The Syrian presence in Lebanon was visible and audible to all, from the large numbers of Syrian construction workers to the peddlers selling the latest music CDs on the sidewalks to the military checkpoints in the mountains. In shared taxis there was often talk about which Lebanese politician had just returned from Syria, along with parodies of Syrian Arabic dialect and jokes about Lebanese men going to Syria for what they called a bicycle ride — a visit to a prostitute. A parallel social hierarchy separated those who could use the military lane to cross the border into Syria and those who had to wait sometimes long hours in regular lanes.

To Shi‘a affiliated with the Amal movement and Hizballah, Syrian involvement in Lebanon after the Ta’if Agreement helped overcome their previous political marginalization. For many other Lebanese, the presence was an occupation, despite the fact that many of their community leaders cooperated with the Syrian security apparatus in Lebanon. On the surface — and in global media — Lebanon was protected by a Pax Syriana.

Regardless of name, the 29 years of de facto Syrian occupation of Lebanon — from 1976 until April 2005 — were far from peaceful. Syrian intelligence services appointed nearly all members of the parliament, as well as high-ranking judges and cabinet ministers. The Syrian government also controlled the press. Those who failed to cooperate were intimidated into silence. Arbitrary killings and forcible disappearances were two of this period’s most prominent features. Between 1975 and 1990, the years of the Lebanese civil war, approximately 150,000 people were killed and about 17,000 went missing. After the war, some Lebanese citizens were released from prison in Syria, telling of the ordeals of others still in secret detention, but hundreds more continued to vanish at the hands of Syrian intelligence. Figures from after the war are not precise due to the lack of official mechanisms in Lebanon for tracking these disappearances. Recent estimates put the number of still-missing persons at 9,000, though it is unknown how many of these might still be alive in Syria. Men and women (research by grassroots organizations suggest that women make up about 2 percent of the disappeared in Syria) were taken in home raids or snatched from the streets; some were kidnapped at checkpoints erected by Lebanese militiamen and tortured to death. Their bodies were often dumped under bridges or in the sea.

Though most Lebanese who ended up in Syrian detention were arrested in Lebanon, some were arrested while living or traveling in Syria. Both groups, however, followed similar routes linking an archipelago of detention sites on both sides of the border. Men and women were often arrested under the pretexts of collaborating with Israel or resisting the orders of the Syrian army, if an explanation was given at all. The Syrian army also took Lebanese soldiers during the war. Those seized in Lebanon endured a brief detention and interrogation in one of the Syrian intelligence offices in the country, such as the American school in Tripoli in the north, the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Sadat Street or the Beau Rivage Hotel in Beirut, or Shatoura in the Bekaa Valley. A few were released. The rest were eventually transferred to ‘Anjar, the Syrian intelligence headquarters near the Lebanese-Syrian border, where they were interrogated and tortured for days or weeks and then brought across the border into Syria. Once over the border, the detainees were taken to Damascus to one of the notorious interrogation centers such as the Palestine Branch, Military Interrogation Branch, Area Branch or Air Force Intelligence Branch. After suffering more brutal interrogations detainees were transferred to detention centers such as Damascus Central Prison in the suburb of ‘Adra’, Mezze in Damascus itself (closed in September 2000), Saydnaya, a town about 12 miles north of the capital, Tadmur military prison in Palmyra, or al-Hasaka in the northeast. Though some detainees were forced to sign confessions and convicted in sham trials, most remained in Syrian detention without any pretense of legality.

The Fall of the General

The final battle that established complete Syrian hegemony over Lebanon took place on October 13, 1990 in three different locations across eastern Lebanon. Gen. Michel Aoun, commander of the Lebanese army — and leader of a parallel government in East Beirut since 1988 — lost the battle and took refuge in Paris, while the Syrian military killed many of his soldiers and transferred many more (mostly Christians) across the border to Syria. Among the “Aounis” and their families, the day is remembered with horror. Dory, then only 19 and a Lebanese soldier, was stationed at Dayr al-Qala in Bayt Mirri when the Syrian military surrounded the base and opened fire on it, killing most of those inside. He was badly injured and taken for dead; eventually, he escaped and related the fate of his comrades. [1] Others were less lucky. Blindfolded and put in the back of trucks, the remaining soldiers were taken over the border. The Syrian military turned up the volume on a song by the well-known Egyptian singer ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz called “The Journey Has Begun,” confirming what the soldiers already feared: They were on a journey to hell.

