Since the advent of Hafez al-Assad’s dictatorship in Damascus in 1971, Syria’s role in the region, and particularly in Lebanon, has been described in two diametrically opposing narratives. The difference between these two narratives is so wide that one of them has to be wrong.
The school of engagement insists on Assad’s unavoidable role as a pacifier in the region. To many diplomats, experts, and policy makers in the West —including paradoxically in Israel and the United States—the Alawite regime is seen as a stabilizing force that can absorb radicals and defuse a regional war.
Yet, it is almost impossible to refute mountains of evidence of Syrian Baathist involvement in violence both against its own citizens and against Lebanese, Palestinians, Arabs, and Westerners. There has been 39 years of internal oppression in Syria, 29 years of occupation of Lebanon, 25 years of support to Hezbollah’s terror activities, and decades of involvement in political assassinations in Lebanon and beyond.
A thorough historical analysis leads observers to the conclusion that the Baathist regime in Damascus bases its survival not on potential reform but on its non-negotiable control of Lebanon.
Syrian Control of Lebanon
From Hafez to his son Bashar, the ruling elite in Syria has used stratagems ranging from penetration, invasion, occupation, terror, divide and conquer, regional manipulations, and diplomatic diversions, all to ensure that Lebanon remains under Damascus’ wing. Syria will not grant its small neighbor freedom, because that freedom has the potential to devastate Syria’s one party regime. By keeping Lebanon under control, even if shared with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the Assad regime ensures its own survival.
This explains the scope of Syrian maneuvering with the West, including the United States, over the years. Hafez al-Assad, when visited by a myriad of Secretaries of States, always promised peace with Israel—an American strategic goal—in return for an understanding of his “interests” in Lebanon. The shrewd dictator never delivered on peace, but always gained power over his weaker neighbor.
But after the death of Hafez in 2000, and a dramatic change in international and regional circumstances, Bashar’s regime experienced significant setbacks—an amalgam of his own wrong decisions and unexpected opposition in Lebanon. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 in 2004 stripped Syria of its legal basis for the occupation of Lebanon, and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 shattered its legitimacy as a protector of peace. The surge of the Cedars Revolution following these two events accelerated international pressures leading to Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. The Syrian era in Lebanon appeared to have come to an end, while an era of accountability for the dictatorship at home was seemingly about to begin.
Another set of circumstances, however, reversed the fortunes of the Lebanese and Syrian peoples, who were inching closer to meaningful change. Thus, the fate of this Khomeinist ally is at a crucial crossroads today. It is either reaffirming its authoritarian dominance on the Eastern Mediterranean or vacillating towards regime collapse.
The Hariri International Tribunal appears to be able to make or break Syria’s future. The regime in Damascus knows the high stakes involved, and has devised lethal strategies for regime survival and renewed dominance in Lebanon. The Assad regime seems to be reasserting power in Lebanon via violence, aided possibly by a change in strategic direction in Washington. These strategies are the result of many decades of patient planning by the Assad regime.
To understand the complex crossroads, one must look at Syria’s historical ambitions in Lebanon, Hafez al-Assad’s achievements in this regard, the extension of Syrian power across Lebanese politics, Iranian influence, and other factors. Only then can the strategies of the Syrian regime be placed in context.
The Assad dynasty’s ambitions in Lebanon are only a contemporary and extreme expression of a much older Syrian Arab nationalist claim over the country of the Cedars. Indeed, Syria was actively destabilizing Lebanon long before the Lebanese Civil War.
Syrian Pan-Arabists rejected the formation of the modern state of Lebanon in 1920 and subsequently the independence of the Lebanese Republic in 1943. In fact, the Syrian government even refused to open an embassy in Beirut.
In 1958, when Syria was part of the United Arab Republic (UAR) with Egypt, Egyptian leader Gamal Abd al-Nasser sponsored an armed insurrection against the pro-Western government of Camille Chamoun, prompting a year-long civil war. A decade later, in the late sixties, the Baathist regime in Damascus helped Palestinian forces infiltrate Lebanon, drawing the small state into the wider Arab-Israeli conflict.
Finally, with the coup d’etat that brought Hafez al-Assad to power in 1971, a more lethal era of Syrian intervention in Lebanon began.
Syrian Intervention, 1976-1990
It took Hafez 15 years of warfare and political assassinations to secure his occupation of Lebanon. Syria launched its first invasion amidst the second Lebanese civil war that erupted in April 1975. Syria’s success can be partially attributed to Syrian-backed militias that had been challenging the Lebanese Army since 1969.
As the country split into factional enclaves, Assad fueled the fights, assisting one party against another, until Syrian troops marched into the Bekaa Valley and northern Lebanon in June 1976. Later that year, those invading forces were legalized as “deterrent forces” within the Arab peacekeeping expeditionary army.
The Baathist military and intelligence soon penetrated most of the country. The Syrians encountered fierce resistance in 1978 in the East Beirut enclave, mostly inhabited by Christians. The regions with Sunni, Druze, and Shiite majority, however, remained under Syrian occupation.
Syria retreated during the Israeli offensive in 1982, but returned to the center of the country soon thereafter. By October 1990, profiting from the diversion of the U.S.-led campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in Kuwait, Syria entered the last free zones of Lebanon.
Syrian Occupation, 1990-2005
During the 1990s, Syria and Iran enjoyed dominance in Lebanon, with Damascus controlling the government, and Tehran sponsoring Hezbollah. Under the joint occupation, Syria and Iran penetrated and subdued Lebanon’s institutions. Indeed, the presence of the Syrian army was only one layer of the occupation. Syria also had economic, political, and militia control.
