People of my generation cannot (and should not) forgive and forget. What happened in 1976 changed the course of contemporary Lebanese history and prolonged the agonizing years of the civil war. In 1976, the PLO-Lebanese National Movement (LNM) coalition was on its way to defeat the pro-Israeli Phalanges militias in Lebanon, after they were the ones who started the civil war on behalf of Israel and the US.
According to Newsweek magazine at the time, the PLO-LNM joint forces controlled more than 80 percent of Lebanese territory. They reached all the way to Oyoun el-Siman in Mount Sannine and Kamal Jumblatt famously told Abdul-Halim Khaddam that the next meeting would be held in Bikfaya (the stronghold of the Phalanges and the birth place of the Gemayyels).
Arafat was forced to join the offensive after his senior lieutenants made it clear that they would not go along with his policy of neutrality in a war that aimed at defeating the PLO in Lebanon. Some senior Fatah leaders, like Abu Salih, would take advantage of Arafat’s absences from Lebanon to provide weapons to the Lebanese factions. Arafat was very restrained in his policies and Jumblatt often complained about the quality of weapons that Arafat provided.
In 1976, the Syrian regime intervened militarily in Lebanon on the side of the Phalanges and Israel. The record is available (from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs to the memoirs of Israel leaders): Syria and Israel reached an understanding in Lebanon.
The understanding was that Syrian troops would enter Lebanon to defeat Israel’s enemies provided that the Syrian troops stay north of the Litani river.
The Syrian troops strictly adhered to the agreement all the way until their humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. Never once did Syrian troops dare cross south of the Litani river no matter how brutal and savage Israeli attacks on South Lebanon were. The Syrian regime intervened to smash a promising revolutionary movement that would have changed the map of the Arab East.
To be sure, there were problems in the PLO-LNM that would force one to tame his/her enthusiasm and revolutionary fantasies. Arafat would not have permitted a revolutionary base in Lebanon (as George Habash worked to establish an Arab Hanoi north of Palestine) and Kamal Jumblatt was a sectarian feudal leader who had non-revolutionary credentials and calculations. But the masses of the LNM were ready for a revolutionary fight and for the only time in the 20th century, the mass audience of the LNM was non-sectarian and had presence in every corner of Lebanon.
There was an opportunity to defeat once and for all the pro-Israeli militias of the Phalanges and punish them for starting the civil war. More importantly, there was an opportunity to end the civil war in 1976, one year after it had started. So many tens of thousands of dead and injured would have been spared.
The Syrian regime would have none of it. It did not want Lebanon to slip out of its grip and it also did not want the armed Palestinian and Lebanese revolutionary movements to drag the Syrian regime into an unwanted confrontation with Israel.
People of my generation still remember that famous speech by Hafez al-Assad at Damascus University. All Phalanges and later Lebanese Forces leaders would quote from it by heart. It was a wholesale attack on the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movement and it claimed that the objective of the movement was an extermination of the Christians.
Assad was a hated man at that time. Every few days we would hear gunfire in the air and hope that it was a celebration of Hafez’s assassination.
Syrian troops entered Lebanon with Western blessings. Abu Jihad and Arafat did not want a real fight and only provided symbolic resistance. Only radical Lebanese and Palestinian organizations put up a good fight. The Nasserist troops in Sidon famously attacked Syrian tanks. Even Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC and the Syrian Social National Party (two tools of the Syrian regime nowadays) stood against the Syrian regime.
The Amal movement was one of the few exceptions and stood by the Syrian regime, but its offices all over Lebanon were taken over in two days. It was that weak at the time when the Left prevailed in Lebanon in Shia areas of the country.
The regime did not only take over Lebanon north of the Litani, it also entered into a Faustian alliance with the Phalanges and facilitated the fall of the Tal Az-Zatar camp – the Syrian regime and Israel were on the same side. A small leftist faction, the Socialist Arab Action Party-Lebanon took the initiative and declared guerrilla warfare on Syrian troops.
The Syrian regime was savage. Those who were suspected of aiding the resistance movement were tortured and shot – the lucky ones were put in al-Mazzeh jail to languish for years.
We don’t have fond memories of the Syrian regime in Lebanon, no matter what side one is on. The Amal movement may be the only consistently pro-Syrian regime party and its media are more crude in supporting the regime than Syrian regime media itself. But what happened in 1976 should serve as a lesson to those who still harbor illusions about the intentions and aims of the Syrian regime.
[This article was originally published on Al-Akhbar English.]