Preeminent influence in Lebanon, both on the central government and between the various factions, is critical for Syria from defensive and offensive strategic perspectives, whatever one considers Syria’s role to be in the pan-Arab arena or in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

From the defensive perspective, Lebanon covers the entire western flank of southern Syria, offering immediate access to the Damascus and Homs regions. Since Lebanon’s descent into chaos beginning in 1975, Syria has been particularly concerned about three contingencies:

  • Emergence of a radical Palestinian/Lebanese Muslim combination not amenable to Syrian control which might drag Syria into war with Israel at an inconvenient juncture. This possibility precipitated Syria’s original 1976 intervention in Lebanon.
  • Major Christian advances with Israeli backing which might bring Israeli domination of Syria’s flank. Fears in this regard prompted Syria’s stand in the 1981 Zahle crisis, when Damascus suspected a Christian challenge to the nexus of Syrian military communications in the Bekaa.
  • Permanent partition of Lebanon into sectarian statelets, complicating Syrian management of Lebanese politics and providing a dangerous precedent for Syria itself.

From the offensive perspective, Lebanon provides an intermediate arena between Syria and Israel, away from Syrian metropolitan territory, where Damascus can perform as the only Arab state in direct physical confrontation with “Zionism and imperialism.” Lebanese fragmentation has furnished Syria with an array of allies and clients for front-line use, reducing Syria’s own exposure to retaliation. At the same time, Syria’s obvious determination to frustrate Israeli and American schemes allows Damascus to claim Syrian victories and elevate Syria’s status on the Arab stage. A leading role in confrontation is also important to the preponderantly ‘Alawi leadership within Syria, to emphasize ‘Alawi “Arabism” and hence to build the ‘Alawis into the center of Syrian Arab political life on a long-term basis.

In pursuing its defensive and offensive interests, and in exerting its weight on the Lebanese factions, Syria derives great advantage from its military presence — a garrison force of over 40,000 troops — on almost 50 percent of Lebanon’s territory. Syria’s territorial base remained substantially intact in the fighting of June/July 1982, and this was the main instrument for recovery of Syria’s strategic position.

Balancing Act

A military presence alone is extremely expensive and of limited utility. Syria made major gains between 1982 and 1984 in subordinating Palestinian armed elements, reducing Israeli and American influence, and achieving control over Lebanon’s foreign policy. Yet the Syrian strategic position remains fundamentally vulnerable until a measure of Lebanese domestic stability can be established on Syrian terms: a new constitutional order accepted by the Christian, Muslim and Druze communities, with strong links to Damascus embedded in the central administrative, military and intelligence structures. As long as such stability with effective confederation cannot be achieved, Syria is reduced to the inferior alternative of establishing a dominant influence within each of the major competing factions, balancing alliances on each side of the main divide and using one element against another to discourage external linkages with other states and to prevent any one element from becoming too powerful.

Manipulating instability can be a means toward eventual stabilization under Syrian tutelage. Continuing Lebanese communal competition in conditions of deadlock on central issues brings greater acceptance of a Syrian mediating role. Hence the streams of representatives of various factions shuttling between Beirut and Damascus, seeking Syrian advice, asking for Syrian help and trying to check out Syrian connections with their rivals.

Damascus has taken a sober attitude towards the risks and costs of direct military intervention in Beirut, especially after the 1976-1982 experiment, and is realistic about the general coolness of the Lebanese toward Syria. But so far it apparently sees no alternative to a slow wearing down of the Lebanese parties, reducing Christian aspirations for autonomy and intensifying the Syrian orientation of the Muslim and Druze militias. Syria might even regard periodic outbursts of violence, arising out of the natural dynamics of factional competition as much as from external instigation, as convenient to this reduction process.

Syrian aloofness and inactivity during periods of hostilities after February 1984, despite repeated assurances of commitment to Lebanese unity and tranquility from the Damascus, media, encourages the suspicion that Syria has sometimes viewed factional hostilities as serving its interests. This suspicion hardens when one contrasts such aloofness with the rapid Syrian reaction to events perceived as directly threatening Syrian interests. An example is the move by the Shi‘i Amal militia against the Sunni Murabitoun on April 16, 1985, obviously coordinated with Damascus and reflecting fears of renewed penetration of West Beirut by PLO forces loyal to Yasser Arafat.

Operating through semi-independent proxies is a dangerous and uncertain process. Damascus has only limited control over shifts in power and orientation between the major militias, and persistent violent antagonisms between communal factions open many opportunities for a resurgence of Israeli and Palestinian influence, exposing superficially extensive Syrian advances to rapid erosion.

