From Beirut to Damascus

From Beirut to Damascus

Four works trace the intertwined history of Lebanon and Syria and the interplay of political radicalism, military strength and miseries of war and murderous political intrigue.


In the autumn of 1972, arriving in Lebanon as a graduate student at the American University of Beirut, I discovered radical student politics. The mainly Palestinian-led student movements were only a few years behind Paris and New York, and strikes were common. When police raided sit-ins, students sang “We Shall Overcome.” Discussions went on all night. Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and hashish stimulated self-criticism sessions and persuaded many a young woman to hasten the revolution in bed. One of the more urgent debates was whether the Palestinians should choose a secular, democratic state in all of Palestine-Israel or content themselves with a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It did not occur to anyone that the Palestinians’ pop-gun war on Israel’s northern border was unlikely to compel the Israeli government to offer either option. Still, the talking went on. And on.

A friend took me to his aunt’s house in one of the refugee camps for the Arabs expelled from Palestine in 1948. The young man in the photograph atop her television, beaming a kind of innocent hope, was her son. He had died the month before in the Black September kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. My friend and I used to go to a tailor’s shop near the synagogue in Wadi Abou Jamil, Beirut’s Jewish Quarter. The tailor gave us Turkish coffee and joked with my friend about Palestine. When my friend was 2 years old, in 1948, his mother had carried him on her back from their village in Galilee over the border into Lebanon. When they left, the Israelis bulldozed his village and hundreds of others–lest the refugees have anything to return to. The tailor, who was born in Lebanon, said he would never leave. The fact that he could move to Israel anytime, while my friend could not even visit, made him laugh. The two exchanged jocular ethnic abuse with an ease unknown to me in California, where race could be a touchy issue. Today, neither one lives in Lebanon.

Wadi Abou Jamil was a curving road of old, rickety apartment buildings with shops and cafes on the ground floor. The lovely synagogue in those days seemed as poorly attended as churches and mosques. At the eastern edge of what would later be Muslim West Beirut, the Jewish Quarter became vulnerable in the civil war that began in April 1975. No one wanted to destroy it. On the contrary, Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization and the Christian Phalangists fought each other to defend it–Arafat to prove his movement was not anti-Semitic and the Phalange to ingratiate itself with Israel. The losers, as often elsewhere in the world, were the Jews. Their abandoned houses gave shelter after 1982 to Lebanese Shiite Muslims, who had been displaced by Israeli bombardment and occupation.

Very old men, red tarbooshes tottering on their wizened heads, looked on the young generation with skepticism. Coffeehouse politics, nightclubs and relaxed sexual mores offended their honor. It had been bad enough when their mothers renounced the veil fifty years earlier, but daughters unfastening their bras were too much. The old politicians’ collaboration with imperialism, their tawdry compromises and their betrayal of independence repelled the children. Youth’s insistence on change brought it all down–the tar- booshes as much as the coffeehouse debates, the revolutionary aspirations as well as the Levantine compromises and mixing of peoples. The war it produced let religion out of church and mosque, twisting a political battle into a struggle between Jesus and Mohammed that could not be contained within the borders of Lebanon. The freedom fighters on both sides destroyed the fabric of the downtown gathering places of all communities–the ancient souks, smoky restaurants, trading companies and cafes. People and ideas were segregated by a north-south Green Line, crossed only by bullets and artillery shells. Of course, the war among the Lebanese was also a series of wars by proxy between Israel and Syria, Israel and the Palestinians and Syria and the Palestinians.

Until the war Beirut was a jet-set city. For the visiting rich there were yacht harbors, casinos, dancing girls, skiing and water-skiing amid Mediterranean palms and cypresses. They did not see the Palestinian refugee camps around the airport, the armed Palestinian commandos, the Phalangist military parades or the slums expanding to accommodate peasants driven from the south by Israeli bombs and mechanized farming. The Palestinians had transplanted their revolution from Jordan to Lebanon in 1971, but their conspiracies, rivalries and jealousies–rather than their stated ideals of secularism and democracy–took root in Lebanon’s tribal sediment. Kamal Salibi, Lebanon’s historian laureate at the American University of Beirut, used to tell me the Palestinians had made the mistake of becoming another Lebanese tribe. The Palestinians’ secular revolution died in Lebanon at the hands of its incompetent leadership and Lebanon’s bellicose neighbors, Israel and Syria.

