In their final years under French rule, Syria and Lebanon entered into an unprecedented cooperation in order to free themselves from France. The liberal nationalist regimes in Damascus and Beirut reinforced one another’s demands for complete political independence without first having to sign treaties with France. Support for their position came from Britain, the United States and, in 1945, from the newly founded Arab League. The Syrian nationalists appeared to have reconciled themselves to the integrity and sovereignty of a greater Lebanon, as established by the French in 1920, although after independence Damascus refused to establish formal diplomatic relations with Beirut.
After independence, a wide spectrum of political views emerged in Lebanon on what foreign policy the country should adopt. Most Lebanese Muslims retained a commitment to Arab unity in one form or another, although many were willing to acknowledge that Lebanon had a special function in the Arab world, owing to its confessional character, commercial importance and small size. Muslims were joined by members of the Druze and Greek Orthodox communities in this view. The extreme end of the spectrum was composed of radical Lebanese advocates of a Syrian-Lebanese union, with strong ties to Syria (pan-Arabists and supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party); they opposed the political separation of the two states. On the opposite side were large sections of the Christian community, notably the Maronites, who emphasized Lebanon’s historic ties to the West. Here the extreme end of the spectrum included those who opposed any Arab political role in the region for Lebanon and advocated a strong Western identity and orientation.
The formation of the United Arab Republic and the civil war of 1958 strengthened political forces at both ends of the spectrum, heightening tensions between radical Arab nationalist parties and pro-Western elements in Lebanon. During the civil war, President Camille Chamoun and the pro-Western Lebanese government accused Syria of actively supporting the opposition and of smuggling arms into the country.
Syrian involvement in Arab unity efforts and in Lebanon slackened in the wake of the collapse of the UAR in 1961. Syria only revived its interest in the Lebanese political scene in the late 1960s, with the rise of the Palestinian resistance movement. Damascus sought to establish greater influence over the PLO. This interest increased after the death of Nasser in 1970 and the decline of Egyptian influence in Lebanon under Sadat. Lebanon became a more attractive field for Syrian political activity, and fit into President Hafiz al-Asad’s efforts to extend Syria’s regional leadership.
Through the PLO, Syria hoped to widen the military front against Israel. Asad also extended his ‘Alawi-dominated regime’s influence in Lebanon by building ties to the Lebanese Shi‘i community. Long considered to be a heretical sect, the ‘Alawis gained credibility when the Lebanese Shi‘i religious establishment endorsed them in 1973 as part of their community; and Lebanese Shi‘a found a sympathetic political power to which they could turn for support in the Lebanese political arena. The Asad regime also forged ties with the family of Lebanese President Sulayman Franjiyya. Paradoxically, Syria still had no official diplomatic ties with Lebanon. The Asad regime intervened with greater regularity in Lebanon in the years leading up to the civil war of 1975, by arming Palestinian factions and sponsoring commando activities in the country, and by influencing the election of 1972 and the composition of the cabinet the following year.
On the economic front, Lebanon’s private enterprise economy flourished in the 1960s while the socialist programs in Syria suffered from endless political instability. Syria had the power to apply sanctions against Lebanon if it opposed certain Lebanese political activities. The most damaging sanction was to close the Syrian border, thereby hurting Lebanon’s regional export market. On the other side, although their economies revolved on different axes, Syria was largely dependent on the port of Beirut for foreign imports until the 1970s and enjoyed revenues from the transit trade. Perhaps as important, approximately 400,000 Syrian workers were employed in the Lebanese economy, particularly in construction.