Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 3 Table of Contents
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March 2001 

US Mideast Policy and the Syrian Occupation of Lebanon
by Gary C. Gambill


Powell: Syrian withdrawal won't "happen tomorrow" [AP]
American President George W. Bush has inherited from his predecessors a most unusual policy regarding the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. While US officials have long paid lip service to the restoration of Lebanese sovereignty, two successive administrations have found it politically expedient for one reason or another to tacitly support Syrian authority over the country.

Thus far, it appears that the new administration will be at least as committed to appeasing Syrian interests in Lebanon. Asked during a congressional committee hearing on March 7 if the US was taking steps to facilitate a Syrian withdrawal, Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked vaguely that a Syrian withdrawal would be beneficial to the region "eventually at some point," but "isn't going to happen tomorrow."1 Moreover, President Bush and Secretary Powell have both refused to meet with Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Church and a staunch opponent of the Syrian presence, during his month-long visit to North America.


Although US recognition of Syrian interests in Lebanon began to take shape as early as the 1970s, explicit American coordination with the Assad regime became most evident during the first Bush administration, which was forced to confront a major Lebanese crisis early on.

The Bush Administration (1989-1993)

In the fall of 1988, Syrian military forces, which occupied large swathes of territory in eastern and northern Lebanon, and the Lebanese Forces (LF) militia, which controlled East Beirut and the Maronite Christian heartland north of the capital, instigated a political impasse by preventing members of the Lebanese parliament from electing a new president. Fifteen minutes before his term expired, then-President Amine Gemayel appointed an interim military cabinet headed by Gen. Michel Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese Army, to rule the country until elections could be held. Damascus and its militia allies rejected Aoun's government, however, and established a rival regime in Syrian-controlled West Beirut.

Despite the constitutional legality of Aoun's government, the incoming Bush administration decided to follow the lead of most other countries and declined to recognize either regime. During Aoun's unsuccessful attempt to forcibly expel Syrian forces in the spring and summer of 1989, American diplomats openly sought to discredit him. Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger even told a congressional hearing that the Lebanese crisis might worsen if Syrian troops withdrew.2 In an effort to resolve the crisis on terms acceptable to Syria, the Bush administration promoted a mediation effort by the Arab League.

Under American and Arab League auspices, the sixty-two surviving members of the Lebanese parliament met in Ta'if, Saudi Arabia, and began discussing the draft of a National Reconciliation Charter proposed by the Arab League. Although the talks were being held in a "neutral" site in order to reduce external pressures on the parliament members, an atmosphere of Syrian intimidation still prevailed. Most of the Muslim deputies at the talks lived in areas of Lebanon under the direct control of Syrian forces and were understandably intimidated by the assassination of Sunni MP Nazim Qadri after he criticized the Syrians just days before the conference convened. During the proceedings, Sunni MP Abdel Majid al-Rafei told reporters that Syrian forces had "massacred and destroyed cities." Within 24 hours, Syrian forces arrested around 200 of his followers in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.


Gen. Michel Aoun
While the debate over internal political reforms was soon resolved, the talks soon deadlocked over the issue of the Syrian occupation, for the proposed document stipulated only that Syria undertake a partial redeployment within two years and discuss the future withdrawal of Syrian forces with the Lebanese government. Everyone associated with the negotiations at Ta'if was well aware of precisely what such a commitment did and not mean. Damascus had made a similar commitment in September 1982, when it signed the Fez Declaration obliging it to "start negotiations" with the Lebanese government regarding "an end to the mission" of Syrian forces in Lebanon. Two subsequent requests for their withdrawal by the Lebanese government were completely ignored.

Convinced that these were the most advantageous terms possible, and relying upon the assurances of American officials that Syria would abide by the "spirit" of the accord and withdraw once the Lebanese army was capable of restoring government authority, the delegates reluctantly signed what became known as the Ta'if Accord. Afterwards, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater hailed the agreement as "the first step toward restoration of a sovereign, unified, and independent Lebanon, free of all foreign forces."3

In November 1989, Lebanese parliament members met under the "protection" of Syrian forces in north Lebanon and obediently elected Rene Mouawad as President of Lebanon. After Mouawad's assassination weeks later, Elias Hrawi was elected to succeed him. Aoun's refusal to step down drew hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets.

The Bush administration openly condemned Aoun and shut down the American embassy in Beirut. American officials launched a diplomatic campaign to isolate the beleaguered prime minister, resulting in a December 27 UN Security Council statement calling for the implementation of the Ta'if agreement and expressing "deep concern" over Aoun's rejection of it.

According to numerous (though unsubstantiated) reports, the American CIA station chief in Beirut met with Samir Geagea and other leaders of the LF militia and persuaded them to launch an assault on Lebanese Army positions in East Beirut in February 1990.4 Subsequent fighting between the LF and Lebanese army troops severely weakened Aoun's capacity to resist a Syrian invasion.

