Shedding Light on Lebanon

An examination of the historical roots of a conflict that Americans are peculiarly ill suited to understand

It was that shift of Moslem sympathy that obliged President Charles Helou, in November of 1969, to agree to the Cairo Accord, by which the Palestinians and their armed forces within the country were effectively released from government supervision. The accord had two direct effects within Lebanon. It frightened the Christians into enlarging their own unofficial armed forces, the "militias," of which that of the Phalange was the strongest. And it opened the country to direct retaliation by the Israelis for Palestinian attacks on their territory. Moslem protests at the government's inability to deter such retaliation led to the intervention of the Lebanese army against the Palestinians in May of 1973, which some see as an attempt by the right—Christian and traditional Moslem—to bring on a Lebanese "Black September." It was that event in Jordan in 1970, in which King Hussein had used his army against the Palestine Liberation Organization, that had brought Palestinian armed force to Lebanon in strength.

Palestinian resistance to the Lebanese army during the May fighting outraged the Christians. It realized their worst fear, that of a Lebanon robbed of its independence and pluralist character. By the spring of 1975, the Christian militias were spoiling for a fight, and in April they got one. A political murder of a Christian triggered a revenge massacre of poor Moslems by Maronites, and shortly afterward fighting among militias became general—first between the Phalange and the Palestinians, later between Christians and Moslems indifferently. During this period, close observers calculated that up to fifty militias existed, some only a few dozen strong, but all enjoying a measure of support, internal and sometimes external as well, and controlling a defined portion of territory. The first months, though characterized by murder for sectarian reasons, were neither very costly in lives nor materially destructive. In September, however, with tempers aroused and arsenals full (it is an arresting fact that Soviet-bloc weapons were found as often in Christian as in Moslem hands; the Soviets have done a promiscuous arms business in the Middle East, and they have every sort of blood on their hands, even Syrian), the war became savage. In the isolated Christian areas of the south, like the coastal town of Damour, the local militias were defeated and the civilians killed or expelled. But it was in Beirut itself that the worst of the fighting took place and the real massacres began.

Here the Maronites had the upper hand. Their effort to break into West Beirut eventually failed, but it left its indelible mark in the despoiling of the skyscraper-hotel area and in the devastation of the Place des Martyrs and its surroundings. The Maronites' attempt to purge the Christian zone of non-Christians, particularly poor non-Christians, was gruesomely successful. During January of 1976, they depopulated and largely bulldozed three refugee and shanty camps in East Beirut, massacring 1,000 men, women, and children, and expelling 20,000.

Massacre seems endemic to the Middle East. It was the Ottomans' favored method of exerting or restoring control within their empire, as the diaspora of the Armenians bears witness. There were serious massacres of Christians by Moslems in Syria and Lebanon during the nineteenth century and of Moslem dissidents by French auxiliary troops in Damascus as late as 1925. Massacre does not, in the Middle East, arouse hatreds; it revives and confirms those that already exist. The massacres of early 1976, Christians in Beirut, Moslems in Damour and the Beirut suburbs, had a further effect: they destroyed the integrity of the Lebanese army.

Like anything else in Lebanon, rank and recruitment in the army were determined by religion. The commander was a Maronite, the chief of staff a Druze, and the colonels Christian and Moslem in a six-to-five ratio. Critics of the old Lebanese system alleged that the army had been starved of funds and men so that it would not constitute a danger to the government, as other Arab armies did. It was certainly small-only 14,000 men. But thitherto it had done its job and had held together well- The massacres caused it to divide into four parts. One quarter constituted itself the "Arab Army of the Lebanon," under a Sunni. One quarter joined up with the Maronite militias. One quarter attempted to remain neutral. The fourth quarter went home. About half the rank and file actually joined in the subsequent fighting, in equal Christian and Moslem proportions. Separate from all of these, though perhaps the most significant, was the force raised by Major Saad Haddad, a Greek Catholic from the south, which would act as an Israeli-bother militia during and after the Israelis' withdrawal in 1978.

