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A Retrospective on the Infernal Triangle: Lebanon, Syria, and Israel
By Curtis F. Jones

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.

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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