After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Syria agreed to participate in the US-led coalition against Baghdad in return for an American green light to complete its conquest of Lebanon.5 On the morning of October 13, 1990, Syria launched an all-out air and ground attack on East Beirut and the surrounding areas controlled by Aoun's government. By nightfall, Lebanese army forces had surrendered, the capital was in Syrian hands, and Aoun was forced to accept policial asylum at the French embassy.

The US reopened its embassy in Beirut within a month of Syria's takeover of Beirut and Bush personally met with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva in November 1990. Meanwhile, US diplomats torpedoed efforts by France to organize a UN investigation of Syrian atrocities committed during and after the fighting.

The policy of the Bush administration during the first two years of Lebanon's Second Republic appears to have been predicated on the belief that Syria would be willing to withdraw from Lebanon once it had secured the establishment of a pro-Syrian government in Beirut and the disarmament of all armed elements in the country hostile to Damascus. American officials apparently expected Syria to comply with the Ta'if Accord's provision for a limited redeployment in 1992. By this time, the Gulf crisis had been resolved and the Madrid peace process was underway - the conventional wisdom in Washington and elsewhere was that Syria would need American goodwill in order to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Secretary of State James Baker and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Edward Djerejian visited Damascus in the Summer of 1992 in an attempt to persuade the Syrians to undertake the initial redeployment of Syrian forces in advance of Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections. According to one account of the meeting, Assad and Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam flatly rejected the request:

"But this is not the interpretation agreed upon in Ta'if, when the document was drafted under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco (the Arab tripartite committee)," Baker insisted.
"What's important is our interpretation. Lebanon is our turf," replied the Syrian president, placidly.
The US Secretary of State stood up and turned to Djerejian: "Why don't you explain to Mr. President our position on that subject," he said, and he left the room.
At this point, Khaddam intervened: "The Ta'if accords state that our troops will redeploy after the constitutional reforms have been implemented in Lebanon."
"They have been achieved," retorted Djerejian.
"Not all of them. There is still the issue of political deconfessionalization."
The next day, Khaddam publicly declared that Syrian troops would not redeploy until the Lebanese parliament had completely abolished political confessionalism - a long-term objective mentioned in the Ta'if Accords and expected to evolve gradually over the course of decades (if at all).

The Bush administration remained committed, in principle at least, to the full implementation the Ta'if Accord throughout its final year, but undertook no further initiatives to pressure Syria on this matter. It's failure to do so became a modest political liability in the months preceding the 1992 presidential election, which witnessed a concerted lobbying campaign by the Council of Lebanese American Organizations (CLAO). The Clinton-Gore campaign, not surprisingly, took aim at the Bush administration's policy in a bid to secure the votes of an estimated 2 million Americans of Lebanese descent. "The Bush administration appears willing to sacrifice the prospects for an independent Lebanon in order to curry favor with Syria's dictator," Bill Clinton told a gathering of Lebanese Americans on September 18. "Obviously," he added, "the withdrawal of Syrian troops is essential to Lebanon's regaining its independence."7

The Clinton Administration (1993-2001)

The palpable wave of anticipation that swept through Lebanon after Clinton's election was very short-lived. Much like Clinton's vociferous condemnation of the Bush administration's China policy, his eloquent defense of Lebanon as a presidential candidate proved to be a fleeting mirage of American electoral politics. The Clinton administration came into office with a Middle East policy single-mindedly devoted to securing a "comprehensive peace" in the Middle East. Its recipe for success on the Syrian track of the peace process was deceptively simple: with the return to power of Israel's Labor party, American diplomacy could help ensure the consolidation of an Israeli public consensus strong enough to sustain the concession of most, if not all, of the Golan Heights to Syria, while the remaining differences could be bridged by the evolution of a strategic partnership with Syria. A commitment to securing an eventual Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon had no place in such a strategy. In practice, this meant embracing the "polite fiction" that the Syrian satellite regime in Beirut was a sovereign government capable of negotiating such matters directly with Syria.

