The Sarkis Administration

Lebanon Table of Contents

In December 1976 Sarkis appointed as prime minister Salim al Huss (also spelled Hoss), who chose a cabinet of technocrats that was authorized to rule by decree for six months (later extended). One of the first tasks this government faced was the reorganization of the army, most of whose members had deserted during the Civil War to join one of the various factions. Although the intention of the Cairo Agreement was to station Lebanese military units in southern Lebanon, instead the ADF controlled the area only to the Litani River, leaving the region south of it in the hands of the Palestinians. So strong was their presence that certain areas became known as Fatahland, after the main PLO grouping. Relations with Syria and the problem of the Palestinians in southern Lebanon remained central concerns for Lebanon throughout the period from 1976 to 1982.

The degree of cooperation between the Sarkis administration and Syrian authorities varied, depending on external circumstances in the region. Initially, recognizing its dependence on Syria and Syrian military forces to preserve the peace, the Lebanese government generally cooperated. By late 1977, however, as a result of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations and Syria's consequent rapprochement with the PLO, Lebanese-Syrian relations cooled. In its own role and in its use of the ADF, Syria found itself in an awkward position because it could not fully exert its authority in Lebanon unless it succeeded in disarming both the Lebanese Christian militias and the PLO. However, it was not prepared to pay the political and military price for doing so and consequently was obliged to maintain a large army in Lebanon, causing a serious drain on Syria's economy.

Relations between Lebanon and Syria deteriorated further when fighting occurred between the ADF and the Lebanese Army in East Beirut in February 1978, followed by a massive ADF bombardment of Christian sectors of Beirut in July. President Sarkis resigned in protest against the latter action but was persuaded to reconsider. Syrian bombardments of East Beirut ended in October 1978 as a result of a UN Security Council cease-fire resolution that indirectly implicated Syria as a party to the Lebanese Civil War. To strengthen its influence over the Sarkis government, Syria threatened several times, in late 1978 and early 1979, to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. But after a relatively cordial meeting between presidents Sarkis and Assad in Damascus in May 1979, Syria stated that the ADF--which by then had become a totally Syrian force--would "remain in Lebanon as long as the Arab interests so require."

From early 1980 onward, Syria became increasingly preoccupied with its domestic difficulties, leaving the Sarkis administration with a freer hand. However, significant ADF action against the Phalange Party militia, headed by Bashir Jumayyil, took place around Zahlah (fifty kilometers east of Beirut) in late 1980 and April 1981. This military threat to its Christian ally caused Israel to intervene, and it shot down two Syrian helicopters over Lebanon. Syria, in turn, introduced SA-2 and SA-6 surface-to-air missiles into Lebanon; the resulting "missile crisis" threatened to cause a regional war, but this possibility was averted through the mediation efforts of other Arab nations and the United States.

Relations with the Palestinians were complex and interrelated with influences in southern Lebanon. In the early days of the Civil War, the relative peace in southern Lebanon had attracted Lebanese refugees from other areas. After the Palestinians left the area to fight elsewhere, Christian militias, led by Lebanese Army officers supported by Israel, took control of a large part of the south. Israel had forged this link in 1977 with Lebanese officers as part of its "Good Fence" policy to prevent a Palestinian presence near Israel's northern border.

However, conflicting interests were at work in southern Lebanon. On the one hand, the Sarkis government saw an opportunity to regain control of the area. On the other hand, the Palestinians, who objected to Syrian efforts to confiscate their heavy weapons and control their activities in the rest of Lebanon, felt they would have greater freedom to operate in the south. For their part, the Syrians wished to eliminate Israeli influence there, while the Israelis wanted direct contact with the population of southern Lebanon and wished to keep both the Syrians and the Palestinians out of the area.

As early as 1977, fighting occurred in the south between the Christian militia under Major Saad Haddad and the Palestinians, who had reinfiltrated the area and were receiving Syrian assistance. The resulting large-scale destruction in the southern area, which Haddad had renamed "Free Lebanon" and which was inhabited mainly by Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians, caused the migration of approximately 200,000 people, or one-third of the population.