The dismemberment of the Lebanese army along sectarian lines meant that the authority of the state would now have to be shored up from outside if the country was not to be submerged in the welter of intercommunal fighting. The Christian leadership showed itself ready to make concessions, and in May of 1976 it sponsored a new president, Elias Sarkis, who was prepared to conciliate. But the Maronites' real hope seemed to lie, paradoxically, with Presi-dent Assad and the Syrian army—the second of the three major factors on the Lebanese scene. Syria's plans for the settlement of the Palestinian question did not coincide with those of Yasser Arafat and the PLO, and President Assad was keen to check the PLO's growing importance inside Lebanon. The Maronites, for their part, felt able to forget that Syria regarded Lebanon as a "lost province" (it had never opened an embassy in Beirut) in return for immediate aid. On June 1, 1976, the Syrian army entered the country in strength. Its presence was rapidly regularized by the approval of neighboring Arab states, who dispatched small detachments of their own to join it in forming an Arab Deterrent Force, which by November occupied the whole of the country, short of the border with Israel, and brought the fighting to an end.

The intervention, though a defeat for the aspirations of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was a dramatic relief for almost all the other parties to the conflict, at least temporarily. It provided a solution that even the leftist Moslem groups of what was then called the National Movement could accept with good grace. The Maronites, who saw the Syrians as the saviors of "old Lebanon," were exultant. But objectively, there was little to exult over. The Lebanese economy, once the most buoyant in the Middle East, and which had given many Lebanese, Moslem and Christian, a Western standard of living, was in ruins. The material cost of the war was calculated as equal to the entire gross national product for 1974. Thirty thousand Lebanese had been killed, and a quarter of a million had been driven from their homes, many permanently. Most government offices, of all sorts, had been looted and wrecked. The prisons and even the hospitals for the criminally insane had been emptied by extremist groups. And nothing remained of the Lebanese army.

THE COUNTRY MIGHT NEVERTHELESS HAVE BEEN nursed slowly back to health but for the operation of the third factor in the Lebanese sum: the Israelis. Domestic obsessions had made the Lebanese unfit to resist having the Palestinian problem foisted upon them. The arrival of the Palestinians had exacerbated sectarian and socio-economic antagonisms within the country to the point where they had provoked civil war. Given the arbitrary, overbearing, and often revoltingly cruel and extortionate behavior of the Palestinian fighters, the resistance they provoked even among Lebanese sympathetic to their cause should not have surprised them. The suppression of the civil war by external Arab forces had heightened Israel's fears for the security of its northern border. The hostile Syrian army was that much closer, and it showed no intention of interfering with the campaign of the nearest Palestinian forces against Israeli territory.

That campaign, in reality, scarcely threatened the survival of the Israeli state. The Irish Republican Army is a far more effective terrorist organization than the Palestine Liberation Organization, which since 1969 has inflicted far fewer deaths on Israel than the IRA has on Northern Ireland, which has a smaller population. Nevertheless, the analogy should not be pushed too far. The IRA's hopes for a united Ireland are not contingent upon the overthrow of the British state. It is precisely the fear of national extinction that PLO rhetoric arouses among the Israelis, a fear that makes many of their reactions understandable. But Israel's reactions to Palestinian threats from Lebanon look counterproductive, to use an overworked word. In March of 1978, under the peculiarly inappropriate code name Stone of Wisdom, the Israeli army invaded southern Lebanon, advancing as far as the Litani River in order to root out Palestinian forces there. It is generally agreed that the operation was bungled, and its principal result was to draw into the country a United Nations supervisory force, which thereafter lived on uneasy terms with the Israeli-sponsored Haddad militia.