I had lived in Lebanon for six months before I made my first visit to Syria. I hated it. It was everything Lebanon was not: controlled, fearful, oppressive and conformist. Children wore military- style uniforms to school. Newspapers practiced Stalinesque obeisance to power. Billboards exhorted the masses to struggle for unity, socialism and Arabism. Visitors had to declare how much money they brought into the country, how much they were taking out and at which state banks they changed it into Syrian pounds. (Just about every Beirut shopkeeper dealt in dollars, francs, deutsche marks, lira and rubles.) Where the Lebanese cursed their leaders in loud voices, the Syrians whispered even the mildest, most hesitant criticism. It took me several visits to see behind the facade of party-military rule. In Syria there was a calm self-assurance that Lebanon lacked. The Syrian–as stolid as the Lebanese was flamboyant–knew who he was. Syrian Christians in particular had none of the identity crises that afflicted their co-religionists in Lebanon. More Christians and Jews lived in “Muslim” Syria than in “Christian” Lebanon. Although Syria was what the Lebanese Druse leader Kamal Jumblatt called a prison-state, the prisoners were generous, patient and interesting. And their history imposed upon them a duty to act, in Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser’s words, as “the beating heart” of Arab nationalism.

Damascus was the capital in the seventh century of the Arabs’ first empire–the Umayyad–and for a few months in the twentieth, of the independent state that Britain had promised the Arabs for their help in expelling the Ottoman Turks. Many Syrians–and not a few Lebanese and Jordanians–regard their country as a small part of a larger Arab homeland that includes Lebanon, Jordan and Israel–Suriya al-Kubra, Greater Syria. This ideal is not easily abandoned, any more than the Damascene obligation to prevent Lebanese and Palestinians from compromising with an Israel that permanently divides the Arabs from one another. The Damascenes will remind the visitor that the Crusaders, like the ancient Israelite kingdom, never conquered Damascus. This is an important part of the Syrian legacy, and it is not easily dismissed for modern political convenience.

Barely three years before my first trip to Damascus, Hafez al-Assad, the air force commander, had seized power in a bloodless putsch against the self-destructive deputy secretary general and fellow Baathist Salah Jadid. Assad in his early years as dictator must have felt vulnerable. Military dictators had come and gone as frequently as city buses since the first, CIA-backed, coup dissolved Syria’s last fairly elected parliament in 1949. To add to the usual problems of retaining the throne, Assad came from a religious minority, an obscurantist offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawis, who had come to dominate the military under the French Mandate. The Sunni Muslim elite in Damascus did not welcome him, although they remained quiet about the fact. The only Sunnis he made room for in his regime, notably Defense Minister Moustafa Tlas and Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, were neither Damascenes nor from prominent families. Internal resistance came from the armed assassins of the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, who disliked Assad’s sect as much as his party’s secularism.

Lebanon–relatively free, tribal and allied to the West–was a potential base for subverting the Syrian regime, as Assad knew well. Syrian exiles in Lebanon had forged the Arab Socialist Baath Party in 1952 and took power in Damascus eleven years later. While I was making my first explorations of Syria, Assad and Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, were planning a war to dislodge Israel from the Syrian and Egyptian territories it had seized in June 1967. That war took place in October 1973 and exchanged a few thousand lives for a few miles of land. It also made Assad–the near “liberator” of the Golan Heights–more secure and a player on the world stage in negotiations with then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Assad’s prestige made him dangerous, however, to Lebanon, which had grown used to weak Syrian leaders whose diktats it could ignore.

Throughout the 1970s, skirmishes in Lebanon between Palestinian commandos and the Israeli army claimed more non-combatants than soldiers on both sides. They also weakened an already feeble Lebanese state that could not protect its citizens from either Israel or the PLO. Assad, who did not let the Palestinians breathe in Syria, sent them weapons and encouraged them in Lebanon–as long as they did not threaten his regime. The Palestinians hijacked airplanes, and the Israelis bombed refugee hovels and villages. Any responsible imperial power would have put a stop to it, but neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had the maturity to manage a local conflict in which both envisaged benefits to themselves. It was an ugly time, and the vicious civil war that erupted in April 1975 between Lebanon’s Christian militias and the loose alliance of Palestinians, Lebanese leftists and Muslims made things worse.

In 1976 Assad met the prospect of a Palestinian leftist takeover of Lebanon with force. His regime’s pro-Palestinian and socialist rhetoric could not mask the fact that its interests lay with maintaining balance in Beirut. A Palestinian-Lebanese leftist victory in Lebanon would have meant trouble for Syria, where the Sunni Muslim majority might have demanded power similar to that won by Muslims–both Palestinian and Lebanese–in Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad feared another probable consequence–an Israeli invasion of Lebanon to save the Christian establishment. Thus, he made his pact with the extreme Christian leadership. His army entered Lebanon under a banner of Palestinian liberation, fighting Palestinians on the way in. Syrian support for the Christians in the summer of 1976 enabled the Christian militias to destroy the last Palestinian refugee camp, Tal Zaatar, on the Christian side of Beirut. The massacre of a few thousand Palestinian civilians at Tal Zaatar may be laid at the feet of the Syrians, just as the Israelis would be held responsible for helping the same Christians to massacre civilians in two other Beirut Palestinian camps–Sabra and Shatila–under Israeli occupation in 1982. The United States and Israel accepted the Syrian intervention to suppress the PLO, with the proviso that no Syrian troops would tread south of a “red line” well north of Israel’s border. In that ungoverned zone, war continued between the Palestinians and Israelis until 1982.

Meanwhile, the only Lebanese community to remain aloof from the civil war–the Shiites–was coming under other influences. Partly due to the interests of the large landowners who were their communal leaders, Shiites were the poorest community in the country. The Shiite clergy had been proselytizing among the displaced petite bourgeoisie and the peasantry since the 1960s, when their ideas were less fashionable than either communism or Arab nationalism. As Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of Hezbollah, writes in his history of the movement, “Initiated by a number of Islamic clerics just back from the holy schools of religion of Najaf in Iraq, the clerical teachings, speeches and cultural dialogue that ensued prompted many concerns and queries about Islam’s proposed role in life.” University students engaged in this process were “rare,” and women’s presence “was scarce and underwhelming.” Undereducated, underemployed young men could not afford universities or nightclubs. The mosque was free, and within its confines they found brotherhood. Then came the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave the Shiites hope, and the Israeli invasion of 1982, which gave them a cause. Thus Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God, went from what Naim Qassem calls “humble, embryonic beginnings” to “actual victory, achieved on May 25, 2000, when Israeli troops were forced to withdraw as a result of Hizballah operations–an unprecedented achievement in fifty years of struggle with the Israeli enemy.” Damascus, which had made common cause with the anti-secularists of Tehran against rival Baathists in Baghdad, found in Hezbollah a useful proxy to attack Israel without incurring Israeli reprisals in Syria itself.

Three clerics dominated the Shiite movement: Imam Musa al-Sadr, Sheik Mohammed Mehdi Shamseddine and Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. Of the three, Sadr was the most charismatic. A man of Lebanese origin who had grown up in Iran and spoke Arabic with a Persian accent, Sadr founded both the Shiite official clerical body, the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, and the largest Shiite grouping, the Movement of the Disinherited. When the Israelis bombed their training camp in the Bekaa Valley in 1974, Sadr announced the creation of Amal, the armed wing of his movement, some of whose members received training from Arafat’s Fatah. Three years into the civil war, in August 1978, Sadr vanished while visiting Libya–a murder or kidnapping for which Lebanon’s Shiites have not forgiven Muammar el-Qaddafi. Shamseddine became head of the Higher Islamic Shiite Council, making him official head of the community and equal to the Sunni Mufti and the Maronite Patriarch. Fadlallah would later be accused of being the “spiritual leader” of Hezbollah, although he neither joined nor led it. His notoriety made him the target of a failed assassination attempt in March 1985 by a CIA-trained Lebanese unit, when a car bomb intended for him killed more than eighty civilian bystanders. By then the ten-year civil war had attracted armies from Syria, Israel, the United States, France, Britain, Italy and, as peacekeepers, at least twenty other countries.

