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A Retrospective on the Infernal Triangle: Lebanon, Syria, and Israel



By Curtis F. Jones

Page 2

 Previously by
Curt Jones in
American Diplomacy:

On America's response to global terrorism, in Us Against Them:
"By firing missiles at alleged terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan,President Clinton enhanced the parallels between nineteenth century Britain and twentieth century America."
[Autumn 1998]

On Trying to Stop the Clock in the Middle East:
"The dynamics of America’s special-interest democracy stand squarely in the way of any explicit liberalization of America’s Middle East policy." [Summer 1998]


More Commentary in this issue:

Amb. Edward Marks, on redefining the sovereign character of the nation state, in From Post Cold War to Post Westphalia:
"The hitherto inviolable sovereignty of the nation state is now conditional, subject to the approval of the international community of its peers 'in Security Council assembled'."


Keith Moon, in Boris Yeltsin Enters the History Books:
t is no surprise that Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin built up an admiration for each other in their seven shared years in office: they are remarkably similar men.

Elsewhere in this issue:

  • Articles

  • Commentary


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But the Israelis had already succumbed to the hubris that is the occupational hazard of an occupying power. In the process of (temporarily) expelling the PLO forces, they had managed to alienate an even deadlier adversary, the Shiite inhabitants of south Lebanon. Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Syrians, and remaining Palestinians combined to harry the Israeli forces back toward the border. In February 1984, Muslim and Druze forces overran the western half of Beirut. On March 5, Amin went to Damascus, his personal Canossa, and scrapped the Shultz Accord. In theSyrian-Israeli contest for primacy in Lebanon, Syria had won. As for the marines, President Reagan had withdrawn them in February 1984, four months after 241 of them died in the truck bombing of their headquarters building.

Pacification took another five years. The years 1985-86 featured bloody fighting between Maronites and Sunnis, Shiites and Palestinians, Shiites and Druze, rightist and leftist Muslims, pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Shiites, and pro- and anti-Phalange Maronites. Intermittently weighing in, Syrian forces inexorably asserted control. In July 1986 they set up checkpoints in Beirut. By 1988, despite the assassination of Prime Minister Karamah, they had established a measure of law and order north of the Litani. President Mu’awwad was assassinated in June 1989.Former commander-in-chief Michel ‘Awn staged a last-ditch Maronite insurrection. In October 1989, however, Saudi Arabia brokered the Ta’if Accord, which in effect legitimated Syrian dominion. After fourteen years of great bloodshed and massive destruction, Syria had accomplished what the Lebanese could not—ending the civil war. Syrian dominion was codified September 1, 1991, by an agreement for daily coordination of military and security policy.

Syria and Lebanon each has a Palestinian exile community of three or four hundred thousand people. In the sectarian maelstrom that is Lebanon, the Palestinians—ninety percent Muslim—are a major source of stress. In particular, their operations against Israel have subjected Lebanon to years of Israel reprisals, to the invasion of 1982, and to Israeli occupation of the “Security Zone,” a block of Lebanon between the old frontier and the Litani encompassing 440 square miles (eleven percent of the country) and peopled by a Shiite majority and a Christian minority totaling perhaps 100,000.

Israel established the Security Zone in 1976, in parallel with the Syrian intervention farther north, and has controlled it since through the South Lebanese Army (SLA), a force of Maronite, Druze, and Shiite mercenaries, armed and paid by Jerusalem, officered mainly by Maronites, and backed by patrols of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The Zone not only affords northern Israel a buffer against shelling and infiltration, it has been promoted as a market for Israeli exports. By 1999, however, these advantages were losing their attraction because of the casualties regularly inflicted on the SLA and the IDF by two Shiite organizations, Amal and Hizballah, the latter a fundamentalist Shiite faction subsidized and armed by Iran by way of Syria.

Israel stoutly maintains it cannot withdraw without guarantees that Beirut will interdict the shelling and infiltration. The force of this argument was significantly attenuated by the political changes of the last decade. Although Beirut’s secret appeals for outside help in “repatriating” their unwanted Palestinians have always fallen on deaf ears, the Palestinian combatants are unlikely to return to the Israeli border in force. Their Shiite successors have a doctrinaire allegiance to the elimination of “the Zionist entity” but they have no claims of their own on Israel proper.

Nevertheless, the Barak government seems to echo its predecessor in the contention that it could not afford to withdraw as enjoined by the UN Security Council’s U.S.-sponsored Resolution 425 of March 19, 1978, without security guarantees from Damascus. Damascus would naturally tie any concessions on the Lebanese front to recovery of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in June 1967.

The Golan approximates the Lebanese Security Zone in size (460 square miles), but its strategic importance is much greater. In the northeast, its access to Mount Hermon (9,000 feet) affords Israel a commanding optical and radar view of Damascus, only thirty miles distant. In the west, looming over the upper Jordan and the Sea of Galilee, is an escarpment from which Syrian artillery used to inhibit the Israeli practice of encroaching into the demilitarized zones established after the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

The Knesset’s decision of December 14, 1981, to extend Israeli administration and jurisdiction to the Golan (ritually condemned by Security Council Resolution 497 of December17, 1981) has amounted in practice to annexation. Although the Jewish population is still small (perhaps 18,000, living in thirty-two settlements, according to the Journal of Palestine Studies, Fall 1998), there is no contentious Arab population. The only Syrians allowed to remain were Druze, around 18,000 today, whose ultimate loyalty to Syria is conflicted by the propensity of Israel’s Druze ability to get along with the Israeli authorities.

Current allusions in the American media to the possibility of Israeli abandonment of the Golan generally overlook three compelling Israeli interests:

  1. Military security. If the Golan were to be demilitarized, as is often advocated, whose troops would enforce the demilitarization? The UN, which Israel has always distrusted? The United States, which evolved in Kosovo a revolutionary take-no-risks military strategy?
  2. Momentum. Alone in a Muslim sea, Zionism has generated a mystique of invincibility centered on a strategy of expansionism. It has never ceded territory except under irresistible pressure (from Eisenhower in 1957 to evacuate Sinai and Gaza) or on providential terms (the 1978 Camp David Agreement).
  3. Water. With a total population of eight million in a semi-arid country of 11,000 square miles, Greater Israel already draws from every accessible source, notably aquifers in occupied Palestine and the Jordan River system’s feeder springs in occupied Lebanon and Syria. Can it trust these sources to Syrian control?

This is the challenge the peacemakers face: reconciling three ill-matched countries that simultaneously distrust and need each other; three countries that arelinked by geography, like it or not. As noted by Milton Viorst in The Nation (July 26, 1999), Lebanon affords Syria a window to freedoms such as private enterprise and access to the Internet that it stifles at home. Israel offers both potential access to the immense benefits of modern technology and industry. And yet all three nations continue to be mired in the cultural divisiveness that has afflicted the region since the collapse of the Roman Empire.

What is to be done? Where is the region headed?

In the New York Times of December 26, 1999, columnist Tom Friedman defined the U.S./Israeli objective: to transform Syria into “a member of the circle of peace around Israel.” Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Beirut, Friedman knows the area well enough to recognize that the Palestinians, who should have been the earliest beneficiaries of that “circle of peace,” have in fact been excluded—to the point that Israel has chosen to import hundreds of thousands of Asians and East Europeans to fill jobs that the residents of the territories desperately need.

If Israel is unable to incorporate the Arabs on its doorstep into its economy, what hope is there for agreement with the Arabs of Syria and Lebanon on the vital issues that have separated them since 1948? Israel’s military preeminence is not in question. It is a matter of political will. If Prime Minister Barak trades land for promises, he could well lose his slim majority in the Knesset. He may even be counting on the Knesset to provide him the pretext for wriggling out from under Clinton’s wishes for a diplomatic triumph to cap his career in the White House.

For Washington, Israel has always been an extension of U.S. territory, but so far Washington has been spared any demand to defend this commitment with American troops. Instead, the United States has provided arms and money—arms during the 1967 and 1973 wars, money to seal the deal at Camp David. Now Clinton contemplates asking Congress for a multi-billion-dollar package to finance peace between Israel and Syria. Will Congress appropriate enough to overcome the gigantic obstacles? Is there enough money in the world to reconcile the different and conflicting interests of an Arab Muslim autocracy and a Western Jewish quasi-democracy?

The prospects are not encouraging.  


Curt Jones, a member of this journal’s Editorial Review Board, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.

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