Politics in Lebanon

Foreign Relations

| Introduction |
| Syria |
| Israel |
| Palestinians |
| Iran |
| United States |
| Soviet Union |
| Summary |


For Lebanon's first three decades or so of independence, the outstanding feature of its foreign policy was its amicable relations with numerous countries. In the early 1970s, about eighty diplomatic representatives were accredited to Beirut. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was one of the largest and most important ministries in the Council of Minister.

Before the 1975 Civil War, foreign relations were based to a large extent on the National Pact. Under this covenant, Lebanon had to walk a thin line between the desires of the Christian communities to associate more closely with the West and the wishes of the Muslim communities to underscore Lebanon's Arab identity. Indeed, when major crises struck, as they did in 1958 and in the late 1960s, they were primarily generated by these sensitive foreign policy issues. Try though Lebanon did to walk this line, its geographic location near the center of the Arab-Israeli dispute has prevented it from striking what, for a pluralistic society, was a very difficult balance.

During the 1975 Civil War and afterward, the central government was only one of many domestic actors involved in the making of foreign policy. It shared this role with the various alliances and militias that were formed. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, as central authority deterioriated, external actors, including Syria, Israel, Iran, and the Palestinians, also seized foreign-policy-making roles, although the first two were by far the most influential.

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Historically under a variety of rulers, Syria and Lebanon (as well as some other countries) were considered one territory-- Greater Syria. It was only in 1920, while under the French mandate, that Greater Lebanon, which approximates the modern state, was separated from the larger entity. As a consequence, Lebanon and Syria traditionally have had strong bonds. Following World War II, after both had become independent, they shared a common currency and customs union and discussed economic union. In fact, the two had always been active trading partners, and when political disputes arose, each country often used economic means to pressure the other.

On a political level, the more powerful Syrian state has sometimes been viewed with suspicion in Lebanon. But because of intrasectarian feuds, no generalizations can be made in this regard; at one time or another, Syria has developed or dissolved friendships with a number of factions, Christian as well as Muslim.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Syria was wrestling with its own internal problems and was unable to focus on Lebanon's domestic ills. Even so, some sources have ascribed to Syria a prominent role in aggravating the 1958 disturbances, claiming that it worked to unseat the Shamun regime. Then, in the late 1960s the rise of Palestinian guerrilla activity in southern Lebanon contributed to tense relations with Syria. Although the Syrian government was reluctant to permit guerrilla attacks to originate from Syrian soil (for fear of Israeli reprisals), it was much less reticent to see such activity occur in southern Lebanon. Thus, in 1973, when the Lebanese Army finally engaged in fighting against Palestinian guerrillas, Syria closed its borders in protest.

Since the start of the 1975 Civil War, Syrian involvement in Lebanon has been substantial, if inconsistent. On the one hand, the regime of President Hafiz al Assad has opposed the permanent fragmentation of Lebanon, fearing that the creation of a Maronite ministate would amount to the establishment of "another Israel." On the other hand, Syria has resisted the notion of the formation of a radical, left-wing state on its western border. Furthermore, after having to deal with its own Muslim fundamentalist rebellion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Syria was concerned that a radical Islamic state in Lebanon would have negative domestic implications.

In the early stages of the Civil War, Syria acted as mediator, arranging several cease-fires. In February 1976 Syria helped formulate a political reform package, known as the Constitutional Document, that granted more power to Muslims; this compromise, however, was never implemented. When diplomacy failed, Syria intervened militarily. In March 1976, as the battle was going badly for the largely Christian Lebanese Front, Syria moved to prevent its total collapse, using Palestinian units under its control. In May Syria was instrumental in having Ilyas Sarkis, a pro-Syrian technocrat, elected president. By January 1977 about 27,000 Syrian troops were in Lebanon, technically as the largest part of the Arab Deterrent Force, set up by the League of Arab States (Arab League) in October 1976.

