Lebanon Table of Contents

For Lebanon's first three decades or so of independence, the outstanding feature of its foreign policy was its amicable relations with numerous countries. In the early 1970s, about eighty diplomatic representatives were accredited to Beirut. Not surprisingly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was one of the largest and most important ministries in the Council of Minister.

Before the 1975 Civil War, foreign relations were based to a large extent on the National Pact. Under this covenant, Lebanon had to walk a thin line between the desires of the Christian communities to associate more closely with the West and the wishes of the Muslim communities to underscore Lebanon's Arab identity. Indeed, when major crises struck, as they did in 1958 and in the late 1960s, they were primarily generated by these sensitive foreign policy issues. Try though Lebanon did to walk this line, its geographic location near the center of the Arab-Israeli dispute has prevented it from striking what, for a pluralistic society, was a very difficult balance.

During the 1975 Civil War and afterward, the central government was only one of many domestic actors involved in the making of foreign policy. It shared this role with the various alliances and militias that were formed. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, as central authority deterioriated, external actors, including Syria, Israel, Iran, and the Palestinians, also seized foreign-policy-making roles, although the first two were by far the most influential.


Historically under a variety of rulers, Syria and Lebanon (as well as some other countries) were considered one territory-- Greater Syria. It was only in 1920, while under the French mandate, that Greater Lebanon, which approximates the modern state, was separated from the larger entity. As a consequence, Lebanon and Syria traditionally have had strong bonds. Following World War II, after both had become independent, they shared a common currency and customs union and discussed economic union. In fact, the two had always been active trading partners, and when political disputes arose, each country often used economic means to pressure the other.

On a political level, the more powerful Syrian state has sometimes been viewed with suspicion in Lebanon. But because of intrasectarian feuds, no generalizations can be made in this regard; at one time or another, Syria has developed or dissolved friendships with a number of factions, Christian as well as Muslim.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Syria was wrestling with its own internal problems and was unable to focus on Lebanon's domestic ills. Even so, some sources have ascribed to Syria a prominent role in aggravating the 1958 disturbances, claiming that it worked to unseat the Shamun regime. Then, in the late 1960s the rise of Palestinian guerrilla activity in southern Lebanon contributed to tense relations with Syria. Although the Syrian government was reluctant to permit guerrilla attacks to originate from Syrian soil (for fear of Israeli reprisals), it was much less reticent to see such activity occur in southern Lebanon. Thus, in 1973, when the Lebanese Army finally engaged in fighting against Palestinian guerrillas, Syria closed its borders in protest.

Since the start of the 1975 Civil War, Syrian involvement in Lebanon has been substantial, if inconsistent. On the one hand, the regime of President Hafiz al Assad has opposed the permanent fragmentation of Lebanon, fearing that the creation of a Maronite ministate would amount to the establishment of "another Israel." On the other hand, Syria has resisted the notion of the formation of a radical, left-wing state on its western border. Furthermore, after having to deal with its own Muslim fundamentalist rebellion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Syria was concerned that a radical Islamic state in Lebanon would have negative domestic implications.

In the early stages of the Civil War, Syria acted as mediator, arranging several cease-fires. In February 1976 Syria helped formulate a political reform package, known as the Constitutional Document, that granted more power to Muslims; this compromise, however, was never implemented. When diplomacy failed, Syria intervened militarily. In March 1976, as the battle was going badly for the largely Christian Lebanese Front, Syria moved to prevent its total collapse, using Palestinian units under its control. In May Syria was instrumental in having Ilyas Sarkis, a pro-Syrian technocrat, elected president. By January 1977 about 27,000 Syrian troops were in Lebanon, technically as the largest part of the Arab Deterrent Force, set up by the League of Arab States (Arab League) in October 1976.

As the conflict wore on, the situation changed dramatically for Syria. In 1978 Bashir Jumayyil began his drive to incorporate all Christian militias under his LF. He provoked Syria's animosity by decimating in June 1978 The Marada Baigade, the pro-Syrian Franjiyah militia, and by his increasingly close ties to Israel. In response, Syria began to attack vigorously its erstwhile allies, the Christian forces, in effect making a complete about-face.

In the 1980s, Syria was the dominant external actor in Lebanon. It physically controlled much of the country, over which it imposed its will. At times, Syrian inaction, such as allowing one faction to war on another, had just as much impact as its active measures. Nonetheless, Syrian influence has had its limits. Its ability to impose stability--if, indeed, that was Assad's intention--has been frustrated by the multiplicity of factions, each with a different agenda. These limitations were visible during the 1982 invasion when Syria--alone among the Arab nations--opposed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Lebanese soil. Although it acquitted itself well, the Syrian Army was unable to halt the IDF advance or to prevent its own ejection from Beirut. Later, the insertion of the Multinational Force (MNF) also reduced Syrian influence for a time. In 1983, when Israel pressured the government of Amin Jumayyil to sign an accord, called the May 17 Agreement, that normalized relations between the two countries, Syria vehemently objected. It sponsored the formation of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of pro-Syrian groups, both Christian and Muslim, to oppose the agreement. The Syrian effort eventually succeeded, and on March 6, 1985, Jumayyil abrogated the May 17 Agreement and Israel finally withdrew some of its forces from parts of Lebanon.

There were additional examples of the strengths and limitations of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria brokered the Tripartite Accord, signed in late 1985 by the leaders of the main armed factions--Nabih Birri of Amal, Walid Jumblatt of the PSP, and Elie Hubayka of the LF. The accord's aim was to impose peace and to restructure the Lebanese Army. But when Jumayyil and anti-Syrian elements in the LF rebelled, the accord collapsed.

As of late 1987, Syrian troops were back in Beirut trying to keep peace, and Syrian influence was again significant. Even so, a true Syrian-imposed stabilty had not been achieved.

United States

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress