Syria's Role In Lebanon


Damascus has a long and bloody history of intervention in Lebanon, and has made no secret of its hope to make its weaker neighbor part of Syria. Since the creation of contemporary Lebanon in 1920, most Syrians have never accepted modern Lebanon as a sovereign and independent state. The outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 gave Damascus the opportunity to act on its belief that Lebanon and Syria are one.

Syria moved troops into Lebanon before receiving the Arab League's approval. Damascus intervened in April 1976 after Lebanese Druze warlord Kemal Jumblatt refused Syrian President Hafez Assad's demand for a cease-fire in the war. Jumblatt's refusal to stop his forces' attacks upon Lebanese Christians gave Assad the pretext he needed to intervene.

In June 1976, the Arab League Secretariat convened a meeting at which Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan agreed to send troops to "enforce peace." Assad sent more Syrian troops into the country, while the others sent only token forces. The Arab League's "endorsement," in short, constituted nothing more than the recognition of a fait accompli.

By 1978, Damascus had switched sides, and was supporting a leftist coalition of Palestinians, Druze and Muslims against the Christians. Eventually, Syrian troops occupied two-thirds of Lebanon. Syria's deployment of surface-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon, and its policy of allowing the PLO and other terrorist groups to attack Israel from there, helped trigger the 1982 Lebanon War.

During the first week of Israel's "Operation Peace for Galilee," in June 1982, Syrian troops engaged in battles with Israeli forces. The Israelis destroyed or damaged 18 of the 19 Syrian missile batteries and, in one day, shot down 29 Syrian MiG fighters without the loss of a single plane. Syria and Israel carefully avoided confrontations for the remainder of the war.

Nevertheless, Syria found other ways to hurt Israel. In 1982, Syrian agents murdered President-elect Bashir Gemayel, who wanted peace with Israel. Two years later, Syria forced President Amin Gemayel, Bashir's brother, to renege on a peace treaty he signed with Israel a year earlier.

Attacks on the West

Syria's activities were aimed not only at Israel, but also the West. In April 1983, Hizbullah terrorists, operating from Syrian-controlled territory, bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 49 and wounding 120. Six months later, Hizbullah terrorists drove two trucks carrying explosives into the U.S. Marine and French military barracks near Beirut, killing 241 Americans and 56 French soldiers.

In 1985, Hizbullah operatives began kidnapping Westerners off the streets of Beirut and other Lebanese cities. From the beginning, it was clear the Syrians and their Iranian collaborators could order the release of the Western hostages any time. For example, when a Frenchman was kidnapped in August 1991, the Syrians demanded that he be freed. Within days, he was. Most of the hostages were held in the Bekaa Valley or the suburbs of Beirut. Both areas are controlled by Syria.

From 198588, Amal Shiite militiamen, closely aligned with Syria, killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians in attacks on refugee camps.

In October 1990, with the West's attention focused on Kuwait, Syrian troops stormed the Beirut stronghold of Christian insurgent Gen. Michel Aoun. Besides battle deaths, approximately 700 persons were massacred. With that blitzkrieg, Damascus wiped out the only remaining threat to its hegemony in Lebanon.

On May 22, 1991, Lebanese President Elias Hrawi traveled to Damascus to sign a "Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination" with Syrian President Hafez Assad. The agreement states that Syria will ensure Lebanon's "sovereignty and independence," even though Damascus is being allowed to keep its occupation army in that country.

A hint of Syria's real intentions came from Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas several weeks before the treaty's signing. Tlas predicted that unity would be achieved between the two countries "soon, or at least in our generation" (al-Hayat, May 9, 1991).

In addition to sanctioning terrorist activities in Lebanon, Syria is heavily involved in the narcotics trade in the Bekaa Valley. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly criticized Syria for failing to enforce anti-narcotics controls and cooperate with American drug interdiction efforts.

Despite Syria's involvement in peace talks with Israel, President Assad continued to support terrorism. Asked about his support for terrorist organizations like Hizbullah, Assad responded that they were really "patriots and militants who fight for the liberty and independence of their country...such people cannot be called terrorists" (Washington Post, July 31, 1991). Since his father's death in 2000, Assad's son and successor, Bahsar, has given no indication his views are any different.