As the conflict wore on, the situation changed dramatically for Syria. In 1978 Bashir Jumayyil began his drive to incorporate all Christian militias under his LF. He provoked Syria's animosity by decimating in June 1978 The Marada Baigade, the pro-Syrian Franjiyah militia, and by his increasingly close ties to Israel. In response, Syria began to attack vigorously its erstwhile allies, the Christian forces, in effect making a complete about-face.

In the 1980s, Syria was the dominant external actor in Lebanon. It physically controlled much of the country, over which it imposed its will. At times, Syrian inaction, such as allowing one faction to war on another, had just as much impact as its active measures. Nonetheless, Syrian influence has had its limits. Its ability to impose stability--if, indeed, that was Assad's intention--has been frustrated by the multiplicity of factions, each with a different agenda. These limitations were visible during the 1982 invasion when Syria--alone among the Arab nations--opposed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Lebanese soil. Although it acquitted itself well, the Syrian Army was unable to halt the IDF advance or to prevent its own ejection from Beirut. Later, the insertion of the Multinational Force (MNF) also reduced Syrian influence for a time. In 1983, when Israel pressured the government of Amin Jumayyil to sign an accord, called the May 17 Agreement, that normalized relations between the two countries, Syria vehemently objected. It sponsored the formation of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of pro-Syrian groups, both Christian and Muslim, to oppose the agreement. The Syrian effort eventually succeeded, and on March 6, 1985, Jumayyil abrogated the May 17 Agreement and Israel finally withdrew some of its forces from parts of Lebanon.

There were additional examples of the strengths and limitations of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria brokered the Tripartite Accord, signed in late 1985 by the leaders of the main armed factions--Nabih Birri of Amal, Walid Jumblatt of the PSP, and Elie Hubayka of the LF. The accord's aim was to impose peace and to restructure the Lebanese Army (see Chaos in Beirut and Syrian. But when Jumayyil and anti-Syrian elements in the LF rebelled, the accord collapsed.

As of late 1987, Syrian troops were back in Beirut trying to keep peace, and Syrian influence was again significant. Even so, a true Syrian-imposed stabilty had not been achieved.

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Although Lebanon joined with other Arab nations in the armed resistance against the creation of Israel in 1948, because of the small size of its armed forces Lebanon's action had little effect. Nonetheless, because of Lebanon's participation, in 1987 its southern border remained the line agreed to in the 1949 armistice.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanese politicians for the most part sought to insulate Lebanon from the Arab-Israeli dispute. With its booming economy and high standard of living, the Lebanese elite had much to lose. Lebanon, therefore, abstained from the conflicts of 1956, 1967, and 1973.

Because Lebanon never presented a serious military threat, Israel has been more concerned about Palestinian guerrilla attacks launched from Lebanon, and, secondarily, about the presence of Syrian troops there. Since the 1960s, there has been a cyclical pattern of Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israel and IDF attacks on Palestinian targets. In the aftermath of the 1975 Civil War, Lebanese-generated security concerns grew for Israel. At the same time, the breakdown of Lebanon's central government provided opportunities for Israel to act. Around 1975, Israel sponsored the creation of a surrogate force, led by Lebanese Christian Major Saad Haddad, based in a corridor along Lebanon's southern border. This force, which called itself the Free Lebanon Army (but was later renamed the South Lebanon Army [SLA] under leader Antoine Lahad), was intended to prevent infiltration into Israel of Palestinian guerrillas. In 1978 Israel invaded Lebanon, clearing out Palestinian strongholds as far north as the Litani River. Another consequence of the Israeli invasion was the establishment in southern Lebanon of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, whose mission was to separate the various combatants.