After the defeat, further military resistance to the Syrian army was unthinkable. Aoun’s supporters were convinced that passive resistance was the best tactic. The resistance began with clusters of people in different areas of the eastern enclave of Lebanon such as Ba‘bda, Hazmiyya and Hadath in South Matn, Antalyas and Sin al-Fil in North Matn, and areas of Kisrawan and Jubayl. Most of the resisters were supporters of Aoun, but there were also fighters from the Lebanese Forces who opposed the leadership of Samir Geagea, as well as some members of the National Liberal Party. The clusters were composed of people from different social and educational backgrounds, from professionals to simple laborers, though youth and university students formed the street power. Their activities were several: tapping out “tararatata!” (a code for Aoun) on car horns in defiance of a Lebanese government ban; scrawling “Aoun returns” on every wall and lamppost; stamping “Aoun returns” or the general’s face on Lebanese currency (such as the ten or 1,000 lira bills); secretly distributing pamphlets denouncing the occupation and the official Lebanese collaborators; arranging clandestine meetings to organize boycotts of  elections; boycotting Syrian merchandise; and selling local produce on the main roads under the slogan, “Buy Lebanese.”

The main goal of these provocations was to agitate the Syrian military into crackdowns that would reveal the ugly side of the occupation to the world. Yet the Syrian government largely outsourced repression to Lebanese security forces through the “Fraternity, Cooperation and Coordination Treaty,” signed in May 1991. Under this agreement, thousands of activists were harassed, arrested and tortured at the hands of Lebanese authorities. Various militias and political groups — representing all sects and social strata — also collaborated with the 30,000 Syrian military and intelligence personnel in Lebanon. During this time, the resistance groups’ only public body advocating for Lebanese detainees in Syria was SOLIDE (Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile), created in January 1990. A grassroots organization founded by families and friends of the detainees and the missing, its primary purpose, according to director Ghazi Aad, is to determine the whereabouts of Lebanese citizens detained in Syria and demand their release.

The Protest Tent

As Syrian troops withdrew, the fear of certain retaliation loosened enough for families of the missing to publicize their activities. On April 11, 2005, two weeks prior to the complete withdrawal, Aad and other activists erected a small tent in downtown Beirut to host a permanent sit-in until the Lebanese government and the United Nations either found the missing or delivered their remains. The location of the tent is deliberate: It sits in front of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia building, a space facing the 6,000-square meter public garden named after popular Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran. The garden is a project of the private real estate company Solidere, founded in 1994 by then-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and is often used for demonstrations and gatherings. To the left of the garden stand the Lebanese parliament and other government buildings.

Family members of the disappeared crowded at the tent to register the names of their relatives and tell stories of their trips to Syria, the amounts they had paid to Lebanese and Syrian brokers who promised to find their missing relatives and their years of waiting. Activists began to gather data, create files for each family member, and work closely with global organizations like Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Even after two waves of detainees were officially released in 1998 and 2000, about 650 families continue to claim that their relatives are in Syrian detention centers. Half of these families come from various Christian backgrounds and half are Muslim; the group also includes Palestinians. The majority of Christian detainees have been accused of membership in the Lebanese Forces and the Muslims of belonging to the Islamic Unification Movement — both groups known for their staunch opposition to Syrian occupation — though many of those detained had no political affiliation.

The opacity of the Syrian detention system fosters hope and despair simultaneously.

On regular days, mothers sit in front of the tent with pictures of their sons clipped to their shirts. Syrian Kurds who have taken temporary refuge in Lebanon also participate in the sit-in and from time to time other Syrian opposition members join. Religious festivals, the anniversaries of loved ones’ disappearances, the dates humanitarian organizations have dedicated to awareness of injustice done, the visits of important UN officials, every April 11 — all these days are moments of high emotion at the tent. On these occasions, Aad calls the families one by one to ask them to attend the event. The younger generation, who are often the children of the missing, use Facebook to spread the message and invite the general public to gather at the tent.

