Damascus and the Claim to Lebanon
by Daniel Pipes
What does the Syrian government want in Lebanon? Some highly-placed observers in the American government are sanguine about its ambitions there. Richard Murphy, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, told Congress in 1983, "I do not believe Syria has any intention of redrawing the political boundaries between it and Lebanon or any basic desire to absorb Lebanon. . . . Syria's interest in Lebanon is that it not be a threat to Syria." Another U.S. official expressed the same thought more graphically: "The Syrians in Lebanon are like a dog who has been chasing a car every day it comes down the street. Finally one day the dog catches the car and then he doesn't know what to do with it."
But Murphy is wrong; the Syrian government aspires to much more than protecting itself from threats in Lebanon. The unnamed official is equally misguided; Damascus knows exactly what to do when Lebanon falls under its control. In fact, Hafiz al-Asad and his colleagues dream of absorbing Lebanon into Syria. It need not be a formal incorporation; effective control is all they seek. And the Asad regime's dream is enhanced by the fact that many Lebanese welcome Syrian intervention; some even would like to see their country absorbed into Syria.
This is nothing new. A look at twentieth-century history shows that Damascus has continuously sought to bring Lebanon under its control. What is new is its ability finally to succeed in achieving this goal.
Historically, there was universal agreement that the whole of present-day Lebanon was included in Syria. The name "Syria" referred not just to an area that included Syria and Lebanon, but also to Israel and Jordan and parts of southeastern Turkey. (To differentiate this from the area presently covered by the Syrian Arab Republic, the larger "Syria" is now usually known as Greater Syria.) Thus, Beirut-based institutions often used the adjective "Syrian" in the nineteenth century. For example, there was the Syrian Scientific Society (founded before 1860) and the Syrian Protestant College (founded in 1866 and later renamed the American University of Beirut). Similarly, the newspaper Syrian Trumpet was published in Beirut and a book titled The Ruins of Syria included Lebanon in its purview.
At the same time, there was a growing feeling, especially among the Maronite Christians, that the coastal region should have its own political identity, distinct from Syria. Mt. Lebanon is the region of Greater Syria with the longest tradition as a political entity; Lebanese separatism harks back to the polity created by the Druze leader Fakhr ad-Din II at the end of the sixteenth century. Lebanese separatism flourished due to a conjunction of religion, ethnic affiliation and geography: the most compact and militant of Christian groups, the Maronites, lived in Mt. Lebanon, an inaccessible region which rarely came under the direct control of outside forces. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, Bishop Niqula Murad developed an ideology of Maronite nationalism.
The first autonomous Lebanese government, called the Mutasarrifiya, was established in Mt. Lebanon in 1860. The Mutasarrifiya so insulated Mt. Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire that most of its Christian inhabitants no longer considered themselves subject to the Emperor. Instead, they looked to France and to French culture. But Maronites were not content with the Mutasarrifiya; after 1860, they sought to expand their territory by adding regions to the north, east, and south, as well as the city of Beirut. Maronites faced a choice: they could add territory or they could keep Christian dominance, but not both. Achieving their ideal boundaries meant losing the overwhelming Christian make up of the state. Keeping Christian predominance meant remaining geographically small.
In the end, they chose territory. As a result of victories in World War I against the Ottomans, Britain and France occupied the Greater Syrian region. After a period of diplomatic wrangling, the two European powers divided Greater Syria in April 1920. Britain took the southern half and divided it into Palestine and Transjordan. France got the northern half, called the Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. Maronite separatists attained their maximalist goals when the French government delineated the boundaries of the present state of Lebanon in September 1920. This area included virtually all the areas they had sought: Tripoli in the north, the Biqa' Valley to the east, Jabal 'Amal to the south, and Beirut in the west. It had roughly twice the size of the Mutasarrifiya. The pre-1920 area is known as Mt. Lebanon and the post-1920 area as Greater Lebanon or simply Lebanon.
Maronites succeeded in separating themselves from Greater Syria for they (like the Zionists) had the necessary will, territorial base, organization, and European patronage. Most Maronites embraced the new Lebanon with enthusiasm, seeing it as the best way to avoid Sunni Arab rule. Of course, the price of expansion was religious dilution; many Muslims came under Christian control—sowing the seeds of the civil war that began in 1975. But almost no one foresaw this danger for some decades.
During the period of French control, Maronites devoted their energies to three goals: remaining separate from Syria, retaining the new 1920 provinces, and achieving independence from France. This was no easy task, for French protection was needed to fend off Sunni opposition to the enlarged Lebanon. Toward these ends, a number of Maronite organizations were established, most important of which was the Phalanges Libanaises, founded in 1936 by Pierre Jumayyil. The Maronite effort was successful; keeping its enlarged borders, Lebanon became a republic in May 1926 and gained full independence when the last French troops left in December 1946.