The Syrian Option

This article examines Syrian policy toward the Lebanese factions in the period of Lebanon’s new “Syrian option,” following the March 1984 collapse of the US-brokered “May 17 agreement” between Israel and the Gemayel government. For Syria, March 1984 marked a transition from the relatively easy role of spoiler to the much more difficult position of a status-quo power.

The next year, through March 1985, proved to be an interlude between two major rounds of violence. The round ending in March 1984 established Syrian supremacy, at the price of entrenched de facto cantonization, especially regarding the Maronite, Druze and Shi‘i communities, and exacerbated sectarian division within the non-Christian communities. Amal overran West Beirut, Lebanon’s primary center of Sunni influence, but then found the main Shi‘i demographic concentrations (Beirut, south Lebanon and the Bekaa) cut off from each other by an enlarged Druze zone. Syrian dominance was incompatible with this intensified splintering. The new round of violence after March 1985 represents, in some sense, a struggle to determine which tendency would emerge as the strongest. Furthermore, it gave Yasser Arafat and the Israelis the chance to reassert their separate influence among the Lebanese factions.

During the interlude, with Syria’s day of reckoning delayed by a long postponement of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, Damascus maneuvered between East and West Beirut, hoping to deepen Syrian influence over the various communities but in fact inflaming conflicts which could threaten Syrian policy.

Damascus made some early paper gains. On the one hand, assisted by opposition military pressure, Syria persuaded Maronite leaders to accept the principle of adjustment from entrenched Christian constitutional advantage to parity. Simultaneously, Syria induced leading Muslim personalities to soften demands for the abolition of all confessional checks and balances. In July 1984, these determined efforts led to the formation of a “national unity government” incorporating the main factional leaders. A government statement outlined guidelines for reform, and reconstruction of the Lebanese army began, with increased authority for representatives of Syria’s allies.

Syria then let matters drift for months, making no effort to press for the implementation of the government statement. This drift soon made it obvious that the Christian-Muslim bridge established on paper had little basis in reality. East Beirut stalled, and the constellation of elements in West Beirut tended to increased radicalism.

During these months, Syrian Vice President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was charged by Hafiz al-Asad with responsibility for Lebanese matters. He attended several cabinet sessions in Bikfaya. By March 1985, he had extracted nothing more than technical agreements to adjustments to administrative decrees. It almost seemed as if Syria saw advantage in letting time pass while Lebanese leaders became accustomed to tripping to Damascus to resolve virtually every local problem. But by early 1985, the glaring lack of results began to undermine Syrian credibility, as indicated by the debate in the Lebanese press. [1]

Syria’s indirect approach to its Lebanese flank, manipulating rather than solving conflict and using allies and clients rather than direct force to confront resistance, reflects the reality of a relatively small power with few friends and limited economic and military capabilities. A review of Syria’s approach to the main Lebanese groupings will give some idea of the complexities facing Syrian leaders.

East Beirut

After President Amin Gemayel’s March 1984 pilgrimage to Damascus and the Lausanne agreement with Khaddam on a constitutional compromise, Syria encouraged a deepening of the president’s role in Christian institutions, particularly the Phalange (Kata’ib) Party command and the Lebanese Forces militia. Syria took every opportunity to express its preferences in this regard. The Syrian media regularly attacked “Israeli agents” in the Lebanese Forces, while opposition militias lost no chance to demonstrate East Beirut’s lack of alternatives. After Pierre Gemayel’s death, the smooth transition in the Phalange to Elie Karama and the election of the president’s nephew, Fu’ad Abu Nadir, as commander of the Lebanese Forces in place of the Israeli-oriented Fadi Furaym, seemed to mark major advances in Amin Gemayel’s authority under Syrian guidance. The Damascus daily al-Thawra hailed the replacement of Furaym as “a success to Phalange moderation as represented by the president in parallel to the reordering of internal matters in favor of forces and factors wishing salvation. It will greatly ease the task of the National Unity Government.” [2]

These political gains reflected a tactical response to the exigencies of power by some traditional Christian leaders rather than any long-term popular commitment to a “Syrian option.” Syria still distrusted Amin Gemayel after his “Israeli” and “American” gambits, and Gemayel plainly hoped to use his Syrian umbrella for the same purpose as his previous alignments — to resist even the limited constitutional shift contained in the National Unity Government statement.

On the other hand, Syria’s encouragement of extended presidential power over Maronitist institutions stirred deep resentment from younger personalities committed to the “autonomy of Christian decision making.” These persons, prominent in the Lebanese Forces and Camille Chamoun’s Liberal Party viewed Gemayel as politically inept, a dictator trying to gather all “Christian” power into his own hands, a Syrian puppet preparing the way for progressive surrender to insatiable Muslim demands. Interestingly, Gemayel was simultaneously pointing to the “Christian opposition” in arguing to the Syrians and West Beirut that he had little room for maneuver on the constitutional front.

Paradoxically, each apparent advance for Gemayel and the Syrians only made a hardline Maronite reaction more likely. It finally came on March 12, 1985, after a visit to Damascus by the Phalange leadership, the first such high-profile contact since the collapse of an earlier Phalange-Syrian connection in 1978. Samir Geagea, Lebanese Forces commander in Jubayl, refused to dismantle the Burbara checkpoint on the Beirut-Tripoli highway, one of the most lucrative toll points in Lebanese Forces’ hands. When the Phalange leadership moved to expel him from the party, he launched a previously planned insurrection which gained immediate preponderance over the few forces loyal to Amin Gemayel. Despite assurances that the uprising was not aimed against Syria, Geagea’s move threatened Syrian policy toward the Maronites, which posited Amin Gemayel as one pillar of a new Syrian-sponsored Lebanese regime.

In response, Syria blustered about military options and about only dealing with “Lebanese legitimacy” (a limitation not applied to relations with non-Christian factions) but Syrian leaders obviously had to make an adjustment to the shrinkage of Gemayel’s authority. Then, after the April 1985 collapse of Christian positions in the Kharroub and Sidon areas, and reiterated Israeli indifference to their fate, the Lebanese Forces had to seek some modus vivendi with Damascus.

An uneasy standoff ensued in mid-1985. The Lebanese Forces adjusted its rebellion, committing itself to the “Syrian Arab option” as Geagea was replaced by Elie Hobeika, Israeli-trained but less ideologically committed to hostility with Syria. Hobeika, according to rumors in East Beirut, had direct contact with Khaddam and Rif‘at al-Asad. Perhaps a sign of this was Syria’s abrupt decision in July 1985 to lift requirements for permits for all travelers crossing between the Christian sector and Syrian-occupied north Lebanon. This requirement had been imposed at the outset of Geagea’s rebellion, and it was removed without any quid pro quo removal of the toll station at Burbara.

But basic points of division remained. Khaddam repeated Syria’s absolute rejection of all “federalist options” for Lebanon’s domestic order. [3] The Lebanese Forces showed no sign of retreat from these very notions, and hinted that they would fight any Syrian military move. For the majority of Christians, their conception of a “Syrian option” — playing for time until conditions deteriorated for Syria and West Beirut — hardly coincides with Syria’s notion of supremacy in a new constitutional regime.

The Opposition Arena

Syria’s main approach regarding its Shi‘i and Druze allies who controlled West Beirut after February 1984 was to prevent any one element from becoming too strong, to encourage some moderation in constitutional demands and, at the same time, to continue promoting military pressure on East Beirut. Syria feared that an independent Shi‘i movement might move in inconvenient directions if either Amal or religious radicals acquired a solid momentum. Syria played with the different Shi‘i political forces — the moderate Amal leadership, the traditional religious power represented by the vice chairman of the Supreme Shi‘i Council, Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi Shams al-Din and the fundamentalist Hizballah cells. At the same time, Syria viewed Amal and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) as useful instruments to prevent any resurrection of autonomous Palestinian power, or any resurgence of Lebanese Sunni forces likely to provide cover for pro-Arafat Palestinians. Amal and PSP military capacity, with Syria in the background, gave Beirut’s traditional Sunni leadership no alternative but to turn to Damascus for patronage and protection.

Syria faced many problems in using remote-control tactics to safeguard its interests and its preeminence with the non-Christian forces. The “war of the camps” demonstrated the extent to which Damascus overestimated the strength of Amal as a counter to the Palestinians, overlooked the strains on the Amal-PSP alliance, and underestimated Palestinian cohesion.