The first sign of this new policy actually preceded Clinton's inauguration by several days (suggesting that the State Department may have already decided to change course). In a January 1993 interview with the Saudi news magazine Al-Wassat, Djerejian was asked whether the US would oppose the "merger" of Syrian and Lebanese political and economic institutions. "If the Lebanese truly want, without foreign pressure, to establish a form of unity or federalism between Lebanon and Syria," he replied, "that of course would be for the Lebanese themselves to decide."8

While the Clinton administration never openly disavowed US commitments to the "spirit" of the Ta'if Accord (and to the Lebanese deputies who signed it), American officials consistently declined to criticize Syrian control over Lebanon. In fact, the State Department even declined to acknowledge that Syria's adamant refusal to undertake a limited redeployment of its forces to the Beqaa Valley is in violation of the accord. A June 1997 hearing on US policy toward Lebanon by the House Committee on International Relations led to this exchange between the chairman of the committee, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs David Welch:

WELCH: There were redeployments within Lebanon specified in the Accord, and then the eventual withdrawal from Lebanon of the Syrian forces present there was to be negotiated at a further stage.
GILMAN: Is Syria in violation of the Ta'if Accords based upon those agreements?
WELCH: I am not here to judge agreements between Lebanon and Syria. You would have to ask the Government of Lebanon whether they consider them to be in violation. We consider that this -
GILMAN: Well, has Syria redeployed according to -
WELCH: Syria has redeployed somewhat within Lebanon.
GILMAN: Somewhat. But has it redeployed pursuant to the Ta'if Accords?
WELCH: No, it has not completed that further stage of redeployment.
GILMAN: Then Syria is in violation of the Ta'if Accord, isn't that correct?
WELCH: I would describe it that some aspects of the Accord are unfulfilled so far and that redeployment from Lebanon to Syria has not been completed; nor has it been negotiated.
GILMAN: Unfulfilled. Does unfulfilled mean a violation?
WELCH: Well, what it means for us in terms of our judgment as to whether this thing will be implemented is that there are parts of it that have yet to be done. So it is a less than complete result.

This consistent refusal to publicly acknowledge Syrian violations of the Ta'if Accord (even in the inner chambers of the American congress, whose deliberations on Lebanon received only scant media attention) could not have stemmed from any conceivable national interest in legitimizing the Syrian occupation. Rather, it appears that the Clinton administration's efforts to do so stemmed from a desire to coax the Syrians into making the necessary concessions for peace with Israel.

This distinction is important - Clinton's objective was not to strengthen the Syrian presence, per say, but to bolster Syrian perceptions that their control over the country was not being contested by his administration. Thus, American officials were very responsive to the well-known paranoia that Syrian officials still have of Aoun. This was most evident in the days preceding the June 1997 congressional hearing mentioned above. Aoun had been invited by Gilman to testify before the committee and was listed on the committee's schedule just days before the hearing, but failed to appear. According to Lester Munson, Communications Director for the Committee on International Relations, "the State Department chose not to provide him with the necessary visa to come to the United States. At no time was his invitation to testify withdrawn."10 This appears to have been the first time that a US administration has ever deliberately obstructed the appearance of someone invited to testify before congress, a strong indication of how responsive the Clinton White House was to Syrian sensitivities.

The demise of the Syrian-Israeli track of the peace process last year brought an end to Clinton's dream of presiding over a peace treaty between the two foes. The failed Geneva summit between Clinton and Assad in March and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon in May led to a brief surge of American pressure on the Syrians to withdraw (intended, perhaps, to coax them back to the peace table with Israel), but Assad's death in June brought an end to this abortive initiative.

The Second Bush Administration

The new administration of George W. Bush has brought a fundamentally different perspective to American Mideast policy. Bush, Powell and other officials have indicated in no uncertain terms that the previous administration's quest to achieve a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty at all costs will be subordinated to the pursuit of other objectives, most notably the containment of Iraq's drive to produce weapons of mass destruction.

However, hopes that this policy shift would translate into a different approach to the Syrian-Lebanese quagmire have been dashed. As Powell made abundantly clear during and after his visit to Damascus last month, Syria will be as integral a player in the new American coalition against Iraq as it was in the Gulf War coalition forged by the first Bush administration ten years ago. The consequences for Lebanon will likely be devastating.

During his March 7 testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Secretary of State Powell presented a rather odd and flattering portrayal of Assad. The Syrian president, he said, supports the administration's new sanctions policy because "he, too, is concerned about weapons of mass destruction" - a rather surprising statement given that Syria possesses the Middle East's largest chemical weapons arsenal. In response to a question from Rep. Engel about what the administration is doing to press for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, Powell said cautiously that it would be beneficial to all concerned parties if "eventually at some point" the Syrian army left Lebanon. "I'd like to see it tomorrow, but it isn't going to happen tomorrow," he added, conspicuously neglecting to actually call upon Syria to do so.11

Powell's decision to abruptly cancel a stopover in Beirut after discussing tensions in south Lebanon with Syrian officials was interpreted by many Lebanese as a tilt toward Syria at the expense of Lebanon. Surprisingly, this decision even managed to offend members of Lebanon's pro-Syrian puppet regime. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri angrily declared that "it is not enough for him to visit Damascus" in a televised interview. Addressing Powell directly, Hariri added that "Lebanon is Lebanon and Syria is Syria."12

Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir
More ominously, Bush and Powell both refused to meet with the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Church during his visit to the United States this month, despite considerable prodding from representatives of the Lebanese American community. Powell even declined to make an appearance at a luncheon held in Sfeir's honor at the Vatican embassy in Washington on March 9, saying that his schedule was too full.

