American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

February 2000

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

By Curtis F. Jones

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
American Diplomacy:

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  • Commentary



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Drawing upon decades of experience in the Middle East, the author offers a historical look back, followed by his personal analysis of the current state of affairs in that volatile region. Mr. Jones, a retired senior U.S. Foreign Service officer, takes a decidedly pessimistic view of prospects for lasting peace.
     ~ Ed.

From its day of independence on May 14, 1948, Israel has been in a state of war with most of the Arab states. The log jam broke in March 1979, when American political and financial contributions aided in bringing the conclusion of a peace treaty with Egypt, followed in October 1994 by peace with Jordan. On December 16, 1999, the last holdout jumped into the foreground: Flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Faroukal-Shara, President Bill Clinton announced their agreement to open peace talks in January. A fair assumption is that Lebanon, a Syrian satellite, will also participate.

The American media greeted the announcement with optimism. Many drew an analogy with the 1978 Camp David talks that eventuated in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Their optimism may be premature; the analogy with Camp David is invalid on at least four counts:

  1. Bargaining positions. In return for Sinai, Egypt accorded Israel an immense concession—a free hand in dealing with the Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank. Syria has nothing of equivalent value to offer; the record of Syrian governments lends little confidence to commitments from any specific incumbent, however statesmanlike.
  2. Geography. The Israeli-Egyptian relationship, cold but nonviolent, benefits from a natural buffer zone—the Sinai Desert. Any frontier between Israel and its close northern neighbors will invite the same frictions that have soured their relations in the past.
  3. Water. In the Middle East of the twentieth century, the watchword was oil. In this century it may be water. In Israel, precise statistics on water use are a military secret, but the nation’s dependence on the Jordan River is common knowledge—and the head waters of the Jordan lie in those areas of Syria and Lebanon now in dispute. Israeli projects to divert water out of the Jordan basin were the proximate cause of the 1967 War by which Israel acquired the Golan in the first place.
  4. Lebanon. Looming over every exchange between Israel and Syria is their long and bloody contest for preeminence in a territory whose 4,000 square miles are geographically part of Syria, but whose militant Maronite (Catholic) minority has always seen the Israeli Jews as natural allies against Muslim repression. Lebanon is a cauldron of rival tribes and sects. Left to its own devices, it might have joined the unhappy category of failed nations. Instead, it has been effectively partitioned between its two neighbors, even though the alienated, bitter character of Lebanese politics has taught them to preserve the fiction that Lebanon is an independent state.

Analysis of the prospects for Israeli-Syrian peace must be grounded in appreciation of the complexities of Lebanese history. Under Ottoman rule, the Maronite community enjoyed local autonomy, but it was only after World War One that the League of Nations awarded the area to France as a “mandate,” a euphemism for “colony.” France cobbled the artificial state of Lebanon out of a Maronite area (the northern half of the Lebanon range), a Sunni Muslim area (the coastal strip), and a Shia Muslim area (along the newly created border with Palestine).

Pursuing its historic alliance with the Maronites, France awarded them political control of the infant state, notably by assigning them the presidency and the military command. Over the years Christian emigration, the Muslim birth rate, and the influx of Palestinian refugees converted a slim Christian majority into a massive Shia/Sunni/Druze majority. The almost inevitable civil war erupted in April 1975.

Damascus has always had a vital interest in asserting political control over this strategic piece of essentially Syrian geography. That interest dominates the foreign policy of Hafiz al Asad, the Syrian ruler since November 1970. A master of political pragmatism, he has avoided the mistake of trying to take Lebanon by outright conquest, concentrating instead on interdicting the efforts of other parties whose policies were not so astute. As a member of the Alawite sect of Shiism, he has an advantage in dealing with Lebanese communities, notably Shiites and Maronite, who fear inundation by the Arab world’s Sunni majority.

Asad’s subtle strategy required him to take the counter-intuitive step of entering the Lebanese civil war on the Maronite side; Maronite defeat would most likely have led to Israeli intervention and the installation of a Maronite regime subservient to Israel. Instead, Asad concludeda secret deal with Israel whereby Syria could send ground troops into Lebanon proper, and Israeli troops would operate in south Lebanon as far north as the Litani River. Syrian forces entered Lebanon in April 1976 and soon established control over the northeastern two-thirds of the country. On October 18, Saudi Arabia orchestrated the Riyadh Accord, which in effect designated the Syrian forces as the Arab League’s peacekeepers in Lebanon.

As NATO forces learned in Kosovo, any force that really tries to keep the peace becomes an equal opportunity target. By dint of military action and the assassination of a recalcitrant Druze leader, presumably by a Syrian agent, the Syrians in early 1978 had neutralized the Muslim-Druze military effort sufficiently to produce a resurgence of Maronite operations. Maronites clashed with Syrians, and then Syria changed sides.

In 1982, the ongoing civil war was temporarily subsumed in the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. On June 6, hoping to shore up the Maronites in Lebanon and crush the PLO (the Palestine Liberation Organization had relocated its headquarters to Lebanon after its 1970 expulsion from Jordan), Israel invaded Lebanon. During the summer it fought its way through stiff Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian resistance to Beirut and put the city under siege.

On August 23, meeting within range of Israeli artillery, the Lebanese Parliament elected as new president Bashir Jumayyil, leader of the Phalange, a Maronite paramilitary organization with longtime secret ties to Israel. Two days later, at the request of PLO leader Yasir Arafat, the United States landed 800 marines in the port of Beirut. Within two weeks, after U.S. mediator Philip Habib had extracted from the parties a guarantee of the safety of Palestinian civilians who were to be left defenseless in the camps by the agreed withdrawal of PLO forces from Lebanon, Washington unaccountably withdrew the marine contingent.

Bashir’s tenure was abruptly ended by another assassination, also ascribed to the Syrians. The Phalangists vented their rage by raiding two refugee camps in south Beirut—while Israeli forces stood by and watched—and killing a thousand or two Palestinian and Lebanese noncombatants. On September 18, 1982, the Marines came back. Their return was a token of U.S. humiliation at the cavalier violation of its guarantee of Palestinian safety, but the marines had no rational military mission. The erratic U.S. policy victimized both the marines and the Jumayyil regime. Secretary of State Haig, who had reputedly smiled on the Israeli invasion, was replaced for his multifarious inadequacies by George Shultz. Shultz’s big mistake was to press Bashir’s successor, his brother Amin, into signing on May 17, 1983, an agreement designed to perpetuate the Israeli ascendancy and freeze the Syrians out.

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