The Bitter Legacy of Syrian Dominance Lives on in Lebanon’s Present Woes

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.

Read more at Newlines

More about: Bashar al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad, Hizballah, Lebanon, Syria


Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood