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Syria in Lebanon: Assad’s Vietnam?

The American-Egyptian-Israeli agreement has exacerbated the complexities of inter-Arab relations.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Whatever the ultimate results of the Camp David meeting, in the short term the American-Egyptian-Israeli agreement has exacerbated the complexities of inter-Arab relations. The ambivalence of Saudi Arabia and Jordan; the militancy of the "stead­fastness" group of Syria, Algeria, Libya, South Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); and the hostility of "rejectionist" Iraq have all contributed to the state of uncertainty prevailing in the Middle East. Of all these actors, however, Syria is probably the most crucial to the achievement of a lasting peace in the area.

Syria's response to the accords between Egypt and Israel is determined by a variety of ideological and strategic considerations. Yet one factor that must figure prominently in President Hafez Al Assad's calculations is Syria's intervention in the civil war in Lebanon. Like American involvement in Vietnam, Syria's continuing activity in Leb­anon is bound to be a heavy constraint on its regional and global policies. Thus, to be able to turn its attention more fully to the issue of Arab-Israeli relations, Syria must first extricate itself from its mounting prob­lems in Lebanon -- problems that seem to have been grossly underestimated by the Syrian decision makers when their armor first rolled into Lebanon on June 1, 1976.

The Syrian military intervention was in­tended to terminate the Lebanese civil war, which had been raging for 14 months be­tween the various militias of the Right, representing mainly the Maronite Christians, and the forces of the Left, consisting of Lebanese Muslims and Palestinian guerrillas. Considering that the Syrian action was an infringement on the sovereignty of a fully independent neighboring state, it received surprisingly wide support. However, inter­national endorsement could not have blinded the Syrian leaders to the enormous risks in­volved in such a venture. Egypt's disastrous intervention in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the equally unhappy American experi­ence in Vietnam are two glaring negative examples, Indeed, Lebanon is increasingly being referred to as Syria's Vietnam, for the Syrians, with their 25,000 troops and 500 tanks in Lebanon, are no nearer today than in June 1976 to finding a lasting solution to the Lebanese civil conflict.

Whatever the ultimate results of the Camp David meeting, in the short term the American-Egyptian-Israeli agreement has exacerbated the complexities of inter-Arab relations. The ambivalence of Saudi Arabia and Jordan; the militancy of the "stead­fastness" group of Syria, Algeria, Libya, South Yemen, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); and the hostility of "rejectionist" Iraq have all contributed to the state of uncertainty prevailing in the Middle East. Of all these actors, however, Syria is probably the most crucial to the achievement of a lasting peace in the area.

Syria’s response to the accords between Egypt and Israel is determined by a variety of ideological and strategic considerations. Yet one factor that must figure prominently in President Hafez Al Assad’s calculations is Syria’s intervention in the civil war in Lebanon. Like American involvement in Vietnam, Syria’s continuing activity in Leb­anon is bound to be a heavy constraint on its regional and global policies. Thus, to be able to turn its attention more fully to the issue of Arab-Israeli relations, Syria must first extricate itself from its mounting prob­lems in Lebanon — problems that seem to have been grossly underestimated by the Syrian decision makers when their armor first rolled into Lebanon on June 1, 1976.

The Syrian military intervention was in­tended to terminate the Lebanese civil war, which had been raging for 14 months be­tween the various militias of the Right, representing mainly the Maronite Christians, and the forces of the Left, consisting of Lebanese Muslims and Palestinian guerrillas. Considering that the Syrian action was an infringement on the sovereignty of a fully independent neighboring state, it received surprisingly wide support. However, inter­national endorsement could not have blinded the Syrian leaders to the enormous risks in­volved in such a venture. Egypt’s disastrous intervention in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the equally unhappy American experi­ence in Vietnam are two glaring negative examples, Indeed, Lebanon is increasingly being referred to as Syria’s Vietnam, for the Syrians, with their 25,000 troops and 500 tanks in Lebanon, are no nearer today than in June 1976 to finding a lasting solution to the Lebanese civil conflict.

On the contrary, the situation has de­cidedly deteriorated. After an initial period of calm, clashes began to occur in mid-1977 between the conflicting Lebanese parties. Gradually, the Syrian forces were drawn into the fighting, and by 1978 they had become involved in a bloody confrontation with the Israeli-backed Christian forces, par­ticularly those associated with the Kata’eb (Phalange) party of Pierre Gemayel and the National Liberal Party under the leadership of Camille Chamoun.

What were the bases of the Syrian deci­sion to commit troops to Lebanon and to an uncertain future? Three interdependent factors shaped the Syrian decision. A num­ber of fundamental Syrian values provided the ideological motivation for Damascus’s commitment to prevent the partition of Lebanon at any price. The support of the Sa’ath, Syria’s ruling party, reinforced and gave institutional legitimacy to that com­mitment. Finally, by June 1976 Syrian involvement in Lebanon was such that a military intervention was almost inevitable.

Drawing the Line

At the very basis of Syria’s decision to intervene in Lebanon was the Syrian con­viction that Israel is innately expansionist. The Damascus regime was convinced that a partition of Lebanon would give Israel the pretext to move into southern Lebanon and occupy the area up to the Litani River. According to Syria’s decision makers, the Litani River, the Jordan River, and the Golan Heights have always been the goals in Israel’s quest for natural borders with its hostile eastern neighbors. Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon would, of course, in­crease Syria’s strategic vulnerability consider­ably by providing Israel with a new front in any future confrontation. The Israelis could engage the Syrians on the Golan while undertaking a quick thrust aimed at Damas­cus through the highly exposed Beqa’ Valley in Lebanon, and the Syrians are hardly capable of fighting Israel on two fronts.

The Syrians also believed that the Israelis would quickly and effectively use any re­ligious turmoil in Lebanon to expose the conceptual and practical weaknesses inherent in the highly publicized goal of creating a secular democratic Palestine. Thus, accord­ing to Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Ab­dullah al-Khani, they were convinced from the very beginning of the civil war that "Israel would vigorously use the sectarian conflict in Lebanon to vindicate the Israeli refusal to democratize its system and accept the Palestinians back into a secular state." In other words, the Israelis would justifiably argue that if the Arabs themselves could not coexist in one country because of religious differences, then why should the Palestinians and their Syrian mentors expect Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians to live harmoniously in a future secular state?

What is more, the Syrians believe that Lebanon and Syria are really integral parts of a Greater Syria and that the division between the two countries was artificially created by the French in the early part of this century to serve their own colonial interests. Accordingly. Syria does not have an embassy in Lebanon, and there are no restrictions on movement between the two countries. Assad has frequently stressed the "historic indivisibility" of the two. To Assad, the Syrians and Lebanese "are one people," and consequently, as he once told the British Broadcasting Company, "it is difficult to draw a line between Lebanon’s security in its broadest sense and Syria’s security."

Given this perception, the Syrians were bound actively to discourage religious con­flicts in Lebanon for fear of any spillover into Syria’s own sectarian schisms. The overwhelming majority of the Syrian popu­lation belongs to the orthodox Muslim Sunni sect, while Assad and several other key members of the regime belong to the hereti­cal Alawi sect of Islam. Sectarian eruptions have occurred in the past, the most serious in March and April of 1973, when the Sunnis took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of a secular constitution that was introduced by the Assad regime. While on the surface, popular anger was aimed at secularism, it also stemmed from Sunni re­sentment of the perceived Alawi domination of governmental institutions. Thus, in the wake of these religious disturbances, Assad encouraged the Sunni ulama (religious lead­ers) to declare the Alawi sect an integral part of Islam. Moreover, the sectarian break­down of Syrian society ceased to be recorded in the country’s official statistical yearbook.

Syria’s determination not to allow the disintegration of Lebanon stemmed also from Syria’s traditional perception of itself as the birthplace and guardian of Arab nationalism. Thus, Assad is one of the diminishing breed of Arab leaders who genuinely and obsti­nately adhere to the often tried, but seldom successful, concept of Arab unity. In their textbooks, for example, the Syrians reso­lutely refuse to attach the label "state" to the other Arab countries, but persist in referring to them as "regions" of the Arab homeland. Given this ideologically based perception, therefore, the Syrian leaders are firmly opposed to any possible Balkanization of the Arab Middle East.

At the very basis of Syria’s de­cision to intervene in Lebanon was the Syrian conviction that Israel is innately expansionist.

Reinforcing this ideological trend in Syria is the ruling Ba’ath party, a virulently nationalist party that perceives itself to be the guardian of all Arab nationalist causes. Thus, while the presidency in Syria has without doubt been the central institution in the decision-making process. Assad’s power has by no means been absolute. The Ba’ath party is a powerful subsystem in Syria’s presidential system. Assad’s predominance should not suggest that the Ba’ath serves a purely mobilizational function for the re­gime. On the contrary the party vigorously participates in policy-making and is regu­larly consulted by the president, through the Regional and National Commands. Accord­ing to Adib al-Dawoodi, Assad’s foreign affairs adviser. "It is very rare that the president would take an important policy decision without prior evaluations and con­sultations within the government and some­times outside it, such as university professors. Consultations usually center on the com­mands of the Ba’ath party … If there is no time, he will certainly make a point of at least contacting by phone some members of the party leadership."

One reason for this presidential sensitivity to party demands is Assad’s awareness that the legitimacy of his regime rests on the system of values advocated by the Ba’ath. Consequently, the presidency and the party in Syria are dependent on each other for ideological credibility and political survival — a dependence that is very rare in Arab political systems, where all public institu­tions are completely subservient to the power and authority of the chief executive.

A Blatant Challenge

On April 13, 1975, an unidentified car opened fire on a church in the Christian suburb of Ain Rumaneh in Lebanon, killing two members of the Kata’eb. In the evening of the same day, Kata’eb militia ambushed a bus full of Palestinians, killing 27 and wounding 19, a number of whom were women and children. The tensions under­lying the confessional character of the Leb­anese political system, based on a division of power along religious lines, had finally ex­ploded with a vengeance.

In the following months the fighting spread to other parts of Lebanon, so that by the end of 1975 the country was almost completely polarized between the leftist­-Muslim alliance and the rightist-Christian forces. During this period Syrian involve­ment was restrained, concentrating on medi­ating between the conflicting parties. How­ever, in January 1976, when the Christian Maronites launched an offensive designed to expel Muslim and alien elements from the "Christian homeland." The Syrians had to intervene more forcefully. To the Syrians the Maronite action signaled the beginning of a de facto partition of the country along sectarian lines, an eventuality they were bound to resist vigorously.

With the situation in Lebanon deterio­rating rapidly, Assad formed a nine-member, ad hoc cabinet under his chairmanship to formulate all-important decisions concerning Lebanon. The composition of the cabinet reflected the importance of Lebanon to the Syrian leaders. In addition to the president, it was composed of the top-ranking represen­tatives of the army, air force and intelligence service, the leader of the Palestinian guerrilla group Al Saiqa (Lightning), the prime min­ister, the foreign minister, and the two most senior representatives of the Regional Com­mand of the Ba’ath party.

The first major action of the cabinet was to dispatch units of the Syrian-controlled Palestine Liberation Army to Lebanon to prevent the perceived Christian efforts to partition the country. While in no sense a full-fledged military intervention, this initial Syrian operation emphasized Syria’s deter­mination to achieve its ideological and stra­tegic goals in Lebanon, by force if necessary. The intervention tilted the balance signifi­cantly in favor of the Muslim-Palestinian forces and allowed the Syrians to work out a "national covenant" designed to regulate and modify the Lebanese political system. The hitherto dominant Maronites had no choice but to agree with Syrian dictates.

The Damascus regime grossly underesti­mated the ideological and political polariza­tion in Lebanon. Upon gaining military in­itiative, the leftists began to demand the total subjugation of the Maronites. Acting against Syrian wishes, they tried to consolidate their newly gained advantage by continuing, even escalating, their offensive against the Chris­tians. Indeed, as the defeat of the Christian Maronites became imminent, the Syrians were forced to intervene against their natural friends, the Muslim-Palestinian alliance.

The initial intervention by Syrian troops in June 1976 was tentative and did not seek to subjugate totally the dissenting Muslim-Palestinian forces. Thus, a situation of military and political stalemate prevailed during the summer months, until the Syrians finally decided to launch a punitive offensive against the leftists in the Lebanese mountains in October. The leftists suffered a massive defeat, and the presence of the Syrian troops in Lebanon was later sanctioned by a meet­ing of the Arab heads of state in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in late October.

At first the outcome of the Syrian opera­tion seemed conclusive. In a March 1977 speech, Assad described the Syrian involve­ment as "the most brilliant achievement of Syria and the Arab nation" and went on to "note with pleasure that the situation in Leb­anon was returning to normal." This claim, however, proved to be somewhat precipitant. Before long, the Syrian-imposed cease-fire began to crumble, first in isolated incidents and then with an ever-increasing frequency and intensity in various parts of Lebanon.

By mid-1977 clashes between the rival Lebanese factions had become an almost daily occurrence. This was particularly true in the south, where Israel was actively back­ing the Maronites against the Palestinians in what was hitherto called Fatahland, for the guerrillas who used the area to launch attacks against Israel. The Christians, who had tactically allied themselves with the Syrians against the leftists in 1976, soon realized that Syria was determined to prevent both the partitioning of Lebanon and the total defeat of either Lebanese faction. Not con­tent with merely sharing power, the Chris­tian Maronite leadership reactivated their struggle against the Palestinians and their Syrian patrons and proceeded with plans to effect a de facto partition of the country. By 1978 the Christian area of Mount Lebanon was beginning to acquire all the social and economic characteristics of an autonomous political entity.

Obviously, the Syrians could not tolerate such a blatant and dangerous challenge to their authority for very long. Thus, in June 1978, using heavy bombardment and rocket fire, Syrian armor mercilessly pounded the Christian area of East Beirut, demanding the complete submission of the militant Maronite forces. The Christians, however, supported increasingly by the Israelis, were in no mood to negotiate, let alone surrender. On the contrary they defiantly reiterated their demand for an immediate Syrian withdrawal, and in September and October they felt con­fident enough to move to the offensive.

The Syrians retaliated with the usual massive bombardment of Christian areas, in­flicting heavy casualties on the civilian popu­lation. However, the Syrians were once again unsuccessful in undermining the resolve or capability of the Christians to continue the struggle, which, according to Chamoun, "could go on for the next 40 years." Thus, by late 1978 the Syrians had become bogged down in a morale-draining occupation, un­able to extricate themselves from the civil war, yet equally impotent in effecting an en­during resolution to the conflict. Moreover, they were drawn into increasingly unpopular battles, risking an ill-prepared confrontation with Israel. Finally, under heavy interna­tional pressure, the Syrians declared a cease­fire in early October, and their forces were replaced in several strategic locations in Chris­tian East Beirut by Saudi and Sudanese units. Yet the Syrian government has not com­mitted itself to withdrawing any troops from Lebanon, thus leaving the danger of further eruptions undiminished.

An Aura of Superiority

Two major problems militated against the success of the Syrian venture. In the first place, due to Lebanon’s confessional system, domestic divisions and intercom­munal hostility had pervaded Lebanese society since independence. The lack of violent eruptions for long periods only meant that antagonisms remained dormant. Thus, conflict was inherent in the very struc­ture of the Lebanese political and social sys­tems, and consequently an enduring resolu­tion of the conflict could be achieved only by dismantling the existing system and creating a totally new order.

Yet the Syrian intervention was intended only to modify, while essentially preserving, the existing Lebanese order. Egalitarian though such a solution might be, it was bound to be counterproductive to per­manent resolution of the conflict. The Syrian leaders soon discovered this simple truth when their efforts throughout 1977 to create a national Lebanese army (the "new military generation") collapsed in the spring of 1978 with the eruption of hostilities and schisms in the ranks. The Syrians, more­over, were resolutely against the partitioning of the country and were determined to pre­vent one party from scoring an outright military victory over the other-two even­tualities that paradoxically could have re­solved the long-standing conflict. In a sense it could be argued that the Syrians were themselves instrumental in prolonging the conflict in Lebanon.

The second reason for Syria’s lack of suc­cess in resolving the Lebanese conflict relates to the activities of Israel in the area. From the very beginning of their intervention, the Syr­ians were never in complete control of Leba­non. To the Israelis, the area south of the Litani River represented a strategic reserve to be occupied only by friendly elements.

The Israeli view was communicated to the Syrians as early as January 1977 when Syrian troops, under the banner of the Arab peacekeeping force, moved into the town of Nabatiye in southern Lebanon to stop the fighting between the Christians and the Palestinians, Israel warned Syria in no un­certain terms to withdraw its troops or risk a confrontation with the Jewish state. Very soon after this threat, the Syrians pulled back. Since then, even in cases of blatant Israeli operations in the area, the Syrian troops have been kept well away from the south.

While this represents a rational strategic decision on the part of the Syrian leadership based on a correct and realistic analysis of existing capabilities, Syrian lack of response to Israeli activities in the area has had a pro­found psychological impact on the Lebanese combatants. The aura of overwhelming superiority, even invincibility, that char­acterized Syria’s swift military advance in the autumn of 1976 had, by mid-and late 1978, almost completely disappeared. In­deed, the Syrian reluctance to clash with the Israelis highlighted the vulnerability of Syria’s position in Lebanon, a vulnerability bound to increase the confidence of the Israeli-supported militant anti-Syrian forces.