Neither the UN force nor Haddad could altogether prevent occasional Palestinian attacks on northern Israel. But the second, and disastrous, Israeli invasion, in June of 1982, does not seem to have been motivated by security considerations in the strict sense. The pretext for it was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London by Palestinian terrorists. Its purported aim, as represented by various interested parties, was to defeat the Syrian army without invading Syrian territory, or to settle the future of the West Bank by humiliating the PLO leadership, or—very far-fetched—to invalidate the idea of a mixed Jewish-Arab Palestine by destroying for good the only pluralist state in the Middle East. The real Israeli motivation seems to have been simpler and more obvious. Having secured their southern border by making the peace treaty with Egypt, the Israelis now sought to secure their northern border by taking conclusive military action. An operation that would defeat the Syrians and expel the Pal-estinians would make Israel safe for decades. Exactly the same calculations about their northern and southern borders had animated the strategic and diplomatic policies of the Crusaders, who when at peace with one neighbor had usually been driven to fight the other.

Such geographical imperatives can make for bad politics. Operation Peace for Galilee, launched on June 6, 1982, achieved the temporary expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon and inflicted a heavy defeat on the Syrian army and air force. But it also, for the first time, cast the Israelis in the role of aggressors, not because they initiated the attack on the Palestinians or even on the Syrians but because they did so apparently in disregard for the welfare of the Lebanese, who, however feckless they had been in the past, were by then manifestly incapable of defending themselves and entirely undeserving of the fate that their defenselessness brought upon them. It was the spectacle of the Israel Defense Force's bombardment of West Beirut during June, July, and August that prompted the Western powers to intervene temporarily with a peace-keeping force. It was the shock and horror of the Shatila and Sabra camp massacres—a return to the practices of civil war fomented by Peace for Galilee—that brought about the recall of the multinational force and the decision to leave it in place until a tolerable level of security in the Beirut region could be assured by other means.

One of those means was the newly reconstituted Lebanese army, upon which great hopes rested. The army and the multinational force, however, were powerless to prevent the February, 1984, uprising in West Beirut, which once more brought the country to the brink of civil war. In two days of bitter small-arms and heavy-weapons exchanges, Shia Amal and radical Sunni Mourabitoun militiamen drove the soldiers out of their positions in the streets and resumed the control that they had exercised there before last September, when the army took control of West Beirut. The army units were not defeated. In many cases, they simply disintegrated. Moslems in the ranks refused to use their weapons against their co-religionists, left their posts of duty, and awaited the outcome of events.

The disintegration of the army, on which Lebanon's hopes of statehood had rested, meant the collapse of the policies—both of the Gemayel government and of the United States—that had seemed promising only a few months before. The army, of course, had been a tender plant. Before April of last year, it had withered to almost nothing. In that month the government embarked on a conscription program, and, to everyone's surprise, recruits started to come in. Regular pay, hard to find in an economy as devastated as Lebanon's, was a strong incentive to the recruits—but there seems to have been more to it than that. The recruits joined in proportions approximately equal to those of the country's religious communities. Druze, it is true, were scarce. But Sunni and Shia Moslems seemed as ready to report for duty as Christians did, and many of them traveled from within areas controlled by the Syrians to answer their draft calls. The Americans who were training the army were enthusiastic about the quality and the commitment of the young men who came under their command. Projections of the size of the force, and operational plans dependent upon them, were optimistically revised. The army had hoped by early 1985 to field seven brigades, each organized into three armored infantry battalions and a tank battalion in support. The new plan called for twelve brigades, comprising 35,000 combat troops. Particularly satisfying to the Americans, after years of dealing with allies and protégés who seemed keener on taking than giving, was that the Lebanese government paid for all equipment and facilities it consumed. Thanks to the gold and foreign-currency reserves in Lebanese banks, the government was able to borrow freely, and on that credit it bought $800 million worth of American equipment in 1983. It also paid for the training teams dispatched by the United States government—teams that the U.S. Army had kept small so that the embryonic army would not fall into the error of expecting to be taught everything instead of learning for itself.