As serious as the 1978 incursion was, it paled in comparison with the 1982 Israeli invasion, which affected all of the southern half of Lebanon as far north as Beirut. This action had several direct consequences. First, it resulted in the deaths of several hundred Palestinian fighters and the expulsion of several thousand more, not to mention several thousand Lebanese and Palestinian casualties and massive destruction. For a time, the invasion and occupation diminished Syrian influence, as the Syrian Army was forced north and east. The Israeli occupation promoted the creation of the MNF, made up of military units from Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, which supervised the Palestinian evacuation and later stayed to keep the peace. The IDF occupation also created an expedient climate for Bashir Jumayyil (and, subsequently, for his brother Amin) to win the presidency.

In addition, there were several less direct consequences. The occupation of Muslim West Beirut allowed Christian forces on September 27-28, 1982, to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, where they massacred several hundred civilians. Lebanese Shias, who were severely affected by the invasion and occupation, turned their enmity on the Israelis. As a show of support for their coreligionists, the government of Iran, with Syrian approval, dispatched a contingent of the Pasdaran to the Biqa Valley. Anti-Israeli Shia opposition burgeoned during the occupation, and there were several suicide-bombing incidents perpetrated against IDF positions.

In 1987 Israel's relations with Lebanon continued to revolve around the issue of security. Israel retained its support of the SLA's activities in southern Lebanon, maintained its ties to the LF, and perpetuated its policy of attacking Palestinian and Lebanese targets that Israel labeled "terrorist" bases.

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Palestinians have been an integral part of the Lebanese polity since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. At that time, many fled to Lebanon. This refugee population increased after the June 1967 War and the 1970 eviction of the PLO from Jordan. By 1987 there were about 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon.

As Palestinian guerrilla activity launched from Lebanon against Israel increased in the late 1960s, it gave rise to serious security and political problems for the Lebanese government. The PLO forces in southern Lebanon created what amounted to a distinct Palestinian entity, outside the control of the central authorities. PLO transgressions (tajawuzat) against the Lebanese populace and Israeli military attacks made the situation critical. Political battles between Christians and Muslims centered on the role in Lebanon of Palestinian guerrillas, who were effectively conducting foreign policy that had deep repercussions for the Lebanese government. The 1969 Cairo Agreement, brokered by other Arab states, was an attempt to reduce tensions by limiting the scope of Palestinian actions in Lebanon; this arrangement, however, was never successful.

During the 1975 Civil War, the Palestinian population in the Beirut area suffered extraordinarily, as urban refugee camps were besieged by Christian militias. In contrast, some Palestinian liberation groups were in the middle of the fiercest fighting and inflicted considerable damage on the Lebanese Front. Furthermore, the PLO increased its dominance because its forces controlled areas out of the reach of the Lebanese Front.

Throughout the 1980s, Palestinian fortunes in Lebanon dwindled. The Israeli invasion was a serious setback, followed closely by the Sabra and Shatila massacres. In 1983 intra-Palestinian hostility was particularly pronounced, as factions battled near Tripoli; in the process, pro-Arafat forces were evicted by Syrian-backed elements. Moreover, the war of human attrition between Palestinians in the refugee camps of Beirut and the Amal militia that began in 1985 had not ceased by late 1987. This tragic situation illustrated the complexity of Lebanese political events, showing that hostility to the PLO was not confined to Christian groups. Nonetheless, by late 1987 the PLO still enjoyed control of much of the Sidon region and retained a strategic foothold in Lebanon.

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The importance of Iran to Lebanon's foreign relations increased in the 1980s. Following the success of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini was anxious to spread its message to other Shias. This message found an audience in Lebanon's chronically downtrodden Shia community. Iran provided financial and inspirational support to several Lebanese Shia organizations in the early 1980s. Then, in 1982, as a show of solidarity against the Israeli invasion, a contingent of the Pasdaran arrived and established a base near Baalbek in the Biqa Valley. These units not only operated as a defense force but also set up medical facilities to serve the local populace.

