis including the postponement of general elections for two times, the vacancy of the presidential office from May 2014 to October 2016, and the change of three governments since 2011 intermitted by long phases of transition.
The thinness of cultural boundaries turned out to be an important asset for Lebanese political factions that advocated for an open border policy to frame it into their political discourse. For the Lebanese Sunni groups both religious identity and their anti-regime stance allowed establishing a direct connection with Syrians fleeing into Lebanon. Syrians are considered “brothers” in need protesting against and fleeing from a regime that their Lebanese counterparts equally resent of, and this establishes a responsibility towards them. In 2011, a member of al-Mustaqbal for example declared that:
“It is the responsibility of the government to guarantee for the [Syrian refugees] a safe place and for them to come into Lebanon to their families and neighbours without being attacked by any security or civil party.”
From a different perspective, but with the same effect, both Hezbollah and AMAL have justified openness towards Syrian refugees as “humanitarian responsibility” and reciprocity. Here the framing has not been related to the political nature of the protests in Syria, and instead they cited religious linkages and cultural and political relations associated with the fact that the Lebanese enjoyed Syrians’ protection in times of war and shared a common history of displacement and war especially against Israel and during the Lebanese civil war. Similarly, Hezbollah could frame its cross-border militancy as a duty to protect Shia holy places, subsequently as a way to sustain “resistance” as embodied by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and finally as a necessity to protect Lebanon from the expansion of Salafi militancy embodied by groups as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization.
In a more localised perspective, local communities on the border, for example in the Akkar region of the north but also elsewhere, have framed their reception to refugees in terms of “hospitality” as related to familial connections with Syrians across the border, although this form of hospitality has been also buttressed by the availability of international aid for both refugees and host communities.
The economic boundary with Syria has remained open and operative. Although the availability of data is intermittent and does not cover abundant informal activities, Lebanon did suffer an economic setback in general terms but it is not obvious to claim that this is related only to the Syrian crisis. At least until 2015 Lebanon’s export to Syria increased, whereas the imports have decreased significantly for obvious reasons. There have been phases of border closures, and the fact that the Jordanian border with Syria has been closed has slowed down trade, but overall the Syrian-Lebanese boundary has remained a vital economic connection.
Overall the boundary analysis highlights that— until 2015— Lebanese-Syrian border thinness has remained unchanged and explains the particularly fast and continuous flow of goods and people -including refugees- across the border. The thin political boundary between Lebanon and Syria allowed for the repercussion of the conflict to reverberate directly in the Lebanese political context. The cultural context that cuts across the border of Lebanon and Syria provided most political actors with the opportunity to frame refugee presence in discourses of hospitality and openness towards Syrian refugees. Economic transactions have been unaffected by conflict and the physical boundary is also unchanged.
Changing conflict, changing borders
But the Syrian uprisings turned into a conflict in which not only domestic forces clashed but also regional and global actors intervened. The possibility of a quick transition in power, as expected by many of al-Assad’s critics and feared by his allies, vanished in a couple of years since the beginning of the uprisings.
The changed reality of the conflict, from uprising to protracted conflict, transformed the perception of its possible repercussions within the Lebanese context; this had consequences for Syrian refugees.
The critics of al-Assad’s regime in Lebanon became less interested in tying their political role to the conflict in Syria and assent to the presence of Syrians in Lebanon became less prominent. Syrian refugee presence had begun to extoll a price in political capital also within the political milieu that was acquiescent to their presence, since local administrations were increasingly affected by the demographic pressure. In April 2014, the UNHCR reported the registration of more than a million Syrian refugees, roughly equivalent to one quarter of Lebanon’s autochthonous population. The picture became even more complex in June 2014, when the Syrian regime held presidential elections. In that occasion, tens of thousands of Syrians marched towards the Syrian embassy in Beirut chanting pro-regime slogans in a show of support for the regime. The political forces that antagonise the Syrian government and therefore were keener on sympathising with Syrian refugees were surprised by this display of loyalty to the regime. In a few months, what was initially considered a political asset among anti-regime political leaders in Lebanon turned out to be a more complex reality with unintended consequences.