Success for Maronites meant failure for Sunni Arabs. Whether they lived in the new Lebanon or in Syria, they resented the division of September 1920, seeing it as capricious and biased, and despised the new boundaries. Right from the start, Sunnis protested the division of Greater Syria. Reflecting this sentiment, the King-Crane Commission reported in 1919 that "the separation off of the Greater Lebanon . . . would intensify the religious differences in Syria." Dr. 'Abd ar-Rahman Shahbandar, a prominent Sunni politician, termed the creation of an independent Lebanon part of an effort "to ignite confessional conflicts and to favor the minorities' interests."
But the Syrians faced a dilemma. Declaring an intention to bring all Lebanon under their control would drive the Maronites to seek French protection, prolonging the French presence in Lebanon indefinitely. To avoid this, Syrian demands for the incorporation of all Lebanon into Syria were rarely stated. Instead, Syrian leaders offered the Christians a compromise: they could go their own way politically, but only if they returned the (mostly Muslim) provinces added in 1920. Concentrating on the return of these provinces, especially the Biqa' Valley and Tripoli, split opinions in Lebanon and France, and strengthened Damascus' hand. Even during the Druze revolt of 1925-27, when a call went out for the establishment of a Syrian state "from the coast to the interior," guerilla warfare was mounted only to win the territories lost to Lebanon in 1920.
Syrian politicians pursued those provinces in many ways. They traveled through Lebanon to encourage Sunni Muslims to agitate for union with Syria, and joint campaigns toward this end were mounted each year from 1923 to 1925. With more effect, they pressured French officials diplomatically. Shakib Arslan demanded a plebiscite in the disputed parts of Lebanon in November 1925 when he talked with the new French High Commissioner, Henri de Jouvenal. The Executive Committee of the Syro-Palestinian Congress met with de Jouvenal and did not bother with the nicety of a plebiscite, but just demanded the 1920 provinces; so too with the People's Party delegations to de Jouvenal. Even the provisional chief of the Syrian government, a French-appointed official, made this demand in June 1926. A Syrian delegation sent to Paris to negotiate the 1936 treaty with France reportedly called for "the restitution of the territories taken away from Syria and annexed by Lebanon."
Syrian leaders also took their case to the Arab leaders. During preliminary discussions leading to the establishment of the League of Arab States, Syrian Prime Minister Sa'dallah al-Jabiri told the Egyptian government that, failing the achievement of a Greater Syria union, Syria should receive back the parts of Lebanon that had been reassigned in 1920. He claimed that their population wished this change no less than did Syrians. Jabiri reiterated these points at the Alexandria conference in September 1944, declaring that
Nonetheless, the government in Damascus eventually saw utility in the presence of large numbers of Muslims in Lebanon; these served as a guarantee of the Arab and Muslim character of that country. Accordingly, Damascus accepted Lebanese independence; in return, it got agreement from the Maronites to align Lebanon culturally and politically with the Arabs (rather than France). This compromise was made public in the Alexandria Protocol of September 1944 (the founding document of the Arab League), in which Syria emphasized its "respect of the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon in its present frontiers." But Syrian reluctance to recognize Lebanon as a fully sovereign and separate nation remained; the symbol of this was an absence of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The wish to bring Lebanon under Damascus was not one-sided; Sunni Muslims living in Lebanon wanted this change as well. For them, integration into Syria was the best way to avoid Maronite ambitions. From late 1918 to mid-1920, they looked to the Arab authorities in Damascus for help to keep them out of a Christian-dominated state. Even after the French conquered Syria and created Greater Lebanon, Damascus remained the focal point of Sunni opposition. But by the 1940s, the Sunni Muslim of Lebanon no longer looked to Syria; the willingness of Syrian leaders to compromise on Lebanon compelled the Lebanese Sunnis to come to terms with an independent Lebanon.
Sunni opposition to annexation by the Maronites of Lebanon took several forms. Led by residents of Beirut and Tripoli, they flooded the League of Nations and French offices in Beirut and Paris with memorials, petitions, and telegrams. Demonstrations in the city streets took place regularly. Increased mosque attendance, greater celebration of Islamic holidays, and other religious acts strengthened the spirit of communal solidarity. The Sunnis' efforts to secede from Lebanon became more organized in 1923, as their leaders combined efforts to petition the French and send emissaries to Europe. They also paid greater attention to winning Greek Orthodox Christians to the secessionist point of view.
The Druze revolt in Syria in 1925-27 fueled Sunni impatience with their place in Lebanon. "From the end of 1925 until the summer of 1926," writes Meir Zamir, "a wave of intensive pro-Syrian activity, unprecedented since 1920, spread throughout the coastal area. Petitions were sent to the High Commission, the French government and the League of Nations, commercial strikes were organised, numerous meetings of notables and leaders were held and articles supporting union with Syria were published in the Muslim press." Sunni leaders carried petitions to the French authorities calling for union with Damascus. They also organized into committees to orchestrate unionist sentiments, coordinate with the rebels in Syria, and communicate with the Executive Committee of the Syro-Palestine Congress.
