Topsy-turvy world of Mideast comes to Beirut-Damascus road

AARIDA, Lebanon — The topsy-turvy world of conflicts in the Middle East has also made its mark at the only remaining safe passage out of Lebanon, the remote Aarida post on the border with Syria.

An Iraqi family passing through had had enough of their so-called holiday away from the bombs of their own battered country.

“What can we do? We reached Beirut the day before the war started. We went from one trouble to another, and now we go back again,” said Nadia Shamoon, who had stayed in the Lebanese capital.

“We could hear the bombs and planes. It was a very familiar sound,” said her husband Muayyad, a retired board member of a bank, adding they still planned to spend a day in transit in Syria before heading back to Baghdad.

“What a holiday!” chimed in their two teenage children, smiling but obviously disappointed at missing out on a longed-for reprieve from war.

Israel has been imposing an air and sea blockade on Lebanon since the July 12 outbreak of its war with the Shiite group Hizbollah that has killed more than 800 people on the Lebanese side, the vast majority of them civilians.

Beirut’s international airport has been closed — except for limited aid flights — since its runways were blasted by an Israeli air strike on July 13. The warplanes have returned several times for further raids.

The direct overland route to Damascus through the Bekaa Valley and the Masnaa border post crossing in eastern Lebanon is in the danger zone because of repeated raids.

This leaves most travellers with only one option: A winding journey up from Beirut along the coast before crossing the Aarida post in north Lebanon and heading back south again to Damascus.

Drivers race past vegetable trucks and over bridges, both favourite targets of Israeli pilots. On the side of the road, near the port city of Tripoli, a wrecked Lebanese army post tells the story of a deadly Israeli strike.

By sea, tens of thousands of foreigners have been evacuated on a daily basis by a flotilla of civilian and military ships laid on by their home countries.

In normal times, wealthy Kuwaitis escape the blistering heat of the Gulf to enjoy the mountain air and the nightlife of Beirut, yet a Lebanese family had taken to their comfortable Land Cruiser 4×4 on a long trek to the emirate.

Reversing the normal order of things, “we plan to spend the summer in Kuwait,” said the driver, who was surrounded by three weary women headed for the furnace of the Gulf.

On Syrian television, Lebanese diva Fairouz was singing her ode “Li Beirut” (To Beirut). But a Syrian immigration officer, whose country’s troops withdrew from “sister” Lebanon last year, sounded unimpressed.

“If you like Lebanon so much, why did you leave?” he asked a traveller.

The new overland route is an arduous one, even without taking into account the bureaucracy. Whereas in peacetime Beirut-to-Damascus can take as little as 90 minutes, now the journey needs five to six hours.

The road, however, is mostly highway and allows for speedy travel over the 400 kilometres (250 miles) separating the two capitals, apart from a 10-kilometre stretch of potholes before Aarida on the Lebanese side.

The two countries’ border posts are adjoining, perhaps explaining why it has not been targeted to date, unlike at Masnaa with its separation of hundreds of metres and where Israel has been able to bomb without hitting Syrian territory.

An “error” in targeting Lebanon’s last viable link to the outside world could risk dragging Syria into the conflict.

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