The changed perception of refugee presence then precipitated a policy change over border regulation. In October 2014, Lebanon’s council of ministers adopted a new policy proposed by the Christian party leaders and endorsed by most political groups. The decision of the council, implemented in January 2015, made more difficult and expensive the renewal of residency permits for refugees present in Lebanon, forcing them into a status of irregularity. The same measure then closed the border to Syrians that intend to flee to Lebanon on the basis of a humanitarian need.
For the first time in decades in Lebanese-Syrian relations a regime of border restriction has been activated. Yet, this measure marked a change in the nature of the Syrian-Lebanese border but not a full closure yet.
For example, Syrians are admitted for reasons of business or trade, if they are sponsored by an employer (kefala), if they own assets in Lebanon such as real estate, or when is in possession of travel documents demonstrating that will travel to other destinations outside the country.
The 2015 border policy, then, is not a blanket closure but a filter that modulates entrance to Lebanon following a logic that can be interpreted through the lenses of the multi-layered boundaries constitutive of the border.
The political boundary that, in the previous stage, was thin and connected the Syrian and Lebanese contexts has, at this stage, “thickened” because— disillusioned by the outcome of the uprisings in Syria— the critics of the Syrian regime in Lebanon had fewer interests in projecting their influence on the dynamics of the conflict across the border. Quite the contrary, isolating from it was in their best interest and that of their constituencies now that the demographic pressure has reached a limit and the loyalty of the refugees to the anti-regime camp was not as clear-cut. The only political actor that has remained fully committed to shaping the Syrian conflict is Hezbollah, which -in spite of any border restrictions- has moved freely its troops and armaments across the border. In fact, in 2013, Hezbollah engaged in a fierce battle in the Qalamoun region of Syria on the border with Lebanon with the intent of removing opposing militant groups that could have become an obstacle on the way to Syria.
The cultural boundary witnessed a parallel process, whereby the rhetoric of solidarity, hospitality, brotherhood, and comradeship with Syrian protesters has been progressively outdone by a sense of fatigue and the exacerbation of sectarian dynamics. Indicative in this respect is the rise of phenomena such as the implementation of curfews targeting specifically the mobility of Syrian refugees or the intention to strip Syrians of their status of “displaced” when travelling back and forth from Syria. Political interests and the narrative of hospitality in which it was previously framed misaligned.
In contrast with political and cultural boundaries, the restrictive measures of 2015 did not apply to the economic boundary that was left deliberately thin. Given the economic interdependence between the two states – especially as concerns trade and labour – this is hardly surprising. Yet, the selectiveness of this policy shows how border policy can be modulated differently across its different boundaries: border policies can rarely be captured by simple “open or close” descriptions.
The physical boundary cannot be easily modified unless by building fences, walls or berms or through surveillance devices that effectively modifies the nature of the boundary. The Lebanese government has been progressively reinforcing its surveillance along the border— also thanks to military aid and training from international donors- but the new measures of 2015 have not modified the physical boundary. They produced more severe controls in official border crossings but this has had the effect of encouraging informal crossings.
The result of the 2015 policy change is a disarticulation of the structure of the border from one that was equally thin across all it layers, and receptive of Syrians in general, to a form of border filtering which has rendered crossing difficult for Syrians in humanitarian need. The same policy has rendered difficult the continuation of legal residence for refugees already present in Lebanese territory by making the process of documents renewal more difficult. As a consequence, Syrians were increasingly pushed outside political and cultural boundaries but those who had an economic status could still take advantage of the thinness of the economic boundary.
Studying border thinness between Lebanon and Syria is a way of going beyond Westphalian assumptions on the state as a nationally self-enclosed, territorially contained, sovereign entity. It highlights, instead, how borders are means to project power beyond the domestic sphere of sovereignty from both sides. More broadly, this approach could shed light also on the fast and fluid trans-border dynamics that have shaped Middle Eastern politics and society, especially since 2011, striking a balance between the overall dismissal of borders relevance and the adoption of a fully territorialised conception of the state.
