The Lebanese Quagmire

The commemoration of the 58th independence anniversary in Lebanon took the aspect of a confrontation between the government and the opposition. The police crackdown on the students of St Joseph University was qualified as a mistake even by some members of Mr. Hariri’s cabinet. According to Lebanese sources [1] the Prime Minister sent a message to father Selim Abu, the university rector, asking him to cancel the strike he has called for, but in vain. Those who condemned the police intervention were not only some members of the parliament and intellectuals, but also some ministers such as George Afram, Pierre Helou, Marwan Hamada, Ghazi al Aridhi, and Fuad Saad. The Defense Minister, Khalil Heraoui, while trying to justify the crackdown said,” the mistake consisted in ill- considering its political consequences”. [2] For his part, Mr. Michel al Mour, Minister of the Interior, acknowledged that ” it was a mistake that was supposed not to happen”! And if the Maronite Patriarch Nasr allah Safir, did not make any declaration that could be exploited by such or such party, some people close to the Government talked of a political over- exploitation of a minor event [3], which could not be dissociated from the regional context and the American war against terrorism. Even a scheduled visit to Beirut by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouk Assharaa had to be postponed. But at the same time, Mr. Hariri received General Ghazi Kanaan, chief of the Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon. The meeting included a discussion about the United Nations’ 1373 resolution, as it has been said, as well as the expected visit of the American envoys. Nothing leaked, though, concerning talks about the recent disturbance where students and opposition leaders lifted slogans against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Was Damascus really keeping silence? That is hard to say.

Many opposition parties were actually represented in the campus: The CPL of General Michel Aoun, the FL – Forces Libanaises -, the Phalangist base close to Amine Gemayel, the PNL – parti national liberal -, the PSP – socialist and progressive party, the PC – communist party -, the independent left, and national block [4]. Thus, apparently, for one time we see leftists and rightists agreeing upon a single demand: That Syria leaves Lebanon! This is not what we may call a ” minor event” – as it has been labeled by the Interior Minister, M. al Mour. For the hostility between the two camps has rarely been overcome and transcended by a purpose far beyond the contradictions and the paradoxes. But what is reproached to the Syrians and to the Lebanese government seems to be very motivating for those students whose movement has soon bypassed St Joseph campus and stretched to other universities.

Nonetheless, the students’ disturbance is not the only trouble for Mr. Hariri’s government. And though the Syrians are observing it with a lot of suspicion and -maybe- some worries, they keep reminding the Lebaneses of the menaces still hovering on their heads. On the southern borders, the Israeli army is still ready to invade their country if such is the will of General Sharon. And the opposition answer to this argument may be summed up in these questions: would Syria defend Lebanon against an Israeli invasion? Where were the Syrians when the Israelis occupied the country and besieged Beirut? Why did they not shoot a single bullet against the invaders? Moreover, if the Syrians are so strong as to oppose Israel’s belligerence, why instead of keeping 35000 soldiers in Lebanon, did they not send them to liberate the Golan Heights?

In the same process, some observers hint now overtly to the Syrian involvement in the darkest events of the Lebanese civil war. For them, Syria’s role is something that has to be cleared out, once and for all. They acknowledge that the Lebanese government is committed to a 1991 general amnesty that protects all Lebanese citizens from prosecution for wartime activities. However, they notice that this amnesty has been selectively lifted to prosecute (or threaten with prosecution) Syria’s enemies, most notably former Lebanese Forces commander Samir Geagea, who is serving several life sentences for ordering assassinations in the late 1980s. Why Phalange security chief, Eli Hobeika has never been harmed? Some of them wonder. And the answer they give is: because he is protected by the Syrians!

However, such an accusation is not exclusive to the Lebanese opposition. Some Palestinian sources remind us that the Sabra and Shatila massacre occurred after a Syrian agent, Habib Shartouni, a member of the National Socialist Syrian Party, planted a bomb in the Phalange party headquarters, resulting in the death of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel along with 40 Phalange members (September 14, 1982). This same Shartouni was sentenced to death, but was released by his Syrian masters after serving only six years in a Lebanese prison.

Eli Hobeika, on the other hand, who directly commanded the slaughter of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, not only went un-tried in Lebanon under Syrian control, but also today is the only Phalange leader who escaped assassination arrest or deportation. He even held many high-ranking positions, and served three times as a minister in various Lebanese governments.

Saleh al-Na’ami, a senior political commentator for the Hamas weekly, Al- Risala, wrote after the BBC/Panorama program about Sharon, saying: ” with all honesty, there is a certain degree of hypocrisy in the Arab coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacres! It is true that Sharon bears responsibility for these massacres, but the people who committed these war crimes with their own hands, were never tried”.

Eli Hobeika ” who was head of security in the Lebanese Forces when they committed these massacres and who supervised the mass killings and the rapes” went on Mr. Al- Na’ami, ” boasted in the BBC film itself that he was never, nor will he ever be tried, and that he lives completely free. The same goes for Fadi Afram, the commander of the Lebanese Forces, who had an actual role in committing the massacres.”

For the Al-Risala’s journalist, it does not make any doubt that it is well the Syrian government who not only protected Hobeika but also ” rewarded him two years after the massacre, by appointing him as a minister in the Lebanese government.”[5]

However, on the agenda of Mr. Hariri this is hardly the most urgent of his priorities. Anyway, Hobeika is not the only man assumedly protected by the Syrians. Some Palestinians – and not among the most moderate – are said to be also under the Syrian wing. This is perhaps more a complicated problem for the Lebanese government, which is put under a double – if not a triple pressure: from the Americans, from the Syrians, and from the Lebanese opposition.

Following the September 11 attacks, US ambassador to Lebanon Vincent Battle met with Lebanese officials at the foreign ministry in Beirut and conveyed to them the demand of Washington: to seize terrorists, prosecute them and hand over or expel those who are wanted. On September 23, President Bush issued an executive order to freeze the assets of 27 individuals and organizations called on their governments to do likewise. Included on this list was Usbat al-Ansar, a Palestinian Islamist group in Ain al Hilweh, and three Lebanese nationals: Imad Mughniyah, Hassan Izzidine, and Ali Atwi. [6]

According to some sources, Mughniyah is the alleged mastermind of the June 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, during which US navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered. Mughniyah is also believed to be responsible for planning the 1983 bombing of the US marine barracks in Beirut which killed 241 servicemen, as well the abduction of several American civilians in Lebanon during 1980s.Izzidine and Atwi, described by the FBI as members of Hizbullah’s terrorism apparatus are accused of having participated in the planning and execution of the TWA hijacking. [7]

Relations with the USA took a turn for the worse in November when the Americans requested that Lebanon’s Central Bank seeks out and freezes Hizbullah’s assets. Hizbullah’s answer was swift: his Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah accused the US of acting on the wishes of Israel and of waging war against every Muslim who refuses to bow to it. On November 6, Finance Minister Fuad Sinyura announced that Lebanon ” will not follow the US in freezing Hizbullah’s assets because it views the group as a resistance movement and not a terrorist organization. Our position “, he added, ” is that terrorism must be defined and that those who are trying to liberate their lands are merely practicing resistance. “The Cabinet officially backed Hizbullah on 8 November, saying resistance to Israel was legitimate as long as Israel occupied Arab land. [8]

Some Lebanese bankers did not hide their worries. The Economy might suffer from American sanctions they contended. Foreign banks not complying with Washington’s requests can be excluded from the US market and have their assets blocked. Others warned of a flight of capital if customers find they cannot perform normal transactions. This would be a tremendous blow to the government trying to fund the country’s huge public debt and bolster foreign reserves.

On November 11, US National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice raised the stakes claiming that the Lebanese government ” needed to reintegrate into international community in order to survive economically.” And she added: ” Lebanon would not succeed in securing international financial assistance unless Beirut met Washington’s demands. Lebanon’s very existence depends on such compliance”. [9]

Under such a pressure, where the Lebanese government would seek support and help?