The writing of a constitution for Lebanon in early 1926 endowed the Lebanese polity with a new permanence; Muslims who opposed this development took the occasion to express their intent to withdraw from Lebanon. Sunnis withdrew from constitutional consultations and held meetings in Damascus to protest their exclusion from Syria. They also took up guerilla warfare in the Biqa' Valley. In January 1926, the municipal council in the Shi'i town of Ba'lbakk resolved simultaneously not to participate in drawing up the constitution and demanded to be joined to Syria. As one Muslim explained, "Greater Lebanon was created against the Muslims. It was a matter of forming a Christian state. When the authorities created Greater Lebanon, we Muslims were sacrificed, for our country is Syria. If we one day become citizens of Greater Lebanon, it will be because this was imposed on us. We demand to be attached to Syria in a federal government." Another Muslim put it more succinctly: "We want a country that can vibrate our hearts" -- referring, of course, to union with Syria.
The Sunnis of Beirut were the first to accept the status quo, as their economic success cushioned their political disappointment. But not entirely; the residents of one Muslim quarter of Beirut refused to fly the Lebanese flag until the end of the mandate. In Tripoli, the urge to secede took longer to fade; the city remained a center of militancy well into the 1930s.
The prospect of a Franco-Syrian accord in 1936 inspired another round of activism among Lebanese Muslims. The Sunnis of Tripoli petitioned the League of Nations, requesting that their region, previously incorporated into Lebanon "without their agreement or consent . . . be annexed to United Syria." At a Conference of the Coast in March 1936, Muslim leaders from Lebanon and Syria met with members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to demand that the areas added to Lebanon in 1920 be returned to Syria. The eventual signing of a Franco-Syrian protocol in September 1936 provoked the Sunni Muslims of Tripoli to riot and strike to demand incorporation in Syria. When the Lebanese president visited Tripoli four days after the signing, he was met by crowds of children and youths who shouted slogans in favor of unity with Syria, who refused to obey police orders, and ended in a stone-throwing fracas with the police.
These efforts came to an end, however, when the Lebanese Sunnis reached an agreement on dividing power with the Christians in 1943. By the terms of their informal agreement, known as the National Pact, Lebanese Sunnis accepted separation from Syria on condition that the Christians turned their back on France and accepted Lebanon's Arabic identity. Few Sunnis actively sought union with Syria after 1943.
Not wanting to live under Maronite rule, Sunni Arabs in Lebanon initially resisted the boundaries that separated them from Syria. With time, however, they became involved in the urgent need to influence events in the Lebanese polity, and their interest in Syria subsequently waned.
The group that most insistently advocates Lebanon's re-inclusion in Syria is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party or SSNP. (This group is also known as the Social Nationalist Party, or SNP; the Parti Populaire Syrien, or PPS; and the Parti Populaire Social.) Founded in 1932 by an Orthodox Christian, Antun Sa'ada, the SSNP maintains that Greater Syria forms a political unit and the Arabs do not. "Syria is for the Syrians, and the Syrians are a complete nation." In contrast to the all-important Syrian nationality, the Arab, Muslim, Christian, and Lebanese identities are meaningless. To create a Syrian state that represents the Syrian identity means having to eradicate the polities left behind by the British and French. The SSNP feels no loyalty to existing states. With regard to Lebanon, Sa'ada declared, "Above all, we are Pan-Syrian nationalists; our cause is the cause of [Greater] Syria, not that of Lebanese separatism." He argued that "Lebanon should be reunited with natural Syria" and explicitly stated his intent to "seize power in Beirut to achieve this objective."
The SSNP has won representation in the Lebanese and Syrian parliaments on occasion. In Lebanon, it took 1 seat in the 1957 elections. It did better in Syria, winning 9 seats in 1949, 1 in 1953, and 2 in 1954. Though far too few to pass any legislation, these representatives gave the party a platform which was fully exploited for publicity purposes.
But the real importance of the SSNP never lay in its legal activities. Attempted revolutions by the SSNP in July 1949 and December 1961 provoked Lebanon's two worst political crises before the civil war that began in 1975. To take just the first: Husni az-Za'im, the president of Syria, promised Antun Sa'ada arms to use against the Lebanese government. This encouraged the SSNP to declare war on Beirut and to take steps to overthrow the government. But Za'im betrayed Sa'ada and delivered him to the Lebanese police, who immediately had him executed. This incident had many consequences: it contributed to Za'im's overthrow a month later; it led to Za'im's death by a soldier avenging Sa'ada; it caused the July 1951 assassination of Riyad as-Sulh, one of the great figures of Lebanese politics; and it engendered ill will that harmed Lebanese-Syrian relations for years.
