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Gary Gambill is currently a research associate at the Middle East Forum as well as a consultant to Freedom House. His professional expertise focuses on Syrian and Lebanese politics, state sponsorship of international terrorism, and authoritarianism across the Arab world. He is currently working to complete his Ph.D. at New York University. He addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on May 13, 2003.

Following the fighting in Iraq, Syria and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon have received considerable U.S. attention. The Bush administration made it clear that further democratization is an imperative for the Middle East; Lebanon, a country with a once rich tradition of democracy and pluralism, has resurfaced as an issue. Furthermore, Lebanon, under the control of Syria, continues to serve as a major training center for terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad, HAMAS, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC). This major source of instability has led many in Washington to reassess the Syrian-Lebanese relationship within the context of the war against global terrorism.

A Brief History

Lebanon is a country of ethnic minorities. Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Alawites, and many others have all made Lebanon their home. The diverse composition of the nation was reflected in the structures of political power. For example, the 1943 National Pact mandated that the president would be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shiite, and so on. However, in time, the ethnic and religious continuity of Lebanon broke down when the Shiite population grew to surpass the others. Tensions were further heightened by the increased presence of Palestinians who built a "state within a state" after their expelsion from Jordan in 1970. The situation deteriorated into a state of civil war in 1975.

In the midst of this chaos, the Syrian government intervened under the guise of benign pretenses. Initially, the regime of Hafez Assad signed the Red Line Agreement limiting Syria's military profile in Lebanon but later violated this accord by deploying tanks and warplanes. After much bloodshed, the Syrian conquest of Lebanon was completed in 1990. Since then, the grip of Damascus over her neighbor has been tightened and institutionalized. Candidates for top political offices in Lebanon are thoroughly vetted by Damascus.

What are the Syrian gains in occupying Lebanon?

Syrian gains from occupying Lebanon are several:

  • Economic self-interest. About 1.2 million untaxed and unregulated Syrian workers are employed in Lebanon generating over $3 billion for the ailing Syrian command-and-control economy. Lebanon also serves as a closed market for Syrian products, not widely desirable in other parts of the world.
  • Diplomatic advantages. During Arab summits or conferences, Damascus often uses Lebanese proxies to advance its own political interests. When Syria seeks to sponsor anti-American resolutions, Lebanon will most likely do the heavy lifting.
  • Geostrategic gains. Lebanon is the most direct land route to invade Israel (and vice versa). Also, Lebanon is host to a multitude of Syrian-backed terrorist organizations, which operate with greater impunity there than they do in Syria itself and use Lebanon as a launch pad for cross border attacks on Israel (Damascus would never dream of allowing terrorist groups to attack Israel directly from Syrian soil).

Why does the occupation continue?

Although Lebanon's sectarian divisions and fractured political culture have contributed to the lasting Syrian occupation, the most decisive factor is international permissiveness; the United States and other powers tacitly accept Syrian hegemony. Several factors explain this.

  • Fear of Instability. During the 1980s, war-torn Lebanon became a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorist groups that abducted scores of Western hostages and threatened Western interests in the Middle East. Although most of these groups were Syrian-sponsored, the United States and Europe came to support Syrian domination of Lebanon in return for Syria's "cooperation" in freeing the hostages and regulating terrorist activity there. Even Israeli officials became convinced that an extended Syrian military presence would be a guarantor of Lebanese stability.
  • Arab-Israeli diplomacy. According to conventional wisdom, contesting Syrian control of Lebanon makes Damascus less willing to take risks for peace. This is true in a limited sense – Assad senior was willing to go through the motions of diplomacy in return for Western acceptance of his control of Lebanon. However, there is little evidence that such appeasement makes Syria more willing to actually reach a settlement with Israel. Moreover, an implicit assumption in American policy – that Syria will be more willing to give up Lebanon once peace has been established – is dead wrong. Lebanon is far more important to Damascus than the Golan Heights. Given the choice, Syria would rather have Lebanon than a peace treaty with Israel.
  • Bureaucratic inertia. Although the logic of Western appeasement is clearly flawed, career diplomats in the American State Department and other Western foreign policy establishments have staked their careers on this policy. Reversing course with respect to the Syrian occupation would threaten these entrenched interests. Although some neoconservatives in the United States support an end to appeasement of Syria, the issue is not yet their highest priority.


As long as Washington persists in its indifference towards the Syrian occupation, Lebanon will likely remain a satellite state devoid of real democracy and a nerve center for international terrorism. External pressure by itself will not be effective in loosening the Syrian stranglehold; perhaps a strategy seeking to foment internal dissent is more feasible. Historically, when the U.S. spoke with moral clarity against the occupation, Lebanese disobedience and criticism intensified. Stronger rhetoric matched by a concerted non-violent campaign of indigenous resistance maybe the most practical challenge to Damascus.

Summary account by Zachary Constantino, research assistant at the Middle East Forum.