In May 2000, with Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Syria and Iran were in complete control. In June, with the passing of Hafez, Bashar inherited the Baathist-Khomeinist “province” his father built. Bashar was dedicated to keeping this acquisition, which had become a crucial asset to the Syrian regime. Indeed, most of the unofficial income feeding the Damascus military and Mukhabarat (intelligence services) was produced in Lebanon. Syria took a percentage on all commercial transactions. Syria also grafted from Lebanon’s markets, drug trafficking, and more.
A free Lebanon would not only endanger an authoritarian Syria, but it would mean a massive loss of income for Syria.
The Cedars Revolution
Since 1990, a minority of Lebanese activists has protested Syria’s occupation, both inside the country and in the Diaspora. However, U.S. and Western policy had always cast Syria as a stabilizer in Lebanon and potential peace partner with Israel. Moreover, with hundreds of millions of Iranian dollars pouring in to Hezbollah and filling the coffers of Syrian officers, a web of financial interests had been created, which included Lebanese politicians.
However, after the death of Hafez in 2000, an opposition movement rose —first the Christians, then the Sunnis and Druze—to challenge Syria in Lebanon. After 9/11, the West was more receptive to the anti-terror uprisings. Diaspora-based groups successfully lobbied the U.N. to issue a Franco-American backed resolution, UNSCR 1559, calling for Syrian withdrawal and the disarming of Hezbollah. Bashar responded with a campaign of violence against Lebanese reformers, culminating in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former ally turned Syria critic.
The convergence of anti-Syria sentiment among Christians and Muslims produced the Cedars Revolution. The movement grew rapidly, culminating in a rally of 1.5 million demonstrators on March 14, 2005. Under mounting international pressure, Assad pulled his regular forces out of Lebanon.
This was widely considered to be a victory for the Cedars Revolution. Unfortunately it was not a conclusive one. Bashar has since moved to counter the Cedars.
In a speech acknowledging Syria’s withdrawal, Bashar hinted that a “second army” would stay behind and destroy the achievements of the Cedars Revolution. Indeed, with the combined power of Hezbollah, pro-Syrian militias, local Sunni Jihadists, and pro-Iranian Palestinians, Syria destabilized the Lebanese government of Fouad Seniora in 2005. A series of Syrian-sponsored assassinations—political activists, journalists, Lebanese army officials, and legislators Gebran Tueni, Walid Eido, Antoine Ghanem, and Pierre Gemayel—all but crippled the Cedars Revolution.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, aided by Syrian intelligence, also launched an invasion of the Sunni segment of Beirut and another attack against a Druze mountain enclave. In the subsequent Qatar-mediated agreement with Lebanese reformers in May 2008, Damascus secured the provisions that Hezbollah would retain its weapons, and that a pro-Syrian contingent would join the Lebanese cabinet. Thus, through proxies and allies, Assad was back in Beirut.
Lebanon subsequently elected army commander Michel Suleiman as its new president. Suleiman chose to stand half way between Hezbollah and the Cedars Revolution. This was a setback to the Cedars and a boost to Damascus. To the Assad regime, this is indeed a half victory. Its chances of taking back more of Lebanon now depend on the resistance of the Lebanese and perhaps the new direction in Washington.
Root Causes of Syria’s Return
Why was Syria able to regain ground in Lebanon? Conversely, why did the Cedars Revolution lose the terrain despite all its advances?
For one, the Cedars Revolution was managed poorly. The politicians of the March 14 movement—who enjoyed a magnificent boost from U.N. resolution 1559—had the international community on their side after years of Western lethargy. They were given a mandate by millions of citizens to act firmly and swiftly. However, they missed the opportunity to expand the “revolution,” clear out remaining Syrian political actors, isolate Hezbollah, and ask the United Nations for multinational forces or other assistance. In short, they failed to position Lebanon to confront the “second army.”
Second, Washington tergiversated in its support to the Cedars Revolution. It failed to grant direct financial support to a flurry of local NGOs to organize civil society in general, and to rally Shiite dissidents against Hezbollah. While the White House and senior leaders in Congress sought to isolate Syria, powerful voices in Washington (State Department, Baker-Hamilton Commission, and others) still hoped to “reengage” Bashar.
Third, leaders from the U.S. Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sent a strong message of sympathy to Assad in 2007. When she visited him in Syria, she broke his isolation, practically encouraging his ailing regime to re-conquer its lost turf in Lebanon.
As a result, two major international initiatives to secure Lebanon’s freedom were compromised. Notably, a deployment of a multinational force along the Syrian-Lebanese borders, crucial to shut down the Iranian supplies to Hezbollah, didn’t materialize. Moreover, the international tribunal for the Hariri assassination has been delayed for years.
Free from escalating pressures, the Syrian regime is moving back in to settle old scores.
The Way Forward
The Cedars Revolution must now counter the Baathist-Khomeinist resurgence in Lebanon by taking a series of steps.
First, the international community should unanimously adopt the principle that any Lebanese elections that take place in the country must take place free of the influence of militias. Indeed, districts where militias are in control should not be validated. Accordingly, U.S. and international support to the Lebanese government must be proportional to the ability of this government to distance itself from terror groups and illegal militias, particularly Hezbollah.
The Lebanese opposition to the Syrian-Iranian axis must also re-internationalize its quest by calling on the U.N. Security Council to extend its protection to Lebanon. To this end, Lebanon’s borders with Syria must be put under multinational control.
Washington can support this re-internationalization by conveying to Damascus that any future dialogue can only be based on disarming Hezbollah and reforming Syrian policy towards Lebanon.
Walid Phares is director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and secretary general of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counter Terrorism. He is the author of The Confrontation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).