Para-military forces gave the party a devoted and capable militia which had a significant role in the two Lebanese civil wars. In 1958, they stood with the authorities against an insurrection, aiding the government of Kamil Sham'un. In the fighting after 1975, the SSNP had a small but important place in the anti-government coalition.
The drive to attach Lebanon to Syria lost momentum between 1949 and 1974. Many developments contributed to this: The founding of the Arab League in 1945 bestowed a legitimacy on existing political units. Lebanon gained independence in 1946. Sa'ada's execution in 1949 reduced the appeal of the SSNP. Pan-Arab nationalism took center stage in the mid-1950s under the influence of Jamal 'Abd an-Nasir; his radical program of Arab unification made Egypt, not Syria, the key actor in any plans to unite Arab states. Most important, Syria suffered a long period of political instability, and this precluded any efforts to expand; from Za'im's coup d'êtat in March 1949 until the early 1970s, Damascus was the prey, not the hunter. Syrian instability diminished the desire of Lebanese Muslims to become its citizens; that these were years of economic boom in Lebanon further disenchanted Lebanese Sunnis with the idea of union. Finally, Maronites dominated in Lebanon during this period and they strongly rejected closer ties with Syria.
A new era began in Syria with the coming to power of Hafiz al-Asad in 1970. Asad established a police state and ended the decades of instability. He then quickly revived the Syrian claim to Lebanon.
Asad made a vague claim to Lebanon in August 1972: "Syria and Lebanon are a single country. We are more than brothers." More ominously, the minister of information explained in January 1975, "Lebanon will not escape from the destined unity of Syria and Lebanon." The entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon in June 1976 prompted a spate of Syrian claims. Asad proclaimed a month later that "through history, Syria and Lebanon have been one country and one people. . . . Our history is one, our future is one and our destiny is one." Days later, a Syrian general was quoted as saying, "what is taking place presently in the region is the undoing of the Sykes-Picot agreement [the 1916 exchange of notes leading to the division of Greater Syria]." The Syrian prime minister expressed the same claim when he asserted that "Southern Lebanon is like Southern Syria."
In May 1982, Asad referred to Lebanon as an "Arab land that belongs to us." A Ministry of Information official argued in August 1983 that "Lebanon and Syria are the same." According to the Syrian Minister of Defense, "We and Lebanon are one country." Interviewed by a French newspaper in May 1985, the Syrian foreign minister reminded its readership that "until the beginning of the century, we [Syria and Lebanon] formed a single country. It is true that we are now two different states, but we cannot ignore the fact that we form a single people with the same language and a common history."
When Christian groups in Lebanon brought up the possibility of dividing the country into Christian and Muslim sections, 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam, the Syrian foreign minister, responded in a proprietary fashion.
We will not permit the division of Lebanon. Any attempt at division will lead to our immediate intervention. Lebanon was part of Syria and we will recover it at the moment of an effective effort at partitioning. It should be made clear that this does not refer only to the four districts [that France took from Syria in 1920], but to Mt. Lebanon as well. Lebanon can either be united or return to Syria.
At another point, Khaddam declared that "Syria had not consulted anyone when it entered Lebanon, nor would it consult anyone when it decides to withdraw from Lebanon." Asad went even further, remarking to a group of Lebanese parliamentarians in February 1978 that the Syrian troops in Lebanon constituted the legal army of Lebanon. This was reiterated in October 1983, when he told a Swiss journalist that "there is only one foreign army in Lebanon, namely Israel's. The Syrians and Lebanese are one people, they are Arabs. We have the same language and the same history." Once more, in July 1986, Khaddam told reporters in Paris that "the Syrian forces are present in Syria legitimately. . . . These forces can be present at any place they want and do not have to get permission from anybody."
After his only known visit to Lebanon as president in January 1975, Asad observed: "Leaving Damascus for Shtawra this morning, I had the feeling of going from one town to another within a single country, of leaving one portion of my people for another. These sentiments derive from our common way of life and our unique history. We are one and the same people, sons of the same nation." The Syrian minister of economy and foreign trade, Muhammad al-'Imadi, called for "economic unity" between Syria and Lebanon.
The Syrian government construes the absence of diplomatic relations between itself and Lebanon as a sign of closeness. The information minister explained that "Lebanon and Syria are in two states in harmony. It would be a wrong to the rights of Lebanon and of Syria to have to maintain diplomatic relations between them." Asad explained the lack of embassies by arguing that contacts of the two countries "are beyond the resources of any embassy. . . . This is a symbol of the warm fraternal relations between the two countries." Lebanese interpret the lack of formal relations differently; for them, it indicates Syrian unwillingness to accept the sovereign existence of Lebanon.