The point, nevertheless, is not to make an exceptionalist argument about Middle Eastern statehood and Lebanese or Syrian states in particular; as observed by Wendy Brown and others the international order at large is increasingly post-Westphalian and the proliferation of walls as borders protection is symptomatic of the global waning of state territoriality.
What is unique is the historical and social context -and in particular the colonial experience- that has shaped the development of thin borders between Lebanon and Syria and between other Middle Eastern states. In addition to the brutality of the conflict in Syria, border thinness is one factor explaining the magnitude and rapidity of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon that has become the country with the highest concentration of refugees in the world.
Analysing borders between Lebanon and Syria as constituted by multi-layered political, cultural, economic, and physical boundaries has shown their thinness. Politically, the Syrian events of 2011 and 2012 – given the broader context of a region in turmoil— resounded directly in the Lebanese environment making the thinness of the political boundary most evident. The thinness of the cultural boundary is clear in the process of framing of Syrian presence in Lebanon, it overrides nationalist objections to refugee presence, thus marking a sharp contrast with states (for example in the western hemisphere) where forced displacement has been used to ignite nationalist populism. The intense economic exchange between these two countries has constituted a robust pattern of interdependence that has inhibited restrictions on border crossings, while the physical boundary also facilitated the quick transfer of people and goods.
Yet borders, also when they are thin borders, maintain a regulative function. Thin borders are not a euphemism for weak, open, or redundant borders, and indeed it was observed how in 2015 Lebanon has enacted measures that have changed the dynamics of flow especially with respect to Syrian refugees. The measures can be explained as consequential to a change of perception of the conflict in Syria, which precipitated a new awareness regarding Syrian presence in Lebanon also among those groups that overall were acquiescent to it.
As a consequence, the border has begun to operate as a “filter,” whereby Syrians— especially Syrians that intended to cross into Lebanon for humanitarian reasons— were discriminated against at the border and within the country, whereas those who were already in Lebanon or intended to travel to Lebanon for economic reasons could take advantage of the fact that the economic boundary was kept thin by Lebanese authorities. This has produced a disarticulation of the border from general thinness to different degrees across its different layers.
Refugees— both already in Lebanon and at the border— unable to access the country or to renew their residency permits due to the new measures, have been relegated into a “suspended” extraterritorial space delimited at one end by the restrictions imposed by the 2015 new regulation and by Syrian inhabitability on the other end. The political and cultural thickening of the boundary has isolated Syrian refugees and confined them to what Michel Agier would define a “borderland”: an area where people cannot cross completely the border and therefore becomes a “border dweller.”
The question of borders in the Middle East and elsewhere remains open. Facts as migrations, economy, and transnational connections interrogate the nature of the state, its territoriality and presumed “identity.” In response to this, border thinness, without dismissing their function, reconsiders borders as multi-layered institutions and does not assume the existence of uniform spaces and territories coextensive with the reach of social and political dynamics.
Filippo Dionigi is the Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the London School of Economics.
Anon. 2011. “Lebanese party visits Syrian refugees.” BBC Monitoring Middle East, Nov 14.
Agier, Michel. 2016. Borderlands : towards an anthropology of the cosmopolitan condition. Translated by David Fernbach.
Agnew, John. 1994. “The territorial trap: The geographical assumptions of international relations theory.” Review of International Political Economy no. 1 (1):53-80. doi: 10.1080/09692299408434268.
Ahram, Ariel I., and Ellen Lust. 2016. “The Decline and Fall of the Arab State.” Survival no. 58 (2):7-34. doi: 10.1080/00396338.2016.1161897.
Brown, Wendy. 2010. Walled states, waning sovereignty. New York Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books ; Distributed by the MIT Press.
Calì, Massimilano, Wissam Harake, Fadi Hassan, and Clemens Struck. 2015. The Impact of the Syrian Conflict on Lebanese Trade. In World Bank Reports. Washington: World Bank.
Carpi, Estella. 2016. Refugee Hospitality and Humanitarian Action in Northern Lebanon: Between Social Order and Transborder History. In Humanitarian Aid on the Move. Beirut: Groupe U.R.D.
