Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekly Analysis: Bekaa Valley: The dangerous no man’s land

A small region might change the configuration of a whole region. It may fuel a conflict or change the local and regional balance. For today, we'll focus on one of the most dynamic and impredictable - in both bad and good sense - area from the Middle East: Bekaa Valley.

Beqaa (Arabic: البقاع, "valley"; Lebanese: [bʔaːʕ]; also transliterated as Bekaa, Biqâ‘ or Becaa) is a fertile valley in East Lebanon. For the Romans, it was a major agricultural source, and today it remains Lebanon’s most important farming region.
It is located about 30 km (19 miles) East of Beirut, and situated between the Mount Lebanon to the West and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the Wast. It forms the Northeastern most extension of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches from Syria through the Red Sea into Africa. Beqaa Valley is about 120 km (about 75 miles) in length and has an average width of about 16 km (about 10 miles). It has a Mediterranean climate of wet, often snowy winters and dry, warm summers. The region receives limited rainfall, particularly in the north, because Mount Lebanon creates a rain shadow that blocks precipitation coming from the sea.
When the region was part of the Roman Empire, the Beqaa Valley served as a source of grain for the Roman provinces of the Levant. Today the valley makes up 40 percent of Lebanon's arable land. The Northern end of the valley, with its scarce rainfall and less fertile soils, is used primarily as grazing land by pastoral nomads, mostly migrants from the Syrian Desert. Farther south, more fertile soils support crops of wheat, corn, cotton, and vegetables, with vineyards and orchards centered around Zahlé. The valley also produces hashish and cultivates opium poppies, which are exported as part of the illegal drug trade. Since 1957 the Litani hydroelectricity project—a series of canals and a dam located at Lake Qaraoun in the southern end of the valley—has improved irrigation to farms in Beqaa Valley.
The Beqaa Valley is home to Lebanon's famous vineyards and wineries. Wine making is a tradition that goes back 6000 years in Lebanon. With an average altitude of 1.000 m above sea level, the valley's climate is very suitable to vineyards. Abundant winter rain and much sunshine in the summer helps the grapes ripen easily. There are more than a dozen wineries in the Beqaa Valley, producing over six million bottles a year.

The politics, geopolitics and opium

But the economic and geographical advantages are not translated in benefits in the plan of the politics. The place remains a frequent playground for confrontation between clans and various supporters and opposants of the government. Sunni and Shi’a are very often part of an arm conflict. Very often, the clashes are mirroring the confrontations taking place in Beirut.
Drugs have a long tradition in the Bekaa Valley, from the days of the Roman Empire until today cultivators and tribal drug lords working with militias built up a thriving cannabis trade. During the Lebanese civil war, cannabis cultivation was a major source of income in the Bekaa valley, where most of the country's hashish and opium was produced, a multi-billion-dollar industry fueling the agricultural sector as well as political factions and organized crime. The trade collapsed during the worldwide crackdown on narcotics led by the United States in the early 1990s. Under pressure from the U.S. State Department, the occupying Syrian Army plowed up the Bekaa's cannabis fields and sprayed them with poison. Since the mid 1990s, the culture and production of drugs in the Bekaa valley has been in steady decline, by 2002 an estimated 2,500 hectares of cannabis were limited to the extreme north of the valley, where government presence remains minimal. Every year since 2001 the Lebanese army plows cannabis fields in an effort to destroy the crops before harvest, it is estimated that this action eliminates no more than 30% of overall crops. Although important during the civil war, opium cultivation has become marginal, dropping from an estimated 30 metric tonnes per year in 1983 to negligible amounts in 2004.
Due to increasing political unrest that weakened the central Lebanese government during 2006 Lebanon War and 2007 (Opposition boycott of the government) and due to the lack of viable alternatives (U.N. promises of irrigation projects and alternative crop subsidies that never materialised) drug cultivation and production have significantly increased, but remains a fraction of civil war era production and limited north of the Town of Baalbek, where the rule of tribal law protecting armed families is still strong.


This region is considered very important for the balance of strategic interest in the region and a test for various military and geopolitical settings. It is still considered as playing an important role in the battle against Hizbullah militias.
From the strategical point of view, the place continue play a significant role in the military and political configuration of the region. In Bekaa Valley took place during the 1982 war an important battle considered an important element in the recent history of the military warfare.
The interest and challenge are determined by the limited if any authority of the central government over this area and the risks of widespreaded instability. For a while, here used to be a PKK training camp, to which Syria contributed largely. It is a no ‘man’s land used for drug trafficking, a source of black money for various terrorist activities.
What future for the region? Both easy and difficult to predict. The hardest way is for the Lebanese people to decide that they don't want to fully use of their present and future and to support political decisions in the advantage of their independence. Nobody else can do this.

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