Sfeir, who met with then-President Ronald Reagan during his last visit to the US in 1988, was offered an opportunity to meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Edward Walker, but declined, saying that he wanted to meet only with senior officials. Shortly thereafter, Walker was invited to attend a dinner hosted by Lebanese ambassador Farid Abboud in Sfeir's honor on March 8, but did not attend. A State Department official later said that Walker had received the invitation, but "made his own decision for whatever reason not to attend."

In contrast to his reception in the United States, Sfeir was officially received in Canada by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Foreign Minister John Manley, the Speaker of the Senate, Senator Daniel Hays, and other official dignitaries.


Since the end of World War II, the inviolability of state sovereignty has become a deeply ingrained norm in the international community. Although satellitization - the institutionalized deprivation of a state's sovereignty by a foreign government - existed in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, this was an exception which seemed to prove the rule: only great powers strong enough to withstand the costs of international opprobrium dared violate the sacrosanct principle of sovereignty enshrined in the United Nations charter.

The post-1990 Lebanese satellite state is therefore a peculiar anomaly in the contemporary international system. The convergence of factors which account for the East European "exception" are not present in the case of Lebanon. Whereas the satellitization of Eastern European states was largely a manifestation of the global power structure and Soviet economic self-sufficiency, Lebanon is dominated by a militarily weak, economically bankrupt Third World state that is heavily dependent upon imports from the outside world.

Put simply, it is not Syria's ability to withstand the economic and political costs of international pariah status that explains its continuing occupation of Lebanon. Rather, it is the surprising and unprecedented failure of international opprobrium to materialize at all in this case that is the sine qua non of Syrian control over Lebanon. No representative of any country in the world (aside from Israel) today uses the term "occupation" to describe this military presence. De facto recognition of Syrian authority in Lebanon by the international community not only encourages Damascus to perpetuate its control ad infinitum, but discourages resistance to Syrian authority within Lebanon itself.

However, this broader international consensus is largely derivative of the American government's recognition of Syrian authority in Lebanon. US policymakers decided to back Syrian control over Lebanon much earlier than their counterparts in Europe and the Arab world. The immense influence of US policy on the formation of international consensus since the end of the Cold War is nowhere more evident than in the special state of affairs prevailing today in Lebanon.

The US government's tacit support for Syria's occupation of Lebanon is not endorsed outside the executive branch - both the Senate and the House of Representatives have passed resolutions calling for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The same phenomenon is also evident in France, where 62 members of parliament signed a petition in February demanding that Damascus pull its military out of Lebanon. Even in the most highly-advanced Western democracies, foreign policy decision-making is highly concentrated in the executive branch and not usually subject to legislative oversight.

In short, the current occupant of the American White House has the power to dramatically reshape international consensus on the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and faces few domestic political impediments to doing so. The fate of Lebanon rests squarely on the shoulders of George W. Bush.


  1 Hearing before the House Committee on International Relations, 7 March 2001 (see excerpt of this hearing, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, March 2001).
  2 The Washington Post, 12 April 1989.
  3 "State Department Welcomes Arab Plan for Lebanon." AP, 23 October 1989.
  4 Mednews-Middle East Defense News (Vol. 6 No. 9), 8 February 1993. See also William Harris, Faces of Lebanon (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers,1997), p. 268.
  5 An advisor to President Hrawi later paraphrased the US message as follows: "If the battle is prolonged, we will have to express our regret over the continued violence in Lebanon. If you fail, we will not condemn the action but call on the Lebanese to resort to dialogue to sort out their differences . . . Israel will not interfere as long as Syria does not approach south Lebanon or threaten [Israel's] security interests." See "US Agreed Not to Block Move By Syria on Aoun, Lebanon Says," The Washington Post, 16 October 1990.
  6 Carole H. Dagher, Bring Down the Walls: Lebanon's Postwar Challenge (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), pp. 180-181.
  7 "Statement of Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton on Lebanon (Excerpts)," The Beirut Review (No. 4), Fall 1992.
  8 Al-Wassat (Riyadh), 4 January 1993. Djerejian claimed to have been misquoted, but the editors of Al-Wassat insist that the the published version of his statement was accurate.
  9 "US Policy toward Lebanon," Hearing before the Committee on International Relations, 25 June 1997. Note that Mr. Welch deftly avoids the issue of whether Syria has redeployed to the Beqaa Valley, stating only that the "redeployment from Lebanon to Syria" has not been completed.
  10 Interview with author, 18 April 2000.
  11 Hearing before the House Committee on International Relations, 7 March 2001.
  12 Murr Television (Beirut), 25 February 2001.

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