When one hears the word “occupation” mentioned in the context of the Middle East, what first comes to mind is usually Israel’s control over areas it gained in the Six-Day War, and when the word is mentioned in connection with Lebanon, what comes to mind is the buffer zone controlled by the Jerusalem-backed South Lebanese Army until 2000. But for most Lebanese, the real occupation was the Syrian military’s pervasive presence throughout their country from 1976 to 2005. Faysal Itani—through a tragicomic personal tale of an automotive accident two decades ago—explores this oft-forgotten piece of Levantine history, and its lingering effects:
In 1976, Hafez al-Assad invaded Lebanon to crush Palestinian-led Muslim militias fighting Christian ones in what would become a fifteen-year civil war. But the Christians, who had sought Syrian support against their Lebanese enemies, grew tired of Assad’s heavy hand. And so began years of fighting between the Syrian regime and Lebanon’s Christians, culminating in Assad’s destruction and invasion of Christian areas, ending the war in 1990 and solidifying Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.
The Syrian regime’s relationship with Lebanon’s Sunnis was even more complicated. The Sunnis supported the Palestinian cause against Israel. In theory so did Assad, but he only tolerated anti-Israel groups he could control, and Lebanon’s Sunnis never forgot his control over them and their Palestinian allies. Throughout the 1980s, Assad fought a long war against Lebanese Sunni militias, crushing them even as he slaughtered Sunni insurgents at home. This became the root of Sunni bitterness toward Assad, whose forces killed or “disappeared” thousands of their young men.
Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, but I was too young to care. My Lebanon experience was defined by multiple wars with Israel, but even more so by the Syrian occupation. This decade and a half until Syria withdrew in 2005 had an enormous impact on Lebanon and its ongoing descent into a moral travesty of a state.
There is very little literature about this chapter in Lebanese-Syrian history, not least because the press was muzzled and social media did not exist. It was the occupation’s banal pettiness that weighed heavily on the Lebanese. My friends and I experienced it constantly, mostly from members or allies of Syrian intelligence services: shutting down my university after a student cursed another connected to the regime; beating a friend with a rifle for flipping off a convoy carrying Hafez al-Assad’s nephew; torturing a fellow student activist to death; ramming my car at an intersection then driving away; forcing bribes at checkpoints manned by agents wearing their trademark Hawaiian shirts; and other things I cannot recall or should keep to myself.
The Assads, father and son, also played a role—as Itani explains—in securing Hizballah’s current domination of the country, which is the source of so many of its present woes, and poses such a danger to Israel’s security.