The war of attrition between Arafat and Israel escalated in the late 1970s after Egypt’s peace overtures left it a free hand to interfere in Lebanon. Israel invaded twice–in 1978 and more decisively in 1982, on the pretext that invasion was a reprisal for the bungled assassination attempt on its ambassador in London, even though the perpetrators were linked to Abu Nidal, Arafat’s sworn enemy. Arafat for his part had observed an effective cease-fire with Israel between 1979 and 1982. Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon’s long-planned Operation Peace in Galilee expelled Arafat and forced the Lebanese parliament to elect Israel’s Christian Maronite favorite, Bashir Gemayel, president. The Israeli order in Lebanon was born. Despite more than 16,000 Lebanese and Palestinian deaths in the invasion, the new Lebanon suited the Phalangists and their Israeli benefactors. But they ignored a conference in Tehran of Lebanon’s Shiite ulama (religious scholars) in August 1982 under the guidance of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, whose excellent In the Path of Hizbullah is as critical of the movement as Sheikh Naim Qassem’s Hizbullah: The Story From Within is partisan, writes, “During the meeting, Khomeini urged the ‘ulama’ to go back home and mobilize the people to fight the Israeli occupation and to turn the mosques into bases for their jihad activities.” That is exactly what they did, and they won.

Suicide bombings, what Qassem calls “martyrdom operations,” began on November 11, 1982, in south Lebanon. “The enemy,” Qassem writes, “could not tolerate many attacks like that from the pioneer of all martyr attacks, Sheikh Ahmad Kassir, who drove…a car strapped with explosives right into the headquarters of the Israeli commander in the city of Tyre, wounding and killing 141 Israeli officers, a further ten declared missing.” The significance of the bombing eluded both the Israelis and the United States. Israeli officers were telling me and other journalists in south Lebanon a few weeks later that the Shiite population still supported Israel’s presence out of gratitude for ridding them of the PLO. Because the main Shiite militia, Amal, had yet to resist the Israeli occupation, Israel found it easier to deceive itself. Amal’s inconsistent approach to the Israelis left the field open to the clerics who would found Hezbollah. Missing the signal of the Tyre attack, the Americans took insufficient precautions against suicide attacks at their embassy in April 1983 and the US Marine barracks the following October.

The Marines had overseen the PLO evacuation from Beirut in August 1982 at Israel’s request. As in Iraq later, the mission was only beginning. The Marines were forced to return to Lebanon, because Israel broke its promise not to invade West Beirut and presided over the Sabra and Shatila massacres by the same Christian militiamen who had massacred other Palestinian refugees at Tal Zaatar. The Reagan Administration compounded its error by compelling Lebanon to sign an unpopular accord with Israel on May 17, 1983, and allowing President Amin Gemayel to arrest and torture his Muslim and Druse opponents. Syria foiled the United States and Gemayel by creating Lebanon’s National Salvation Front out of every group disenchanted with rightist Maronite rule, Israeli occupation and American tutelage. They rallied around opposition to the May 17 “surrender” to Israel that Secretary of State George Shultz had brokered. Hezbollah drove the United States out with a suicide bombing that killed 241 American servicemen on October 23, 1983, and other attacks. For the next seventeen years it launched operations against Israel’s troops in Lebanon. Israel gave up most of its Lebanese territory in 1985 and retreated from the rest in May 2000, save a thirty-square-mile patch called the Shabaa Farms. In the meantime, not only Hezbollah but its Shiite rivals of the more secular Amal–as well as many leftist movements–adopted “martyrdom operations” against the Israeli occupier. It did not take long for the Palestinians, seeing the success of these operations, to imitate them in the occupied territories–the West Bank and Gaza Strip–as well as in Israel itself. Behind the scenes, Syria and Iran could claim credit for Israel’s first military defeat. Hafez al-Assad, whose air force had been destroyed and whose army had been driven out of Beirut by Israel in 1982, lived to see his army return to Beirut and his Israeli adversary humiliated. Then, on June 10, 2000, Assad died–leaving his son, Bashar, a precarious inheritance.