To clarify the provisions of the October 1976 Cairo Agreement (preceded by an earlier 1969 agreement) concerning Palestinian activity in southern Lebanon, representatives of Lebanon, Syria (in the guise of the ADF), and the Palestinians held a conference at Shtawrah in July and August 1977. The resulting Shtawrah Accord basically endorsed the Syrian position, which called for the Palestinians to withdraw fifteen kilometers from the Israeli border, with this area to be occupied by the Lebanese Army, and charged the ADF with protecting the southern coastal area. Execution of the agreement, however, was difficult because neither the Palestinians nor the Lebanese Army wished to make the first move, and Israel was apprehensive of increased Syrian influence in the area.

The situation in the south was exacerbated by the entry of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into southern Lebanon in retaliation for a March 11, 1978, Palestinian guerrilla attack on an Israeli bus near Tel Aviv, in which several people were killed. The IDF staged an all-out attack, and over 25,000 troops occupied positions as far north as the Litani River and remained in Lebanon for three months. The UN called on Israel to withdraw, and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was sent to replace the Israelis, who withdrew in stages. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in June, Haddad's South Lebanon Army (SLA--formerly the Free Lebanon Army) took over most of the areas Israel previously controlled.

Throughout the Sarkis administration, various shifts were also occurring in domestic politics. Prime Minister Huss, a moderate Sunni Muslim, was unable to form a national unity government, as requested by Sarkis in the spring of 1978, but remained in office for two more years. In October 1980, Shafiq al Wazzan, another moderate Sunni and chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council, became prime minister. His government experienced even greater difficulties in holding office, with more than half of the Chamber of Deputies refusing to endorse his cabinet. The inability of the Lebanese Army to maintain any effective control over the country was a major factor contributing to the weakness of these Lebanese governments.

Additional shifts occurred among Lebanese military and political groups. The Shias continued to grow in importance, and in 1980 clashes broke out in the south between Amal, the Shia military arm, which was becoming increasingly a political instrument, and Fatah, a part of the PLO. On the Christian side, the Lebanese Front experienced severe internal disagreements. In July 1980 Bashir Jumayyil and his Phalangist militia scored a resounding triumph over the Tigers, the militia of the National Liberals under Camille Shamun and his son Dani. This victory paved the way for Jumayyil's subsequent prominence. Israeli support of the Lebanese Front was curtailed in 1981, as a condition set by the Lebanese National Movement and by Syria for any attempt at an overall resolution of the Lebanese situation.

Lebanon's security deteriorated significantly in late 1981 and the first half of 1982. There were continuous clashes in West Beirut, Tripoli, and southern Lebanon during this period. In September automible bombings occurred in West Beirut, Sidon, and Tripoli, along with a campaign of terror against foreign diplomats. These violent incidents were followed by terrorist attacks against Muslim and Christian religious leaders in April 1982. The result of these large-scale breaches of the peace was a growing disillusionment on the part of Lebanese Muslims with the ability of the Lebanese National Movement, the PLO, or Syria (through the ADF) to control matters in areas where they were nominally in charge. As a consequence, more moderate and conservative Sunni and Shia figures gained leadership opportunities; a number of them overtly favored the Lebanese government's reestablishing its authority over the country. Shaykh Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad Din (also seen as Chamseddine), vice chairman of the Higher Shia Islamic Council, for example, requested that the Lebanese Army be sent in to quell fighting between the Shia Amal and the PLO in the south, the Biqa Valley, and parts of West Beirut. Clashes in Tripoli, the largest Sunni city, during this period also resulted in requests that the Lebanese Army enter the area.

The general discontent with the situation on the part of various elements of the population provided a favorable opportunity for the Phalange Party's efforts in the 1982 presidential campaign. Bashir Jumayyil saw himself as a leading candidate because the Phalange Party had established its political power by overwhelming the Shamun militia in 1980 and had the largest Lebanese militia, by that time called the Lebanese Forces. However, Bashir's close ties to Israel and his proposals for eliminating both the ADF and the PLA from the Lebanese scene understandably met with sharp opposition from Assad and Arafat, both of whom considered Jumayyil's brother Amin more acceptable. This, then, was the situation in Lebanon when Israel invaded on June 6, 1982, in retaliation for the assassination attempt on the Israeli ambassador to London.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress