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:
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 worlds Sunni majority.
Asads 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 Leagues 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.
Bashirs tenure was abruptly ended by another assassination, also ascribed to the Syrians. The Phalangists vented their rage by raiding two refugee camps in south Beirutwhile Israeli forces stood by and watchedand 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. Shultzs big mistake was to press Bashirs successor, his brother Amin, into signing on May 17, 1983, an agreement designed to perpetuate the Israeli ascendancy and freeze the Syrians out.