The Lebanese view is buttressed by the pressure Damascus exerts on other states to withdraw their diplomats from Lebanon. The Syrian regime uses its many proxies in Lebanon to harass foreign diplomats based in Beirut; with time, they grow weary of constant intimidation and relocate their missions to Damascus. Fu'ad Butros, the Lebanese foreign minister, once mused publicly on this issue: "I wonder if there is not a plan aiming to empty Lebanon of all diplomatic representation." While some states might have withdrawn their missions from Beirut anyway, owing to the civil war, their number was probably greatly increased as a result of Syrian pressure. Among the missions either closed or left vacant are those of Afghanistan, Brazil, Canada, Chad, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Ghana, Greece, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Malta, Nigeria, Oman, Panama, Qatar, Senegal, Sudan, Switzerland, Tunisia, the U.A.E., Uruguay, North and South Yemen, and Yugoslavia. According to one report, only 2 of 22 Arab ambassadors (those of Algeria and South Yemen) remained resident in Beirut in April 1985. The Syrian effort to de-legitimize Lebanon recall the Arab diplomatic campaign to isolate Israel.
As this effort indicates, the Syrian government does more than talk big; indeed, in recent years it has extended its control over most of Lebanon. Already in the mid-1960s, the 'Alawi village of Ghajar, at the base of Mt. Hermon, was taken over by Syria in conjunction with a water diversion scheme. By early 1973, Asad had already acquired virtual veto power over major political developments in Lebanon. The outbreak of the Lebanese civil war two years later gave him new opportunities. The rupture of central authority in Lebanon and the country's fractured social condition made it easy for Damascus to find agents in Lebanon. Asad shifted support among factions in Lebanon (the Maronites, the PLO, the Druze, the Shi'is, the SSNP, the Communists) in a masterful effort to expand Syrian influence. Further, the Syrian government controlled two Palestinian armed units in Lebanon, those of the Palestine Liberation Army and As-Sa'iqa. When even these proved insufficient for Damascus to impose its wishes, Asad used the Syrian military forces in two direct interventions, one in June 1976 and a second in September 1976.
Over ten years later, Syrian troops remain in Lebanon, more entrenched than ever. Their presence is symbolized by the minute tasks in which they have become involved. Looking for members of the Iraqi wing of the Ba'th Party or other Leftist organizations, Syrian intelligence forces conducted house to house searches in Tripoli in 1979. Syrian soldiers enforced cease-fire agreements between warring Lebanese factions in August 1985; and they were found checking passports at the Beirut airport in June 1986.
Lebanese leaders dare not defy Damascus. Walid Junblatt, the Druze and leftist leader, has had merely to endure several weeks of house arrest; his father, Kamal Junblatt, had been killed by the Syrians in March 1977. Bashir Jumayyil, the Phalangist leader and president-elect of Lebanon, was blown up just before he could assume the office of president.
Journalists have frequently been victims of Asad's intimidation. Salim al-Lawzi, an important Lebanese publisher, had acquired embarrassing information about internal conditions in Syria, so Syrian agents tortured and killed him. A few months later, Riyad Taha, president of the Lebanese Publishers Association was killed by four gunmen in a car. These methods have been used against foreigners too. After filing stories about unrest in Syria, Reuters correspondent Berndt Debusmann was shot in the back by a gunman firing a silencer-equipped pistol. BBC correspondent Tim Llewellyn was threatened by Syrian agents and fled Beirut before being harmed, as did CBS correspondent Larry Pintak.
The results of this occupation are obvious. Any important meeting of Lebanese politicians either takes place in Damascus or involves Syrian officials. Asad's opposition to the May 1983 accord between Lebanon and Israel led to abrogation of that accord within a year.
The Lebanese are not shy about acknowledging Syrian power in their country. "You don't light a cigarette here without Syrian permission" is said to be a common saying in the Biqa' Valley. A Lebanese politician summed up extent of Syrian power in mid-1984: "Make no mistake about it, the real government of Lebanon sits in Damascus these days, not in Beirut." Antun Lahd, commander of the Army of Southern Lebanon, noted that "All big and small decisions, whether crucial or mundane, are made in Damascus and then communicated to the Lebanese authorities." Asad has achieved the long-sought Syrian role as Lebanon's kingmaker, benefactor, and discipliner.
So great is Syrian strength, Damascus induces Lebanese leaders to make public declarations in favor of Syrian domination. 'Asim Qansuh, leader of the Ba'th Party in Lebanon, has been the most explicit. He has said that no Arab country had "the right to discuss the security and stability of Lebanon with the exception of fraternal Syria." Arguing that "the re-attachment of Lebanon to Syria offers a panacea to all the problems suffered by Lebanon," he expressed the belief that "a mistake was made when Syrian forces entered Lebanon and did not immediately announce Lebanese-Syrian unity." In August 1986 he came out and declared that "Lebanon's troubles will only end when it is united with Syria, thus restoring the situation to its normal historical course. He described the border between the two countries as artificial."