I found the senior American staff optimistic that the army would shortly be strong enough to advance to cut the route by which Syrian munitions reached the Druze and Shia militias. It may have been the prospect of such a move that emboldened the Shia, Druze, and Sunni fighters—prompted, no doubt, by their Syrian backers—to take their decisive February counteraction against the army

In addition, Moslem disaffection was fueled by the in- ability of Arnin Gemayel to mount a convincingly national government. It is certainly open to question whether any leader could have succeeded in welding together a country with two mutually hostile foreign armies on its soil and with fratricidal factions spread out across the map in deadly propinquity to one another. Clearly, however, Amin Gemayel did not show the formidable political talent needed for the job. As long as the Israelis were camped in the Beirut suburbs, Gemayel looked a credible leader. But with the abrupt Israeli redeployment to southern Lebanon in September, Gemayel lost the main prop of his power. By having signed a troop-withdrawal agreement with Israel in May, he had already lost flexibility in accommodating Moslem demands. Caught thus between the conflicting designs of the two regional powers—Israel, for a treaty with a second Arab state, in addition to Egypt, and Syria, for an abrogation of that treaty and a Lebanese government more to its liking—Gemayel had scant room to maneuver. He looked for help to the United States, which the Maronites regarded as their next savior after the hopes they had attached to the Israelis were dashed. But the United States was able to deploy only 1,800 troops in Beirut, and the whole multinational force only 4,000, whereas the Syrians had some 35,000 troops in Lebanon, some within a few miles of Beirut.

Moreover, the logic of American policy was from the beginning badly askew. On the one hand, the Americans pressured Gemayel to make his government more representative of Moslem numbers and interests. The likely upshot of this pressure would be a Lebanese government closer to Syria than the Gemayel government was, because this is what the Moslems allied with Syria would demand. On the other hand, the Americans were putting military pressure on the same Syrian government whose interests American diplomacy was, willy-nilly, advancing. Gemayel seems to have dealt with this muddled American strategy by stalling on the political reforms whilst hoping for an American deus ex machina to deliver him from both the Syrians and their clients among his countrymen. The suicide bombings of the French parachutists and the American Marines in October should have shown Gemayel that the Americans were just as vulnerable to terrorism, even state terrorism, as his brother Bashir, whose death by a terrorist bomb the year before may have deprived Lebanon of a resourceful leader. With so many cross-pressures to balance, Lebanon needed a Talleyrand. Instead, it got what one Moslem leader, not too unfairly, called "a little Shah."

Seen in a broader perspective, however, the problems of Lebanon go far beyond anything that any one man could set right. They have to do rather with the nature of the polity in which the several religious confessions of Leba-non have fruitlessly been trying to live together for so long. Had the French been content to erect a Lesser rather than a Greater Lebanon, comprising the Christian and Druze heartlands, there seems little doubt that it could have been made to work. The inclusion of a large Moslem minority put the state at risk from the start. The swelling of the Moslem population to its present size means that Moslem discontents will always provoke Arab intervention in Lebanon's affairs. Since Syria, as the successor state of the Ottoman province of that name, would not accept a separate Lebanon, Lebanon's survival was bound to depend on its ethnic differentiation from its larger neighbor. No such differentiation prevails. The populations of Syria and Lebanon are nearly identical in ethnic and religious composition (though in different proportions), an elementary point lost on an American Administration that construes Lebanon's problems in the distorting light of the East-West struggle. The Sunni and Shia communities are thus part of a constituency that extends far beyond the boundaries of Lebanon. President Assad's government considers itself entitled to intervene in Lebanese affairs. It does so with a politically uninhibited ruthlessness, and is sure of a measure of support when it acts. The Christians have twice recently been able to contain such intervention, by invoking first Israeli and then American assistance, but they are not likely to be able to do so again.

What must now be faced by the parties to the Lebanese conflict, domestic and foreign, who hope for a return to the simplicity of the National Covenant is that the old Lebanon is gone for good. Despite the absence of census statistics, it is clear not only that the Christians no longer form a majority within the country but also that they are now but one community among four. Realities therefore demand that they share the power that the constitution gives them more widely than they have been hitherto willing to do. It would be ironic for the United States, which has invested so much of its prestige in shoring up historic Lebanon, were constitutional reform to increase rather than diminish Syrian influence within the country. But the exercise of effective foreign policy, even for a superpower like the United States, has ultimately to do with recognizing realities rather than chasing illusions. Alas for a once fleetingly happy land, the Lebanon of yesterday has now passed into the realm of illusions.

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