Five decades of questions: Lebanon after the Syrian occupation

Lebanon was once known as the most prosperous nation in the Middle East to emerge from the post Sykes-Picot map, despite the inherent flaws of the Levantine nation. Escalating sectarian conflict, economic inequality, pan-Arab nationalism and regional strife would eventually lead to the extremely brutal 15-year Lebanese civil war, a conflict that killed 150,000 civilians and combatants. Dozens of militias, all attached to various ideologues, have taken part in hundreds of armed clashes, some of which have pitted former neighbors against each other. Several countries played a major role in the carnage, such as Israel and Syria, the latter of which eventually decreed a 30-year occupation of Lebanon.

Syria’s three-decade occupation has been quite brutal. The “elections” that took place were nothing more than a sham with people hand-picked to lead a corrupt government. There was assassinations of political figures and the mass detention of political dissidents without due process, which has occurred quite frequently. To this day, the fate of hundreds of Lebanese in Syrian prisons remains ambiguous and quite frightening considering the Syrian Baathist party methods of torture and abuse.

Syria officially intervened in the Lebanese civil war, initially fighting Palestinian militias, but then implementing its own imperialist ambitions, claiming Lebanon as part of “Greater Syria”. In order to solidify this grip, Syria would rely on two militias that generally supported the Syrian occupation: Hezbollah and Amal. Both were Shia militias, largely marginalized in Lebanon due to the political system set up by France, but both have become major parties in the current political context of the country. The decisive conflict that solidified the occupation was the war of liberation against the Lebanese army, led by Michel Aoun, driven from his presidential palace in Baabda and exiled to France for several decades. The Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination created by the Syrian government and the Lebanese puppet government essentially gave Syria impunity to do whatever it wanted in Lebanon on the pretext that it was a “security problem”.

The Syrian government would eventually disarm all militias except Hezbollah. Their justification was that Israel still occupied the south; however, even after Israel’s withdrawal, Hezbollah was allowed to retain its weapons. IRGC-created militia reportedly playing major role as occupation enforcers, while allegedly linked to high-profile assassinations, such as that of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The occupation authorities did not hesitate to abuse Lebanese citizens who were suspicious of the geopolitical motives of Damascus. In March 1996, five members of the Lebanese Popular Convention were detained solely for distribute leaflets criticizing the occupation. There were several militant organizations that documented the kidnappings and unlawful detentions such as SOLIDE (Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile) and the Association of former Lebanese political detainees in Syria. Despite the efforts of these groups, there are still at least 650 Lebanese detained in Syria since the time of the occupation. It has rekindled hope for distraught families who hope their missing loved ones are still alive; but also desperation, since Syria has sent many of these militants to the infamous Sednaya Prison in Damascus.

Sednaya Prison is infamous for the abuse, torture and extrajudicial executions detainees and prisoners, many of whom were charged and sentenced by mock courts set up by the Syrian government. According to an Amnesty International report, at least 13,000 people have been killed in prison since the start of the Syrian civil war. Identifying the victims has been difficult, as Syrian intelligence services use mass graves to hide their crimes. One can only imagine how many Lebanese have been killed in this prison since the Syrian occupation in 1976.

The Syrian occupation left a deep scar in Lebanon still felt to this day. Syrian allies fought to expand Damascus influence in Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution, including Hezbollah, Amal, Marada, and the Free Patriotic Movement, among others. Hezbollah still maintains close ties with Syria, sending thousands of fighters across the border to support Assad and channeling iranian weapons through the Bekaa Valley with the help of the Syrian army.

Lebanon has endured horrors most people cannot imagine, with deep scars in an economic collapse on 2020 destruction of the port of Beirut, and reinforced sectarian tensions throughout the nation. International organizations such as the United Nations must continue to pressure Syria to reveal the fate of the missing Lebanese before any further normalization.

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Michael A. Bynum