The National Union Front, a grouping of Syrian-backed Lebanese groups put the matter more delicately in its program of August 1985: "The real expression of Lebanon's Arab identity is its distinctive relationship with and decisive and unchangeable link to Syria." A cable sent to Hafiz al-Asad a day later amplified this link; it called for "a strong Pan-Arab relationship between Lebanon and Syria to coordinate the two countries' resources in foreign policy, defense, security, economy, education, and other fields." Nabih Birri, a key participant in the National Union Front, later gave more details: "There must be integration with Syria, by means of actual agreements in the economic, security, military, political, information, and educational fields."
Syrian efforts to impose end the fighting in Lebanon culminated with a pact signed by three Lebanese militia leaders in December 1985. The familiar Syrian goal emerges from the strange language of this document: "The most prominent meaning of Lebanon's Arabism lies in its distinguished relationship with Syria. Proceeding from this principle, relations should be based on a strategic integration concept between Lebanon and Syria because their fateful issues are one as a result of their affiliation, history, and geography, a fact that requires a high degree of coordination in various fields." In short, the Lebanese leaders accepted Syrian dominance.
The Syrian government has even forced those stalwarts of Lebanese separatism, the Lebanese Forces, to accept its dominion. In September 1985, the Executive Committee of the Lebanese Forces under Elie Hubayqa, hitherto one of the most anti-Syrian of the Maronite leaders, succumbed to this pressure.
While visiting Damascus, his Committee "stressed the importance of bolstering the distinguished relations with Syria stemming from the unity of fate, interests, history, and geography between the two countries." After this trip, the Committee issued a statement recognizing "Syria's distinctive role in Lebanon." Amin Jumayyil, the president of Lebanon and opponent of this accord, also had to recognize Syrian hegemony. He told an interviewer in February 1986 that "cooperation with Syria" is the second most important aspect of solving the Lebanese problem, following only the unity of the Lebanese themselves.
Syrian's opponents in Lebanon do their best to resist these ambitions. The Lebanese Forces, a coalition of Christian militias, accepted in late 1985 the need for a Syrian-imposed agreement in Lebanon but retained its suspicions of Syrian motives. Its spokesman demanded "that the agreement's prelude be amended to emphasize that Lebanon is a U.N. member and that it abides by the U.N. Charter and the armistice agreement in the south. In this way Lebanon . . . will not lose its identity or fall under Syrian tutelage." Implicit in this concern—as in the Alexandria Protocol over forty years earlier—is the fear that Syria will absorb Lebanon.
Asad's turn to Pan-Syrianism brought his government into agreement with the outlook of the Syrian Social National Party. The SSNP, naturally, was delighted by this turn of events. After decades of tension with Damascus, it finally had an ally there, a leader whole-heartedly committed to Pan-Syrian ideology. Mutual interest has made the SSNP a client of the Syrian state.
The engagement of Shawqi Khayrallah right after the 1976 Syrian invasion of Lebanon seems to have initiated this cooperation. Khayrallah embodies Pan-Syrian ideology; he was an editor of the SSNP magazine in 1945 and the man who came up with the idea of the 1961 coup attempt in Lebanon. Brought on to promote the concept of Greater Syria, he wrote editorials for the government-controlled radio and newspapers. His appeal was direct; on one occasion, for example, he called for the integration of Lebanon "into a Levantine Union, currently woven by Syria, Jordan, and [Palestine]."
Asad helps those elements of the SSNP which are friendly to his regime. The pro-Damascus faction led by In'am Ra'd enjoys the benefits of state support, while George 'Abd al-Masih's faction lost ground. The accession of 'Isam al-Mahayiri as leader of the SSNP in July 1984 was due in part to Asad's preference for him, and this had to do with his being a Muslim originating in Syria. One of Hafiz al-Asad's relatives by marriage, 'Imad Muhammad Khayr Bey (killed in 1980) was a senior SSNP official.
Syrian backing permits the SSNP to acquire arms and become a small but significant actor in the Lebanese civil war. The SSNP has opened offices in Syrian-controlled territory in the Biqa' Valley and controls a portion of Lebanese territory to the south of Tripoli.
In return for Syrian backing, the SSNP performs a number of services. The party provides a friendly base for Syrian troops in its home area east of Beirut. It also engages in vital acts of terrorism. Habib ash-Shartuni, the man arrested for killing President-Elect Bashir Jumayyil in September 1982 was a member of the SSNP. Judging by the fact that those who took responsibility for the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983 prominently mentioned their support for Greater Syria, the SSNP may have been behind this blast. The SSNP staged 5 of the 15 suicide bombings directed against Israel in southern Lebanon between March and November 1985. Not only did these contribute to the Israeli decision to quit Lebanon, but the suicide attacks had an important role in Lebanese politics; by showing that the Syrian government could match the Shi'i fundamentalist in the ferocity of their attacks on Israel, they added to Damascus' stature.