The Lebanese civil war ended when the United States–as quid pro quo for Syrian participation in the war to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait in 1991–permitted the Syrian army to occupy the Christian areas in Lebanon. Syria enforced order, and it influenced most political decisions. It took Lebanese army and security officers for training at its military academy in Homs, and its rule allowed the Lebanese to rebuild the country they had so assiduously destroyed for fifteen years. Some of Syria’s senior officers enriched themselves in collaboration with Lebanese politicians. Lebanon became Syria’s colony, where those who cooperated fared better than those who defended their country’s independence. This year it was Syria’s turn to be humiliated. Pushing its rule in Lebanon too far, its agents assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14 in Beirut. In 2004 the UN, inspired by the United States and France, had passed Security Council Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to leave Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad had no choice but to acquiesce. His regime had already become a target of American and Israeli diatribes and subversion.

The Assad regime’s fear of destabilization by the United States and Israel explains in part its ineptitude in Lebanon, where the Hariri assassination dramatically backfired. Rather than intimidate the Lebanese, Hariri’s murder galvanized a majority of the population to pour into the streets to insist on the evacuation of Syria’s army. The crowds also demanded, in chants and on billboards, al-haqiqa–the truth–about the Hariri murder. An international investigation, ordered in June by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to find some part of the truth, presented its findings to the Lebanese government on October 19 and to the UN the next day. Detlev Mehlis, the Berlin state prosecutor, amassed thousands of documents, telephone intercepts, interrogation transcripts and forensic evidence to produce a damning indictment of the Lebanese security service chiefs and their Syrian masters. Armed with Mehlis’s evidence, Lebanese police have arrested former senior intelligence and security chiefs, as well as the leaders of an obscure Syrian-supported religious group, Al-Ahbash. Much of the evidence is circumstantial, and the testimony of one key witness, a convicted fraudster named Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, has been questioned. But the case against Syrian officials is convincing and, as the report itself states, requires further investigation. The UN has extended Mehlis’s mandate to December 15 to follow lines of inquiry that appear to point directly at the regime in Damascus. “Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem,” the Mehlis report notes, “it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge.”

The evidence actually goes further than that conclusion: Some witnesses spoke not of Syrian “knowledge” of the assassination but of Syrian direction of it. Lebanese allies of Hariri told Mehlis of the threats that senior Syrians, including their intelligence chief in Lebanon, General Rustum Ghazali, made to Hariri–threats denied by the Syrians themselves. There was regular telephone contact, according to the records, between those involved in the dirty work of watching Hariri and dispatching the white Mitsubishi van (stolen the previous October in Japan) with 1,000 kilograms of TNT, and senior Lebanese officers who were themselves in regular contact with their Syrian counterparts. The Syrians, on the testimony of some witnesses, set up a Lee Harvey Oswald-type fall guy in the form of a Palestinian refugee named Ahmad Abu Adass, who was forced to make a videotaped claim that he was the suicide bomber who killed the infidel Hariri. The trail leads to the office of the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, whose cell phone received a call from one of the suspects only minutes before the bomb that killed Hariri exploded. The imbroglio that led to Hariri’s death began with Syria’s insistence that Lahoud remain president after his term of office expired last year–which involved a dubious amendment to the Constitution. The acrimony between Lahoud and Hariri altered the political divide from Christian versus Muslim to pro- versus anti-Syrian factions–with Muslims and Christians on both sides. Syria felt it needed Lahoud in place to maintain its control of Lebanon, something Bashar al-Assad told Hariri at their final meeting in Damascus in August 2004.

A thorough investigation should probe the other murders and bombings in Lebanon: not only the attempt on the life of anti-Syrian Druse MP Marwan Hamadeh in October 2004 and the post-Hariri murders of former Communist Party chief George Hawi and journalist Samir Kassir but also the assassination of Druse and leftist chief Kamal Jumblatt in 1977, as well as President Rene Moawad in 1989 and many others. Suspicion has long fallen on Syria, but until now hard evidence has been lacking. As more and more witnesses testify, the Lebanese may learn the haqiqa about all these outrages (perhaps including murders committed by other intelligence services, like Israel’s, America’s, Iraq’s and Iran’s). What the United States does with this information, however, is another matter. This must worry the Lebanese as much as it does the Syrians. For Lebanon, despite its obsession with removing itself from Syrian tutelage, wants to keep its war buried in the past. No Lebanese, apart from a few psychopaths, would like to risk a resumption of conflict merely to dispose of the Assad regime.