Syria had considerable difficulties with its most important ally outside Beirut: Walid Jumblatt, whose main concern is to ensure the position of the Druze community. Jumblatt has relied on connections with the Soviet Union and Israel to balance the Syrian embrace. When the Soviet ambassador to Syria complained about the assault against the Palestinian camps, Khaddam reportedly responded with a lecture about Soviet-supplied weapons passing through Druze hands to the Palestinians. [4] In addition, the Druze-Maronite confrontation is not especially amenable to Syrian regulation; the April 1985 PSP seizure of the Iqlim al-Kharroub came despite Syrian assurances to the Christians and apparently without Syria’s even being informed. [5]

More broadly, the complex splintering and general lawlessness of West Beirut made it difficult for Syria either to manage local alliances or to control Lebanese/Palestinian alignments. Dilatory on purely Lebanese matters, Syria proved too hasty to confront a return by PLO elements loyal to Yasir Arafat. One Amal leader told me that Amal had warned Damascus last year that Palestinians sent from Syria to Beirut were unreliable — “Abu Musa elements will become Abu Nothing once out of the Bekaa, and Abu ‘Ammar [Arafat] on reaching Beirut.” The move against the camps strained relations among Shi‘a, Druze and Sunnis. This threatened to tear apart the alignments Syria needed as a base for influence over the non-Christian communities.

Finally, just as Syria’s bid to produce Christian concessions rested on slender supports in East Beirut, so efforts to moderate Muslim demands faced an unfavorable climate in West Beirut. There was always a danger that a long stalemate, based on freezing the civil war according to the formula of “no victor and no vanquished,” would deepen mutual intransigence and produce new explosions with uncertain consequences rather than general prostration before the feet of the Asad regime. Economic disintegration, accelerated by the virtual collapse of the Lebanese lira in early 1985 (from around 9 to the US dollar to around 18 between December 1984 and March 1985), and the implications for increased political radicalism and religious fundamentalism, did not bode well for the West Beirut end of the Muslim-Christian “bridge” to which Syria had committed itself.

The Syrian Zone

Even in those parts of Lebanon directly under the Syrian army, Syria has to maintain balances along several axes. Because of the immediate presence of Syrian armed forces, these balances do not present the same uncertainties as Beirut and south Lebanon. They contain tensions, however, which could become more severe if large-scale fighting continues in Beirut.

In the Tripoli region, despite the presence of the Syrian army and “special forces,” there are both urban and rural confrontation lines. In Tripoli itself, Lebanon’s second city, the main part of the town is controlled by Sunni fundamentalists led by Sheikh Sa‘id Sha‘ban. These former allies of Yasser Arafat face the Lebanese ‘Alawis of the Arab Democratic Party, who have always been closely linked with Syria. After the proclamation of several security plans sponsored by Damascus, and after Sha‘ban’s people were made more amenable by artillery bombardment in August 1984, a precarious calm was established. Tension persists, though, with renewed fighting in mid-1985, and Syria has refrained from direct occupation of the city center. The limits to Syria’s achievement in Tripoli, apparently so accessible to Syrian power, indicates the scale of the task Damascus faces in Beirut.

The northern rural areas are controlled by three Christian elements — ex-President Sulayman Franjiyya’s Marada Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in much of the Greek Orthodox Koura, and the Lebanese Forces in a small island with no Syrian intervention around the mountain town of Bcharre. Franjiyya and the SSNP are Syrian allies, though this did not prevent a short, sharp battle between them for control of the Koura in July 1984. Sulayman Franjiyya is an old friend of Hafiz and Rif‘at al-Asad, but he recently caused some embarrassment for Syria; at the March 1984 national unity talks he rejected strengthening the Sunni prime minister agreed to by Khaddam and Gemayel. Franjiyya here precipitated the failure of the conference, in tacit alignment with the Shi‘i representatives, and in July 1984 he objected to the National Unity Government painstakingly put together by Syria on the argument that it encompassed “Zionist agents.”

In addition to these perturbations, possibilities still exist for a direct Christian-Muslim confrontation between largely Sunni Tripoli and the predominantly Christian area surrounding it.

The situation in the Bekaa is equally intricate, though Syria’s hand is surer and more forceful in this region, the strategic core of Lebanon. The most prominent local factors comprise an assortment of Shi‘i fundamentalist groups, some supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who have dominated the Baalbek area since 1982, and a Phalange/Lebanese Forces presence in the large Christian town of Zahle — like Bcharre, an island encircled by Syrian and opposition militia troops. Zahle has functioned as a hostage for the good behavior of East Beirut, and Syrian encirclement has tightened at times of tension between Damascus and the main Christian enclave. In February 1984, at the climax of the campaign against the May 17 Agreement, Syria tolerated a Shi‘i militia bombardment of the city — retaliation for army bombardment of Beirut’s southern suburbs — and more threats reportedly preceded Gemayel’s March visit to Damascus.

After Gemayel’s accommodation, Syria moved to balance Baalbek and Zahle, reflecting the new game between East and West Beirut. The Zahlawis, having little choice, hastened to improve ties with Damascus, involving interchange between the local religious and secular leadership and the Syrian command at Shtaura and a late 1984 delegation to the Syrian capital, just before the main Syrian-Phalange meeting. Syria had found the Baalbek fundamentalists potentially serviceable during the conflict with Gemayel and the Americans, but had never been comfortable with their religious zeal and Iranian connections. It then took steps to restrain fundamentalist excesses and intervened in local clashes against pro-Iranian elements. Syria also acted to strengthen its non-fundamentalist allies in the Bekaa: local branches of the SSNP, Amal and other parties loosely linked in the “Democratic Front,” incorporating Jumblatt and headed by Lebanese Baath Party Chairman ‘Isam Qanso.

Syria’s Crisis

The new round of violence that began in March 1985, Toughly coinciding with Israel’s withdrawal from most of the south, reflected a many-sided contest to determine which tendency would dominate the next phase of Lebanon’s history: increased communal splintering with de facto partition and no leading position for any single external power, or a reduction in communalism under Syrian supremacy.

The outcome is not yet decided, even after the drama of the Christian refugee flight from the Iqlim al-Kharroub and Sidon, renewed partition of Beirut, fierce sectarian conflict in West Beirut, the brutal “war of the camps” and warnings of new explosions in Tripoli and Sidon. Between April and June 1985, the human toll of these battles comprised between 2,000 and 3,000 dead, up to 10,000 wounded and over 50,000 new refugees. [6] Syria, like Israel and the United States previously, had its miscalculations ruthlessly exposed but, also like Israel, survives to continue working in the Lebanese arena.

The first stage of the new round — the Geagea rebellion, Christian-Muslim hostilities around Sidon and renewed fighting in Beirut — presented Syria with a serious conundrum. No longer was it a question of stabilizing Lebanon by remote control. Rather, could Syria achieve enough in Lebanon to allow it to turn to other fronts at last? Some Syrian military apparently favored direct involvement of Syrian troops, presumably in stages, with enforced Lebanese approval. But general fear of the consequences of large-scale and direct military intervention has prevailed. Demands from West Beirut for Syria to impose order by force met with non-committal responses from Khaddam and Asad. [7]

Then the “war of the camps” seriously compromised Syria’s position among the non-Christian communities. The ferocity of Palestinian resistance and the isolation of Amal were unpleasant surprises for Damascus. Support for the Palestinians from Iran, Libya and the Soviet Union gave this setback a regional dimension. The fact that Syria’s Palestinian allies fought against Amal stirred suspicions within Amal that Syria was playing a double game. Syria managed to patch together a precarious truce by July in the form of security plans for the camps and West Beirut, but without any genuine reconciliation.

Events in south Lebanon also did not go well for Syria in this latest period. Arafat continued to expand his influence in the camps around Sidon, shielded by Syria’s Druze allies. The Iqlim al-Kharroub and Sidon experiences led south Lebanese Christians, now concentrated around Jezzine, to treat both Syrian assurances and the Lebanese army with barely disguised scorn; instead, they turned back to the Israeli-backed army of Antoine Lahad. Each of these problems can feed back to Beirut, and Beirut demonstrates that Syria, faced with Lebanon’s intractable complications, has to run hard these days simply to stay in the same place.


[1] See, for instance, the editorial by Sarkis Na‘um in al-Nahar, May 3, 1985.
[2] Al-Thawra, November 10, 1984.
[3] Khaddam is quoted in al-Safir (July 23, 1985) as saying: “Any partition or federalism or cantonization or regions of communal or sectarian influence is completely unacceptable to us — any project on this basis will push us to intervene to crush it because it is a danger to us — we prefer to deal with one country with one head instead of with various leaders of various areas of influence, even if basic allies of Syria are among these.”
[4] Voice of Lebanon and Jordan Times, May 26, 1985.
[5] Author’s interview with a senior PSP official, May 1985.
[6] Between 1,000 and 2,000 persons were killed in the battle for the camps, and more than 6,000 injured. The battles in Beirut city, the fighting in Iqlim al-Kharroub and Sidon, the bombings in Tripoli and Beirut are each responsible for hundreds more deaths and thousands of wounded. All of these battles forced people out of their homes, particularly the fighting in and around Sidon.
[7] In an interview in al-Anwar, a paper with wide circulation in East Beirut, Khaddam said this about any possible direct military intervention: “On the matter of Syria making new sacrifices to restore security to Lebanon — this has not been discussed by our leadership — an issue like this, when it arises, will be debated in light of circumstances and justifications.”

How to cite this article:

William Harris "Syria in Lebanon," Middle East Report 134 (July/ August 1985).

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