In the late 1980s, Iranian-sponsored groups stepped up efforts to gain support among Lebanese Shias by providing sorely needed economic relief and social services. These groups (in particular Hizballah, which was reported to be receiving substantial financial aid from Iran) were able to use Iranian resources to run hospitals, pay families' school fees, remove refuse, and participate in housing reconstruction. These actions frequently drew supporters away from Amal, which for the most part was allied to Syria; Amal simply was unable to distribute the same level of aid as was Hizballah.

For Western nations, the most significant aspect of Iran's influence in Lebanon has been the acceptance of the Islamic Republic's "antiforeign" rhetoric. In accordance with this principle, some extremist Shias, many acting under the name of the Islamic Jihad Organization, have carried out violent acts against the foreign community.

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United States

Before the 1975 Civil War, Lebanon enjoyed generally good official relations with the United States. In large measure, these ties were promoted by the sizable Lebanese-American community. One incident that weakened these relations was the United States role in the 1958 Civil War. At that time, the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched a unit of United States Marines to aid the government of President Shamun. Shamun's regime was under pressure from a part of the Muslim community to strengthen ties to Egypt and Syria, which had just formed the United Arab Republic and were considered by some to be in the "radical Arab" camp. The Marines were never engaged in battle and were withdrawn soon after their arrival. Even so, many Lebanese and other Arab states viewed the United States action as interference in Lebanon's internal affairs.

In the early 1980s, following the worst fighting of the 1975 Civil War, the United States became involved in Lebanon in several ways. On the political level, it sought to bolster the presidency of Amin Jumayyil and to broker a treaty between Lebanon and Israel. On the military level, the United States hoped to keep peace as part of the MNF. On the economic level, the United States planned to assist in Lebanon's reconstruction. These tasks were never completed, however. The United States support for the pro-Jumayyil, Christian brigades of the Lebanese Army during the 1983-84 Mountain War turned into a fiasco. Not only did the United States lose two aircraft to ground fire, but the shelling of Druze and Shia population centers by the U.S.S. New Jersey convinced most Lebanese Muslims that the United States had taken the Christian side. Likewise, by 1984, in the face of renewed fighting, the business of reconstruction became a faint hope. The attacks on the United States embassy and annex, and on the MNF contingent, and the kidnapping of United States citizens eventually forced the administration of President Ronald Reagan to minimize United States involvement in the increasingly ungovernable Lebanese state.

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Soviet Union

Lebanon's ties to communist nations have been amicable but lacking in depth. Its relations to the West and regional states have always been stronger. Although the Soviet Union maintained a visible diplomatic presence in Lebanon both before and after the 1975 Civil War, it has never exerted as much influence as has the United States or France.

Two major factors have limited the Soviet Union's influence in Lebanon. First, socialism has had little appeal to those who have benefited from the free-market economy. Second, the antireligious nature of Soviet communism is repugnant to Christians and Muslims alike.

During the 1975 Civil War, the Soviet Union kept a low profile, although it provided some military support to its leftist allies. When Syria intervened on the Christian side in 1976, the Soviet Union had the difficult task of trying to maintain good relations with Syria, its major regional ally, while at the same time sympathizing with the cause of the Lebanese left.

Lebanon has had no lack of parties displaying leftist orientations and Soviet influence. In addition to secular movements, the Soviet Union has traditionally been involved with Palestinian groups. Perhaps its greatest influence has been in the LCP; but, as noted, the significance of this party has never been great.

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Lebanon's foreign policy reflects its geographic location, the composition of its population, and its reliance on commerce and trade. Lebanon hopes to reestablish good ties with Western countries and in the Middle East. Lebanon remains friendly with Western countries and follows a generally cautious course in its relations with countries of the former Soviet bloc.

Lebanon's foreign policy is also heavily influenced by Syria, which maintains forces throughout parts of Lebanon. Lebanon did not participate in the 1967 or 1973 Arab-Israeli war or in the 1991 Gulf War. Lebanon and Israel are now conducting bilateral negotiations in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Federal Research Division - Library of Congress (Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)

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1997-2001 by Ayman Ghazi
Last changes: September 30, 1997