In Lebanon, something happened after the war. Most Lebanese came to think less about politics and more about themselves. Without the war to distract people, the suicide rate for those not seeking martyrdom rose. Many Lebanese looked to psychiatry, spiritualism, hedonism, house redecoration, art or plastic surgery to change themselves. Earlier this year a businessman in Beirut told me that about 80 percent of the country’s billboards advertised beauty enhancement–nose jobs, liposuction, tanning salons, skin lighteners and hair restorers. This signals abandonment of the political realm, as often happens when war destroys the idealism that led to it. Alan Ross observed something similar among British poets in the aftermath of World War II, a “turning away from public issues to private problems, a nostalgia that looks wearily back from the social pressures of an age dealing in ideological betrayal, to the more involved but less revealing crises of the human heart.” What was true for C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and John Betjeman appears to hold for Lebanon’s writers after their longer, home-grown war.

Malu Halasa and Roseanne Khalaf’s collection of Lebanese postwar writing, Transit Beirut, depicts the apolitical concerns of postwar Lebanese. “My Lebanese Sandwich,” by Maher Kassar and Ziad Halwani, depicts the Lebanese male facing a life in his family’s house on an upper floor that his parents are waiting to add as soon as he marries. “Then, there will be two rival kitchens competing just to feed you. Your wife will get hell from your mother. First, she will pretend to teach her how to cook. She will give her the recipes just the way you’ve always liked them. Only for some reason, they will never turn out nearly as good. Too much salt, overcooked, not enough cinnamon.” This goes on for years until “the secret has been passed on and she, your mother, has made sure that you will be fed the same food. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.” Food for the Lebanese, as for the Italians, takes precedence over war. Each village has a specialty that no other village can cook properly. Zgharta claims the finest kibbeh. Zahleh distills the best arak. Chtaura produces the purest labneh, soured cream and yogurt. Others claim the best bread, cheese, hummus, stews or sweets. And yet Lebanon wanted something more. “During the war,” Kassar and Halwani write, “people dreamt of having a McDonald’s in Beirut.” Peace delivered the fruit of American civilization at last:

Civilization…. We asked for it and we got it, big time. Along with the new roads, the new infrastructure, the new international airport, a brand new downtown, cellular phone networks, satellite TV, superstar European DJs and modern beach resorts, the thirteen-year-long effort to reconstruct Lebanon after the war led to the opening of 9 McDonald’s, 8 Burger Kings, 4 KFCs, 11 Starbucks, 6 Dunkin’ Donuts, 1 TGI Fridays and 8 Pizza Huts…. Like a new toy, the Lebanese played with the Whopper, tried the McFlurry and collected all the buttons and badges from TGI Fridays.

One of the writers tries the latest McDonald’s gimmick: the McArabia. “Would a Swedish person,” he asks himself, “accept asking for a ‘McScandinavia’ or worse, a Frenchman order a ‘McFrance’?”

Longing for antebellum grandeur obsesses many Lebanese too young to remember it. Antoine Boulad writes in “Place des Martyrs” that the old center of Beirut induces “a kind of painful nostalgia. It breaks my heart and tears my consciousness apart.” Abbas El-Zein writes for all Beirutis, “I take a stroll in the beautifully restored old city of Beirut. Dark thoughts keep me company. Will all this be destroyed again?” Roseanne Khalaf, who returned to Lebanon in 1995 after eleven years away, writes in “Living Between Worlds,” “This was not the Lebanon I had come back to in my mind; not the country I had revisited countless times in my imagination. Perhaps the Lebanon I had known and loved never existed at all.”

Postwar wistfulness has not affected Hezbollah. Never a participant in the Muslim-Christian, rightist-leftist clashes that defined most of the civil war, Hezbollah went on battling Israeli occupation after the Taif accords of 1989 and the Syrian conquest of East Beirut in 1990 officially brought peace. (The United States had agreed to Syrian control of all Lebanon in exchange for Syrian participation in the war to expel Iraq from Kuwait.) The party agreed to take part in the country’s first postwar parliamentary elections in 1992 and every election since. It stayed out of government, however, until this year, when it assumed the energy portfolio. Its evolution on the Lebanese political scene–from kidnappers of foreign nationals in the 1980s to responsible and honest legislators–has impressed even the most secular Christians. Yet because Israel took another ten years from war’s end to withdraw, Hezbollah remained an armed resistance. Even after Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah did not give up–holding out for Shebaa Farms–and thus still refuses to disarm, as all other Lebanese militias did after 1990.

