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Syria, Lebanon and US Intervention, to 1987

In Syria, Islamic extremists opposed to the rule of President Hafex al-Assad assassinated several hundred government officials and security force troops, and they killed around two dozen advisors from the Soviet Union. Then, in February, 1982, in Hama, a city of 350,000, the Muslim Brotherhood attacked government forces searching for rebels. The Muslim Brotherhood insurgents took power in the city, drove out Baathist authorities and declared the city liberated. Against the city, Assad sent several thousand Syrian troops supported by armor and artillery. In two weeks of fighting, Assad's force killed between 10,000 and 40,000. Support for the Brotherhood waned, and Assad had little trouble from them thereafter. Assad had allowed himself a response to terrorism that he did not want to grant to the Israelis, and he laid a model for his sons to follow in future challenges to Assad family rule.

Meanwhile in Israel, the government of Menachem Begin, of Israel's conservative Likud Party, was growing impatient with tolerance directed toward Palestinian guerrillas. The Begin government laid plans to wipe out "nests of PLO terrorists" in southern Lebanon and requested US approval. Secretary of State Alexander Haig told the Israeli Minister of Defense, Ariel Sharon, that he and President Reagan opposed any such move by Israel, and he cautioned Sharon against Israel making such a move without an "internationally recognized provocation." On June 3, 1982, a group identified as Black June, inspired by Abu Nidal, wounded Israel's ambassador in London. Rather than Nidal's group being the PLO, it was a rival to the PLO, with Libyan support. But Begin used the Nidal attack as pretext to move against the PLO, and, on June 6, Israel moved into Lebanon with its jets, helicopters and armored divisions.

Israeli forces engaged Syrian forces – which had been in Lebanon for six years. The Syrians suffered heavy losses and withdrew to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Within 72 hours after their move into Lebanon, Israeli troops were on the perimeter of the city of Beirut. The Israelis sent aircraft against the trapped PLO there, and they patrolled all roads in and out of the city.

The United Nations demanded a full and unconditional Israeli withdrawal. Israel, accustomed to hostility from the UN, refused. In exchange for withdrawing, Israel wanted a peace treaty with Lebanon. The US diplomat, Philip Habib, negotiated an agreement between Lebanon, Israel and the PLO. Chairman Arafat of the PLO agreed to remove his forces from Lebanon. Assad of Syria also agreed to remove his forces from Lebanon. The agreement included the deployment of a three-nation peacekeeping force. French and Italian forces arrived to help establish peace. US ships were anchored off Lebanon's coast, and, in August, US Marines went ashore at Beirut to help oversee the departure of thousands of PLO fighters.

On August 23, a Christian, Bashir Gemayel, was elected President of the Republic. He had been a member of the Christian Phalange party – a party founded by his father – and he looked forward to being president for all Lebanese. In early September, while Gemayel was waiting for his inauguration, the PLO left Lebanon for Damascus – Dr. Habash of the PFLP among them – and there they were disarmed. Arafat was bitter about Syria's failure to help his cause in Lebanon, and, rather than go to Damascus, he boarded a ship headed for Athens, Greece, taking 14,000 of his fighting men with him. Arafat sailed into the sunset satisfied that with their small arms his troops had killed several hundred Israelis. And on September 10 the US Marines returned to their ships.

On September 14 – nine days before he was to be inaugurated – Gemayel and 25 others were killed by a powerful explosion. The next day, Israeli troops entered West Beirut, violating the Israeli promise to Philip Habib. In West Beirut were Palestinian refugee camps that had been protected by forces now withdrawn. Israel's General Sharon gave Phalange troops access to the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila. Their mission was said to be that of finding terrorists, but, upset over the assassination of Gemayel and the earlier assassination of many other Phalangists, they went on a rampage, killing between 700 and 2000 Palestinians.

The Syrians were furious with Habib over what they saw as his broken promise that Israel would stay away from Beirut, and Habib felt betrayed by the Israelis. A member of Israel's Labor Party, Shimon Peres, asked who were the fools that allowed the Phalangists into the camps.

Amin Gemayel, the brother of the assassinated Bashir Gemayel, became president of Lebanon, and he sought national reconciliation talks to settle differences among the various factions that divided Lebanon – Phalangist, Marionite, Druse, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and others. The United States was supporting Gemayel's government and its army, while bloody fighting reigned between hostile factions in Beirut. On September 22, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Marines back into Lebanon to support the Lebanese armed forces, and they were based at a reinforced concrete structure by the airport on the outskirts of Beirut.

On April 18, 1983, a truck drove up to the US Embassy in Beirut and exploded, killing 49 and injuring 120. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. Early Sunday morning, on October 23, a truck with the equivalence of 12,000 pounds of explosives crashed against the Marine barracks near Beirut's airport, killing 241 US servicemen. A few moments later, a bomb exploded at the French barracks, killing 58.

President Reagan spoke of justice for those who had directed the bombing of the Marine barracks, but exactly who was responsible was not information that the CIA could provide him. Some suspected a new group that had entered Lebanon from Iran in 1982, the Hezbollah (Party of God) – a group suspected of receiving support from Iran and Syria. Under pressure from Congress, President Reagan withdrew his forces from Lebanon, announcing that the Marines were coming home "because they did all that could be done." The Marines went back aboard their ships ofshore and to islamic activists hostile to the United States the US appeared to be a "paper tiger."

Some Syrian troops were still in Lebanon, and in Beirut a pro-Syrian and anti-Israeli government assumed power, while rival factions continued to fight for control of the city, with car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. In Beirut, on March 16, 1984, members of Islamic Jihad kidnapped the CIA chief for Lebanon, William Buckley. The following year Buckley would be dead from what was believed to be torture. On September 20, 1984, a truck bomb exploded at the US embassy annex in east Beirut. Twenty-three were killed and more than 60 injured, with "Islamic Jihad" claiming credit.

Islamic Jihad hijacked a Kuwaiti airliner on December 3. They killed two US citizens, and the hijackers found asylum in Iran. Islamic Jihad kidnapped a US journalist, Terry Anderson, on March 16, 1985. And on June 9 they kidnapped Thomas Sutherland, the Dean of Agriculture at the American University in Beirut.

On June 14, members of Hezbollah hijacked a TWA flight to Rome, diverted it to Beirut and beat and killed a US Navy diver, Robert Stetham. On September 25, terrorists belonging to Force 17, a group associated with the PLO, murdered three Israeli citizens on their yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus. On October 1, Israel retaliated by sending military aircraft against the PLO headquarters in Tunis, killing 65 people and wounding bystanders.

Abdul Abbas, member of the PLO Executive Committee, masterminded the hijacking of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. The event began on October 7, and the hijackers killed an elderly Jewish-American in a wheel chair – Leon Klinghoffer.

On November 23, four members of Abu Nidal's group hijacked an Egyptian airliner flying from Athens to Cairo. They forced the plane to land in Malta. The Maltese refused to refuel the airliner, and the terrorists began shooting passengers one by one. Egyptian commandos recaptured the airplane, but many died – passengers and commandos.

On December 27, 1985, Abu Nidal terrorists attacked holiday travelers in the airports of Rome and Vienna. Eighteen vacationers died.

In Lebanon, a peacekeeping accord was created in 1986, but it soon fell apart, and that year ferocious battles were fought between Lebanon's Druse and Shiite militias in West Beirut. Then in February, 1987, Syrian forces came again in large number and quelled the turmoil.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.