The Arabs are not of much help. The Europeans – particularly the French – wish to be present and helpful, but according to their views which are not always concordant with the Lebanese’. One must not omit that the French had grown recalcitrant and somewhat frightened by the Lebanese quagmire, after they lost some of their men in the civil war, among whom we recall ambassador Delamarre. They have thus paid the price of their involvement in a game that soon bypassed them and made of them victims when they thought they were the masters! Quite recently, during a visit to Beirut, French Prime Minister made the enormous blunder of labeling Hizbullah ” terrorist”! Which infuriated the political class in Lebanon, and the Quai d’Orsay was well obliged to apologize. Besides, the fact that France occupied Lebanon some years, does not mean that the French understand this country better than others, neither it gives them more “rights” to be involved with its politics than other nations, argued some prominent intellectuals. What occurred to some French personages in Lebanon during the civil war should teach them modesty, they added. Even though they do not like to remember those dark years of blind killing and hijacking, that victimized some of their citizens and representatives, the lesson was clear: they were not more welcome than the Marines. Their policy towards the Israeli-Arab conflict was certainly not more appreciated by the Lebaneses, the Syrians, and the Palestinians, since it was judged complacent towards Israel and unbalanced. Their critics of the American and the British connivance did not fool the Arabs, who knew that without the French support, Israel could have never had so rapidly its nuclear weapons (just an example among many others).

Thus, for those intellectuals, the Lebanese problem – whether the Westerners like it or not – is part of the conflict with Israel. The terrorism also is the offspring of that explosive situation. Those people wanted by the Americans, like Abu Mohjen, the leader of Usbat al-Ansar, and others are said to be protected by the Syrians. It seems that Damascus has vetoed any move by the Lebanese authorities to enter Ain al-Hilweh, for instance. Moreover, why should they enter the camp? As early as October 10, Lebanese Prosecutor-General Adnan Addoum announced that the judiciary had not ordered the freezing of Usbat al-Ansar’s assets. While noting that some members of the group had been convicted for carrying out terrorist acts, Addoum said that the judiciary did not consider Usbat al-Ansar itself to be a terrorist organization.

Yet, on November 25, the Lebanese army was said to have pushed closer than ever to the immediate rim of Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, sparking fears of a military assault to crush Usbat al-Ansar. An estimated 200 army troops, backed by armored personnel carriers and military vehicles fanned out Friday on Taamir a neighborhood adjacent to Ain al-hilweh, setting up roadblocks and conducting patrols for a few hours before they pulled out, according to Lebanese sources [10]. The army operation in Taamir took place less than 24 hours after an explosive charge rocked a military checkpoint at the entrance of Ain al-Hilweh Thursday evening. The blast was the second of its kind in less than 10 days.

Nobody was arrested, but the message was clear: the Government did not appreciate to be threatened. This is also another reason for the reluctance of the Lebanese authorities to comply with the American demands. They actually fear that after some years of relative civil peace, responding positively to the American request may cause an atmosphere of unrest and instability. The questions some of them ask are: What did the Americans do to help Lebanon? And how may anyone imagine that it is easy for Beirut to dissociate itself from the Syrian fate, when the Arab lands are still occupied by Israel?


[1]– Annahar , newspaper: November 26 , 2001. Front page.

[2]– Idem.

[3]– Assafir, newspaper: November 26, 2001. Front page.

[4] : L’opposition dénonce l’irruption des forces de l’ordre…November 26, 2001.

[5]– Al-Risala. June 22, 2001.

[6]– Gary C. Gambill: Lebanon ambivalent towards US war on terror. MEIB. Oct. 2001.

[7]– Idem. See also: Bin Laden’s network in Lebanon. Gary C. Gambill and Bassam Endrawos. MEIB. September 2001.

[8]– Jim Quilty: Financial Brinkmanship. . Nov.26, 2001.