The complicated history of Shebaa made it problematic for other Lebanese, who had acquiesced when Syria seized the area from Lebanon in 1957. Syria lost Shebaa to Israel–along with its own Golan Heights–in 1967. The UN ruled that Shebaa was a matter for discussion between Syria and Israel, and most Lebanese–who do not want war with Israel or anyone else–accepted it. Hezbollah has not renounced its principle that all Lebanese territory must be liberated. Syria, which had claimed Shebaa for itself until Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, cynically chose to regard it as Lebanese territory in order to use Hezbollah as its last point of pressure on Israel so that it could maintain leverage in negotiations for the Golan Heights. Shebaa allows Hezbollah–in soul-searching mode after its bungled attempt to support a continued Syrian presence in Lebanon–to remain on the only footing it has ever known: war. Hezbollah has also reversed the relationship it enjoyed with the Palestinian organizations, who taught the Shiites how to use Kalashnikovs in the mid-1970s. Now Hezbollah teaches young Palestinians not only how to handle weapons but how to develop strategies and to trust God to bring them victory–as He did in Lebanon–over Israel. Sheikh Naim Qassem writes, “What happened in Lebanon can be repeated in Palestine.” This makes Hezbollah and its state benefactors, Syria and Iran, an Israeli obsession.

The United States managed to rob Syria of long-term gains in Lebanon in April when, in combination with Lebanese rage over the assassination of Hariri and UN Resolution 1559, it forced the Syrian army out of the country. Israel, since Egypt withdrew from the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1979, has sought to eliminate Syria as its only credible frontline adversary. Syria is clearly the next phase of the American-Israeli battle for the Middle East, and the Lebanese fear that their country will become the battle’s terrain. It probably will, if the United States pushes Lebanon to sign a peace treaty with Israel, disarm Hezbollah or allow the US Navy to construct a base on the Lebanese shore.

Back in 1996, when Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David and Meyrav Wurmser were still working for Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, their “Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000” recommended “securing tribal alliances with Arab tribes that cross into Syrian territory and are hostile to the Syrian ruling elite” in a position paper called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” adopted by their subsequent employer, George W. Bush. As well as using the tribes like latter-day Lawrences of Arabia, they had another ploy for dealing with Damascus: “This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq–an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right–as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” What are Syria’s regional ambitions? Is a relatively weak state of 18 million, whose oil production barely covers domestic consumption, whose unemployment runs to at least 20 percent, whose farm laborers earn their living in Lebanon and whose army relies on old Soviet weapons, worth so much trouble? The United States is using Lebanon, Syrian exiles and Syrian Kurds to harass the Syrian regime; and the consequences could be as harmful to Syria as the American invasion has been to Iraq.

Flynt Leverett, who served on the National Security Council staff under Condoleezza Rice, notes in Inheriting Syria that the neoconservatives at the Defense Department and in Vice President Cheney’s office “were intrigued by the idea of using Lebanon as a pressure point against Damascus from the beginning of Bush’s tenure.” The Syrians have attempted to placate the United States by turning over Al Qaeda suspects, expelling radical Palestinian leaders, sending Iraqi exiles back to Iraq and cooperating with the US military along their border with Iraq. That was insufficient for the Bush Administration, which rebuffed Syria’s overtures. The civilian hierarchy in the Defense Department ordered the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Gen. David Petraeus, to cease his fruitful working relationship with the Syrian military last year. This political decision may have increased the risk to American soldiers in Iraq. The same neoconservatives also rejected Syrian assistance on Al Qaeda.

If the Syrian regime is overthrown, the alternatives may be no more congenial to American-Israeli interests. A pro-American regime installed by the United States à la Iraq would undoubtedly face a rebellion similar to Iraq’s. The other option, government by the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, would be unlikely to produce a felicitous peace along Israel’s border with Lebanon. It might be more inclined than the current president, young Bashar al-Assad, to open the Golan Heights to infiltration by Palestinian and other commandos for the first time. The inevitable Israeli reprisals would suit a revolutionary fundamentalist regime. As Hezbollah discovered when Israel occupied Lebanon, it is easier to unify people for war to save the homeland than to organize them when there is no threat.

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