The Syrian army has been involved in Lebanon since 1976. Mainly playing the role of balancer between contending Lebanese factions, Syria has its own strategic, political and security interests in Lebanon. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the PLO and establish a pro-Israeli regime, the Syrian forces were defeated and forced to withdraw from Beirut and large parts of Lebanese territory. Damascus, however, was able to regain the upper hand. With help from its Lebanese allies, Syria thwarted the May 17, 1983 Israeli-Lebanese agreement and supported the Islamic and Lebanese national resistance against Israeli occupation. In 1985, Israel withdrew its forces from most of southern Lebanon to its self-imposed “security zone” along the Lebanese-Israeli border, an area that has remained occupied and embattled until today. In 1987, Syrian forces reentered West Beirut to end heavy fighting between the Amal movement and other more or less pro-Syrian forces and to establish Syrian control. In 1988, they reentered the southern suburbs of Beirut to end the fighting between the rival Shi‘i factions Amal and Hizballah.
Damascus also played a crucial background role in negotiating the Ta’if agreement, the official formula that ended the civil war and established Lebanon’s Second Republic. Only with Syrian military power could Lebanon’s Gen. Michel Aoun, who rejected Ta’if and maintained that he was the legitimate head of the government, be expelled from the Ba‘abda presidential palace and Lebanon be reunited under one government. According to the Ta’if agreement, Syria was to redeploy its troops in coordination with the Lebanese authorities two years after the implementation of the constitutional changes foreseen in the agreement and actually introduced in 1990. This clause of the agreement, however, has been reinterpreted by the Syrian authorities in such a way that a substantial redeployment, let alone a withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon, cannot be expected before a final Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon.
During and after Israel’s April 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, Damascus reestablished its political role in Lebanon and obtained, once more, international acknowledgment of that role. At the same time, Syria was not overly distressed by the Israeli onslaught. Syrian soldiers in Lebanon were unable — for military as well as for political reasons — to offer more than symbolic anti-aircraft fire in support of Lebanon. lt was clear that the Syrian leadership would not put negotiations with Israel at risk for the sake of Lebanon. While Lebanon is important to Syrian national security, Damascus does not see Lebanon as part of Syria proper. Greater Syria rhetoric notwithstanding, the annexation of Lebanon is not on Syria’s agenda. In the discourse of the Asad regime regarding Lebanon and Syrian-Lebanese relations, references to “one people” of Syria and Lebanon are tempered by “sha‘b wahid fi baladayn,” one people in two countries.
Syria has strongly rejected the “Lebanon first” idea which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put on the regional agenda in the summer of 1996. A unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon — essentially, the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425 — would put Syria in a difficult position. It could hardly denounce an Israeli withdrawal, yet Damascus would then have to disarm Hizballah and, even worse, become responsible for the security of Israel’s northern border. Damascus would lose the “resistance card” it has used over the years to put pressure on Israel without involving its own territory or endangering its troops.
Syria, however, will continue to insist that Lebanon not negotiate independently with Israel and that the Lebanon issue be settled as part of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Political and military figures in Lebanon are well aware of the situation. They have repeatedly declared that Lebanon will not deviate from the Syrian line of negotiation with Israel and that the Syrian and Lebanese tracks cannot be separated. They realize that Lebanon has to rid itself of the Israeli occupation first. Relations with Syria will have to be dealt with thereafter.