Israel’s activity in Lebanon is not aimed only at keeping southern Lebanon free of Syrian forces. Israeli leaders have much broader strategic and political objectives. It is certainly in Israel’s interest to keep the 25,000 Syrian troops, representing some of Syria’s elite fighting units, in Lebanon and away from the Golan Heights and the Mount Hermon front. Indeed, the Israelis have actively endeavored to prolong the Syrian presence in Lebanon as long as the Syrians are embroiled in the country’s in­ternal schisms and quarrels. The Israelis have successfully achieved this through their military backing of the Christian forces in the south and their political and military alliance with the anti-Syrian Maronite leaders in the rest of the country.

Moreover, by reducing Syria’s war-wag­ing capability, the Israelis are undermining the credibility of the Syrian argument that in any negotiation with Israel, an essential element of the Arab bargaining position must be the ability of the Arabs to activate the war option, a position that is the corner­stone of Assad’s disagreement with Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat. And since Syria is by far the most militant of the Arab con­frontation states, it is in Israel’s interest to highlight the inadequacy of the Syrian argument to the Arab world.

This, then, is the extent of Syria’s di­lemma in Lebanon. Syria is torn between, on the one hand, ideological and political commitments that prescribe a specific course of action, and. on the other hand, the de­velopment of practical imperatives that re­quire a different, almost contradictory, re­sponse, The Syrians must safeguard the unity of Lebanon and prevent the subjuga­tion of one local faction to the other. Yet the events since June 1976 increasingly suggest that under those conditions it is almost impossible to achieve an enduring resolution to the conflict that would sub­stantively serve Syrian interests. On the contrary the Syrian objectives might very well prolong the conflict.

It is, however, clear that the Syrian leaders cannot live with the present uncertain and necessarily inconclusive state of affairs indefinitely. Ultimately. they will have to choose one of two polar options. They could engage the Maronite Christians mili­tarily, with the objective of subjugating them to the Syrian will. A puppet pro­-Syrian regime could then be installed, thus ensuring complete Lebanese compliance with Syrian dictates. However, such a course of action would entail a high level of risk, given Israel’s commitment to the survival of the Christian community in Lebanon and its interest in prolonging Syria’s involvement in the divided country. Nevertheless. Assad and the Syrian leadership have in the past shown themselves more than adept at mak­ing unexpected and risky decisions, if these were considered necessary for the survival of the regime.

Alternatively, the Syrians could with­draw altogether and leave the Lebanese to settle the conflict alone. Having extricated themselves physically from the imbroglio, they could then clandestinely aid their clients in Lebanon, thus preventing anti-Syrian elements from assuming power. However, given Syria’s mounting commitment in Lebanon, such a course of action could have serious consequences for Assad’s position in Syria itself. For the Syrian population has been consistently urged by the government to accept the social and economic sacrifices resulting from the intervention, on the basis of moral and ideological precepts flow­ing from Syria’s duty to "safeguard the unity of sisterly Lebanon." To take an action now that could be perceived as abandoning Lebanon to its fate would un­dermine the credibility, and consequently the legitimacy, of the Assad regime. Hence, the Syrians will need to assess very carefully the costs before embarking on a Vietnam­-type withdrawal from Lebanon.

It should, however, be emphasized that whichever alternative the Syrians choose, the repercussions of their policies will reverberate beyond the confines of the Lebanese conflict and will have serious implications for the area as a whole. As a result, when formu­lating their policies, the Syrian policy makers will have to take into account the effect their decisions will have not only on Lebanon and Syria but also on Middle Eastern political in­teractions generally, including the activities and interests of the superpowers in the area.

Diluted Euphoria

What then are the regional and interna­tional implications of Syria’s continuing involvement in the Lebanese conflict? There is little doubt that in the light of recent de­velopments, which signal Egypt’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East conflict, the Syrians will be even more anxious to resolve, by whatever means, the Lebanese problem. However, they will have to take into consideration the possible reactions of important international and regional actors. In the global system, Soviet and American interests in Lebanon are diametrically op­posed. A Syrian offensive against the right­-wing Christian Maronites would no doubt be encouraged by the Soviets, since it might lead to the installation of a leftist regime dependent for its economic and military aid on the Soviet Union. In return, the Kremlin leaders might expect the use of Lebanese ports that would compensate them for the loss of Egyptian naval facilities in 1976.