Unanswered Questions

Lebanese leaders such as Walid Jumblatt and Saad al-Hariri have kept their distance from the issue of the disappeared, despite emphasizing their own victimization at the hands of the Syrian regime for their supposed commitment to Lebanese sovereignty and democracy. Both are aligned with the March 14 forces, so named after the date of the largest “Syria out!” demonstration in 2005. Yet the recent past cannot be so easily rewritten; many March 14 figures had close ties to Ghazi Kan‘an, head of Syrian Military Intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002 and his successor Rustum Ghazali (who had led Syrian intelligence in Beirut), and were allied with ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, Syria’s foreign minister from 1970 to 1984 and vice president from 1984 to 2005. The 2006 Memorandum of Understanding between Aoun and Hizballah (the leader of the pro-Syria March 8 alliance) dealt a second blow to the families of the missing, who hold Aoun responsible for helping to determine the fate of his captured soldiers. Thus, neither March 8 nor March 14 have put the issue of the disappeared on the political agenda beyond a smattering of mentions. Civil activists and international humanitarian organizations have done the work of keeping the story alive. The fact that the disappeared come from diverse backgrounds makes the issue difficult to dismiss as a sectarian concern, though popular perception holds that the detainees belonged mainly to the Christian Lebanese Forces. The families insist that the tragedy of enforced disappearances is national in scope.

Over the years many families made repeated trips to Syria in search of lost relatives, with some paying exorbitant sums to Syrian security force members or their Lebanese partners to bring a sign of life from detention or to win a prisoner’s release. A transnational shadow network maintained by Syrian and Lebanese politicians, security services, military personnel, Lebanese militiamen and ordinary citizens on both sides blurred the divide between official and criminal, creating fortunes by selling empty promises.

News of the soldiers missing from Aoun’s defeat on October 13, 1990 appeared only when a mass grave containing the remains of 13 bodies was found in Yarza, on the grounds of the Lebanese Ministry of Defense, in December 2005. DNA tests performed by the army commission charged with exhuming the bodies confirmed that the deceased were among those believed to have been in Syria. This revelation sparked an intense debate: Did mothers lie about having seen their sons in detention in Syria? Or did the grave provide evidence of the Lebanese army’s collaboration with Syrian security services during the occupation? Those who claimed the soldiers had been over the border were accused of lying and of using the issue of Syrian detention to delegitimize the Syrian presence in Lebanon and its supporters. Aad thinks it likely that the soldiers were taken to Syria but that their bodies were later returned to Lebanon and buried in Yarza. Fear within the ranks of the government and the army about further investigations into their own roles in the disappearances and killings has obstructed the effort to expose other mass graves. Though Yarza is not the only mass grave to be discovered, it remains the only site whose existence is officially recognized and discussed publicly.

Between 2001 and 2005, two national commissions were convened to address the issue of enforced disappearances. These panels failed to achieve their goal of convincing families and civil society that there were no Lebanese citizens in Syrian detention centers and that the missing were, in fact, dead. A third commission, which included Lebanese and Syrian officials, was formed after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. Syria’s representatives again denied that any Lebanese citizens are detained across the border. The Lebanese contingent did not pursue legal action, relying instead on SOLIDE’s list of the disappeared, which the Syrians dismissed as unofficial. Activists are now lobbying to establish a government institution for investigating the cases of enforced disappearances and have won support from Minister of Justice Shakib Qurtabawi. This new effort may succeed in winning information on the fate and whereabouts of the missing, considering the political upheaval in Syria and the opportunity the disappeared offer to both March 8 and March 14 to gain patriotic capital. Yet the situation in Syria has had little effect on the detainees and their families. While journalists and TV crews flocked to SOLIDE’s tent to interview family members, publicity is no longer an issue for activists. Bashar al-Asad’s two general amnesty decrees in May and June 2011 created heated discussions at the tent and allowed weary families to hope, but not a single Lebanese national has since been released.


[1] Interview, Beirut, June 2011.

How to cite this article:

Roschanack Shaery "The Local Politics of the Lebanese Disappeared," Middle East Report 262 (Spring 2012).

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