Interestingly—and consistent with SSNP ideology—some of the SSNP suicides came from Syria. When asked why he joined a Lebanese movement, one of the bombers answered, "Is there a difference between Lebanon and Syria?" A 16-year-old Lebanese girl who attacked an Israeli convoy in April 1985 with a booby-trapped car, killing herself and two Israeli soldiers, previously had made a videotape in which she sent greetings to "all the strugglers in my nation, headed by the leader of the liberation and steadfastness march, Lt. General Hafiz al-Asad." She too saw Lebanon as part of Syria. Pointing to the SSNP as "responsible for staging spectacular attacks and suicide actions" Israel retaliated by destroying the SSNP headquarters in Shtawra.
The SSNP appears also to provide services for Syria's allies. A member of the party shot the top Libyan diplomat in Lebanon, 'Abd al-Qadir Ghuka, in June 1983. He later told police that the Syrian secret service hired him for the attack at the behest of al-Qadhdhafi, who thought Ghuka intended to defect.
'Isam al-Mahayiri, the SSNP leader, much understates the case when he observes, "Our relations with the Syrian regime [and] the Ba'th Party, . . . are good and are developing." Mahayiri is one of a group of pro-Syrian leaders trotted out for foreign visitors; thus, he met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in January 1984 (when Jackson visited Syria to arrange for the release of a U.S. Navy flyer). He goes to Damascus for consultations and probably direction. All this leads the Israeli Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to characterize the SSNP as "entirely under the control of Syrian intelligence." Indeed, Israeli officials reportedly believe that Mayahiri takes orders directly from Hafiz al-Asad.
Most observers agree that Hafiz al-Asad is determined to incorporate Lebanon into Syria. A prominent Syrian dissident, the former ambassador to Paris, has written that "Asad's objective, even when he was but Minister of Defense [1966-70], is to inherit 'Abd an-Nasir's place in the Arab world, to create the Greater Syria which 'Alawis keep on dreaming about, to group Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon under his banner."
Lebanese across the political spectrum are convinced of Syrian ambitions toward their country. Major Sa'd Haddad, commander of a southern Lebanese militia, saw the Syrian goal as declaring Lebanon "an inseparable part of Greater Syria." Accordingly, he believed that "Syria does not want to withdraw from Lebanon. Why? Because Syria came to Lebanon not to help this or that party. It entered Lebanon to annex it to Syria on the premise that Lebanon is part of Syria." Haddad's successor, General Antun Lahd, assessed Syrian intentions similarly: "Syria is my foremost enemy. The Syrians have always wanted to annex or dominate my country." Bashir Jumayyil charged that Syria kept its troops in Lebanon to make Lebanon part of Greater Syria. Similarly, a Phalangist source explained that Samir Ja'ja', a Phalangist military leader, feared that Syria "aims to reclaim Greater Syria and doesn't believe Syrian statements that Lebanon is a sovereign state."
Kamal Junblatt, leader of the Lebanese Druze, believed that the Syrian authorities "do not want to forget the days before the divisions of 1919, when the people of Natural Syria—Lebanese, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians—formed a single people." Although Jumbalat called Asad "the lion of Greater Syria," he professed to being unsure whether Asad would persevere in his Pan-Syrian project. As for his own country, Junblatt observed that "in Damascus, they are always dreaming of Lebanon."
The SSNP is also convinced that Syrian authorities are sincere on the issue of incorporating Lebanon. As one of them told an interviewer: "We cannot forget that Mr. Hafiz al-Asad—His Excellency the President of Syria—has declared many times that Lebanon is a part of Syria, that Palestine is a part of Syria. And if we believe that, and we have to—he has given all signs of being serious—it means that his interest in Lebanon is very genuine. He is playing the game very cautiously and intelligently."
Crown Prince Hasan of Jordan, echoing these views, has noted the Syrian hopes for a Greater Syria and observed that "the Syrians say there are no Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese—they are all southern Syrians." Anwar as-Sadat accused Asad (whom he satirized as "the lion of Greater Syria") of starting the Lebanese crisis to take the country over.
Israelis of all persuasions agree on Syrian intentions in Lebanon. Among Likud politicians, Yitzhak Shamir stated in July 1983 that "Syria wants to control all of Lebanon and will not settle for the control it now has over a large part of this territory." Moshe Arens repeatedly brought up this matter. He understood the Syrian objective in Lebanon to be "to control Lebanon and turn it into a satellite or perhaps a part of Greater Syria." Benjamin Netanyahu wrote that the Syrian government had "methodically pursued" Greater Syria for decades. A foreign ministry spokesman termed Syria's tactics for building Greater Syria "slicing the salami." On the Labor side, Shimon Peres says he "believes that Syrian President al-Asad is striving to attain leadership in the Arab world and to realize the age-old Syrian dream of a Greater Syria." The president of Israel (and a former chief of intelligence), Chaim Herzog, termed Damascus Pan-Syrian ambitions "most troublesome to Syria's Arab neighbors."
Maurice Couve de Murville, a former prime minister of France, writes that "Greater Syria is an old matter which is not forgotten and doubtlessly will never be forgotten." More forcefully, Claude Cheysson, the foreign minister, called the division of Lebanon between Greater Syria and Greater Israel "our nightmare."
Many senior American officials have recognized Syrian ambitions. President Ronald Reagan observed that "Syria for many years has talked about a thing called Greater Syria, in which they believe much of Jordan and much of Lebanon truly should belong to them." Secretary of State George Shultz contended that Syria "seems determined to make Lebanon once again a satellite or province of 'Greater Syria.'" Other politicians have also emphasized this ambition; for example, Congressman James H. Scheuer of New York called Greater Syria "a tenacious dream" of the Syrians.
Specialists on Syria of varying viewpoints also recognize Syrian ambitions with regard to Lebanon. Adeed Dawisha writes:
Itamar Rabinovich concurs:
Patrick Seale, a British journalist close to the Asad government, has a similar assessment:
Annie Laurent and Antoine Basbous conclude a book hostile to Syrian and Israeli behavior in Lebanon by noting that the dream of Syrian rulers has long been "Greater Syria, that is, the pure and simple annexation of Lebanon." On her own, Laurent argues that "heir to this past and to this myth, Syria does not recognize the independence of Lebanon." The Marxist scholars who edit MERIP Reports interpreted the Syrians' invasion of Lebanon in 1976 as a step toward the creation of "a Syrian-dominated confederation including Jordan and Lebanon. The role of the Palestinians . . . is to be no more than an adjunct to their diplomatic maneuvers."
While most observers condemn Syria's effort to establish rule over Greater Syria, a few do approve of it. Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi is one:
'Abd as-Salam Jallud, al-Qadhdhafi's deputy, supports Syria's presence in Lebanon "because it will lead to the realization of Greater Syria." A Saudi weekly seemingly endorsed this view when it referred to "the southwestern part of Syria, known as Palestine." Surprisingly, Kamal Jumbalat, the Druze leader assassinated by the Asad government, saw Syrian efforts with some sympathy. "Can this tendency to seek the former provinces of Historic Syria be called imperialism?" he asks. "Not entirely," comes his answer. The capture of French citizens in Lebanon as hostages made Paris tolerant toward Syrian goals in Lebanon. For example, President Francois Mitterrand is reported to have told al-Asad that "France respects and supports Syria's great and main role in Lebanon."
These remarks notwithstanding, a general disbelief persists on the question of Syrian intentions to dominate Lebanon. This is not due to equivocation by the Asad regime, which has boasted of its ambitions and pursued them with strategic vision. Why, then, this disbelief?
The answer may lie in a paucity of imagination. So rarely does one state explicitly state its intention to gain hegemony over its neighbor, as Syria does Lebanon, that many in the West find it difficult to put credence in this ambition. And while skepticism has its uses when assessing grandiloquent declarations by military dictators, three considerations make it necessary to take this ambition seriously: the long record antedating Asad of desire for union with Lebanon, the Asad regime's actions over more than a decade, and the consensus of informed observers from all parts of the political spectrum.
SSNP trust in Asad's intention to annex Lebanon has taken various forms: some SSNP members have become publicists for Damascus, others have undertaken suicide bombing missions, while the party as a whole has allowed itself to become a virtual agency of Syrian intelligence.
At this point, there is hardly anyone left to prevent Hafiz al-Asad from consolidating his hold over Lebanon. The United States government played an active role in Lebanon for a year and a half, from August 1982 to February 1984, and then retreated vowing never to return. (Lebanon's fall from top to bottom priority took place in a matter of days—perhaps the fastest such shift in the long history of U.S. foreign policy.) After investing far more blood and treasury than the U.S., Israel made the same vow and abandoned all but a defensive border position in June 1985.
Within Lebanon itself, the Syrian government has many enemies, but none have the strength to do more than hold on to small areas. The PLO was defeated by Syrian forces in December 1983. Iranian-backed groups occasionally attack Syrian troops but are careful not to go too far, knowing that their lifeline to Iran goes through Syria. Even Maronites have lost their will to prevent a Syrian takeover. Worn out by over a decade of civil war, many of them have come to prefer the Syrian police state to the anarchy of independence. Some Maronite leaders live in Damascus and work for Asad; others, like the Maronite patriarch, are prepared to come to terms with Syrian rule.
Short of very major change in Damascus—such as a civil war breaking out after Hafiz al-Asad's death—there appears to be nothing to stop the Syrian government from fulfilling its long-term goal of hegemony in Lebanon. Isolated pockets of resistance will hold out for some time, and the formalities of independence will be preserved, but one may safely expect a gradual erosion of Lebanon's autonomy in all spheres of life. The Syrian government can be expected to emulate the Chinese government in Tibet; quietly incorporate the territory over a number of years, so that eventually its full absorption takes place almost without protest. Barring either a Lebanese resurgence or a Syrian collapse, this is the likely dénouement.
 The Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 November 1983.
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