Chalcraft, John T. 2008. The invisible cage : Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon, Stanford studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic societies and cultures. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Harling, Peter, and Alex Simon. 2015. “Erosion and resilience of the Iraqi-Syrian border.” EUI working Papers no. RSCAS 2015 (61).
Haselsberger, Beatrix. 2014. “Decoding borders. Appreciating border impacts on space and people.” Planning Theory & Practice no. 15 (4):505-526. doi: 10.1080/14649357.2014.963652.
Hijazi, Ihsan. 1991. Syria-Lebanon Cooperation Pact Signed. The New York Times 1991 [cited 14 July 2016]. Available from http://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/23/world/syria-lebanon-cooperation-pact-signed.html.
Mann, Michael. 1984. “The autonomous power of the state: its origins, mechanisms and results.” European Journal of Sociology no. 25 (2):185-213. doi: 10.1017/s0003975600004239.
Presidency of the Council of Ministers. 2014. جلسة 23 تشرين الأول 2014 [Session of the 23 October 2014]. edited by Council of Ministers. Beirut.
Snow, David A., E. Burke Rochford, Steven K. Worden, and Robert D. Benford. 1986. “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” American Sociological Review no. 51 (4):464-481.
United Nations Treaty Series. 1992. Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination between the Syrian Arab Republic and The Lebanese Republic. edited by United Nations Treaty Collection. Beirut: UN.
 Islamic State, the Kurdish groups, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda etc.
 Ahram and Lust 2016, Harling and Simon 2015.
 The main factors of pressure for borders are the Kurdish mobilisation in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, the rise of the Islamic State organisation, the conflict among factions in Libya and the war in Yemen. For all these cases, nevertheless, is still premature to speak of new forms of autonomous territoriality.
 With the exception of Tunisia, where nevertheless revolutionary change has been slow, partial, and suffered several setbacks.
 See for example regional interventions in Libya, Yemen Bahrain or the proxy wars in Syria.
 See for example in this publication the memos of Ali Hamdan, Rana Khoury and Killian Clarke with regard to the diverse modes of social activism among Syrians in neighbouring countries.
 Mann 1984.
 Agnew 1994.
 This elaboration on the concepts of thin and thick borders partly relies on its theorisation in the disciplinary field of Planning Theory by (Haselsberger 2014).
 Haselberger uses the terms geopolitical, sociocultural and biophysical instead of those proposed herein, but I rather keep this simpler terms. (Haselsberger 2014)
 Haselsberger 2014.
 Hijazi 1991.
 Data from the World Bank, World Integrated World Solutions online database, see http://wits.worldbank.org/
 The number of Syrian workers in Lebanon is debated and fluctuates between 300000 and 600000.
Masnaa, Mashari’ Al-Qaa, Al-Amani El Aaboudieh El Aarida
 I am referring here, broadly, to the concept of framing as present in Social Movement Theory applied in this case to mobilization in support of refugee presence. See for example: (Snow et al. 1986)
 (Anon. 2011)
 Carpi 2016.
 Calì et al. 2015.
 See the memo by Lama Mourad with regard to crucial role played by local administrations in managing refugee presence on the ground.
 Presidency of the Council of Ministers 2014.
 The possibility of a spill over of the Syrian conflict in Lebanon has materialised in a stream of attacks with a clear sectarian tone that has hit the country in several occasions. Furthermore, a confrontation emerged between a rising Salafist and sectarian movement and militia headed by a Sheikh Ahmad al-‘Asir, which has been subsequently repressed and his leader arrested. These episodes nevertheless remain sporadic and failed to ignite a conflict on a sustained scale.
 Brown 2010, 21.
 To be noticed is the fact that the General Security Office in early 2017 has loosened the requirements to renew residency permits for Syrians already registered with UNHCR in Lebanon.
 Borderlands in Lebanon and elsewhere can be extensive and highly populated for example the condition of Palestinian refugees and that of the tens of thousands of stateless individuals in this country very much resembles this status of suspension in between borders. (Agier 2016, 58)