The United States, on the other hand, will obviously endeavor to prevent further Soviet encroachment in the area. The Amer­ican euphoria over Egypt’s defection to the West in the wake of the 1973 October war has recently been diluted somewhat by Soviet successes in Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Afghanistan. Washington would therefore be strongly opposed to a leftist takeover in Lebanon, which might follow a total Chris­tian defeat at the hands of the Syrians. However, unlike the Soviets, the Americans have only very limited influence on the Damascus regime. This is due primarily to the Syrians’ own negative image of Ameri­can intentions in the area. The Syrians tend to believe that U.S. Middle East policies have always been aimed at strengthening Israel at the expense of Arab interests.

It is on this issue that the divergence between Syrian and Egyptian attitudes and policies is most pronounced. Whereas Sadat tends to exaggerate the ability or willingness of the United States to pressure Israel to re­linquish the occupied territories, Assad is in­clined to see most American mediation efforts in conspiratorial terms, dismissing them as harmful to the Arab cause. Consequently, the United States has to depend on a number of Middle Eastern clients to safeguard Amer­ican interests in the Lebanese issue area.

Washington’s primary ally in the area is Saudi Arabia. Due to their immense finan­cial wealth, the Saudi rulers have become pivotal actors in inter-Arab and Middle Eastern politics. As the foremost status-quo power in the region. Saudi Arabia shares American fears of a radical, pro-Soviet take­over in Lebanon. The Saudi regime would undoubtedly perceive such an eventuality as dangerously disruptive to the Middle East as a whole and ultimately to its own security at home. Past experience has shown that in order to emphasize this particular concern to the Syrians, the Riyadh government will continue to use its annual $600 million sub­sidy to the Syrian economy in order to dis­courage them from inflicting a total defeat on the conservative Christian forces.

The Saudi position, moreover, is bound to be reinforced by the Jordanians, who are also wary of a possible leftist-Palestinian takeover in Lebanon. Aside from their deeply rooted ambivalence toward the PLO, the Jordanians are concerned about the pos­sibility of a radical leftist, yet militarily weak, Lebanon adopting militant attitudes toward Israel, thus unwittingly dragging Jordan into a precipitant and inopportune confrontation with the powerful Jewish state. Amman will therefore no doubt im­press upon Damascus the perils of such a situation for both Jordan and Syria.

Balancing this moderate regional influence are the radical Arab state — including Al­geria, Libya, and South Yemen — who are liable to follow the Soviet policy by con­doning, even encouraging, a Syrian on­slaught against the right-wing Christian Maronites. Syrian militancy is likely to be further encouraged by the competition for ideological orthodoxy between the Syrian leadership and its rival Ba’athist regime in Iraq, which forces the Syrians to appear un­compromising about radical Arab causes. In spite of these factors, it is difficult to see how the Damascus regime can act against the wishes of the financially and strategically crucial moderate Arab states, particularly since the policy of these states coincides with Israel’s publicly stated commitment to the Christian Maronites.

The present situation in Lebanon, there­fore, with intermittent eruptions, tension, accusations, and recriminations, is likely to continue for some time. As has been noted, however, the Syrians cannot afford to keep their troops in Lebanon indefinitely, espe­cially in the present atmosphere of increased tensions in the aftermath of the Camp David agreements. Consequently, apart from the possible domestic repercussions mentioned earlier, it seems that, in the long term, the least damaging alternative open to the Syrian leadership is a complete withdrawal from Lebanon. Even the domestic consequences could be avoided if the Syrian leaders take certain steps that are not dissimilar to those taken by the Americans in Vietnam.

Certain points of the January 1973 peace agreement between the United States and North Vietnam could be emulated by the Syrians. The Damascus regime could begin by setting up a three-party Council of Na­tional Reconciliation for settling internal disputes, consisting of Maronites. Lebanese Muslims, and Palestinians, along the lines of the one provided for in the Vietnam accords. The Syrians could then hand over peacekeep­ing responsibility to an Arab force, drawn from friendly Arab countries acceptable to all parties to the conflict. This force would be under the control of an Arab League commis­sion, similar to the International Control Commission set up by the Paris agreements to supervise the developments in Vietnam.

With Syrian assistance, the council and the commission could work together to pro­duce, in the Camp David spirit, a general "Framework for Peace in Lebanon," avoid­ing specific points of disagreement. The Syrian government could then withdraw from Lebanon, presenting its retreat to its own population as honorable and designed to enhance the long-term prospects for peace in the country. If they are able to achieve this, given Syria’s contiguity to Lebanon, and consequently its greater ability to ma­nipulate further developments, the Syrian withdrawal might very well prove to be far more successful than the U.S. exit from Vietnam.

Adeed I. Dawisha is a public policy scholar.

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