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Israel’s Occupation of Lebanon Failed. Turkey’s Invasion of Syria Probably Will, Too.
Safe zones rarely bring security benefits, and the Turkish incursion in northern Syria risks ending the same way as Israel’s disastrous occupation of southern Lebanon.
Operation Peace Spring, as the Turkish government has dubbed its invasion of northern Syria, brings to memory an earlier invasion in the Middle East in the midst of a civil war in an attempt to create a buffer zone that would supposedly bring peace: the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The war in Lebanon ultimately resulted in thousands of casualties, sparked the emergence of Hezbollah, and led to an 18-year occupation that ended only after a protracted guerrilla war. Both operations have soothing names (Israel used “Peace for Galilee”), but beyond their similar titles, there are important parallels that Turkey would do well to study in assessing the potential ramifications of its current war in northern Syria.
Israel’s incursion into Lebanon started in 1978 after it created a security zone in the southern portion of the country. It was an attempt to push back Palestinian guerrillas using the area as a launchpad for violent operations against Israel. It escalated its action in June 1982, launching a full-fledged invasion with the aim of uprooting Palestinian guerrillas and destabilizing the Palestinian national movement, pushing Syrian forces out of the country, and establishing a pro-Israel government in Beirut.
The invasion did succeed in forcing Palestinian guerrillas out of Lebanon, but the operation’s remaining objectives completely failed. The actual outcome was that Israel expanded and fortified its southern Lebanon security belt by propping up the local militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and then spent the next 18 years defending this buffer zone from a Hezbollah insurgency. It failed to drive out Syrian forces or establish a pro-Israel government in Beirut.
In fact, the buffer zone itself did little to protect Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ended up fighting only to defend the existence of the security zone, which effectively became the central purpose of the occupation. The initial premise of protecting Israel from Palestinian attacks was long gone, but by then the conflict had transformed, and most Israelis failed to notice the change.
Southern Lebanon is a heterogeneous region whose population is composed of a mix of Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Maronites, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and more. In Israeli popular imagination—and often in media reports—the war was depicted as one between Israel and its Christian allies against hostile Lebanese Shiites. In fact, more than 50 percent of SLA soldiers were Shiite, Sunni, or Druze, and a significant number of Lebanese Christians resisted the Israeli occupation.
The southern Lebanon security belt was politically distinct from the rest of the country and Israel, as the new authority in the area had to provide services to the local population in the absence of a functioning civil administration. It also had to facilitate the economic viability of the security zone by providing jobs and maintaining infrastructure—responsibilities that were not initially considered by the Israeli military and political leadership. In short, maintaining the security zone was a drain on Israel’s economy as well as its military.
The invasion also had a negative impact on Israel’s global standing. The extreme violence Israel used during the invasion, the thousands of civilian casualties, and finally the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut by Israel’s Christian allies eroded Israel’s moral image and boosted international support for the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. It also instigated one of the first open confrontations between the U.S. administration and the Israeli government.
The end result of this misadventure is well documented. Israel was forced out of Lebanon in May 2000, and Hezbollah used the victory to further consolidate its power in the country. The SLA disintegrated without Israeli support, and thousands of its soldiers fled south with their families, fearing retribution for collaborating with the Zionist enemy.
The Israeli experience in Lebanon holds lessons for the Turkish invasion of Syria today. First, it suggests that states will often use a humanitarian pretext to advance their geopolitical interests. In the case of Israel and Lebanon, officials justified the initial invasion partly by offering assistance to Christians who were depicted as a persecuted minority in an Arab Muslim-dominated state.
That narrative veiled Israel’s true intentions, which in 1982 centered on hegemonic aspirations to transform the Middle East by incapacitating Syria’s regional power and funneling Palestinian national aspirations to Jordan. With a pro-Israeli government in Beirut, a weakened regime in Damascus, and a feeble Palestinian state on the ruins of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the architects of the invasion thought that Israel would rise as an undisputed hegemon in the region.
Turkey has also couched its attempt to create a security zone in northern Syria with humanitarian intentions. Although Turkey is explicit in its plan to terminate the successful project of Kurdish autonomy in Rojava, as the Kurdish region in northern Syria is called, the government also claims that the purpose of the operation is to resettle Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. The humanitarian argument is an important diplomatic tactic used to shield Ankara from critics in European capitals by blurring its actual intentions.
In fact, Turkey’s ambitions go far beyond eliminating Kurdish autonomy in Syria and include clearing Syrian Kurds from the border areas so that the buffer zone it seeks to establish is clear of what it calls “potential terrorists.” Additionally, the invasion is intended to send a message of deterrence to Kurds in Turkey and is tied to a Turkish nationalism that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been promoting for more than a decade, casting Turkey as the renewed protector of Sunni Islam and reorienting its regional ambitions eastward to the lands once dominated by the Ottoman Empire.
But the humanitarian pretext is likely to fail. Even if Syrian refugees were successfully resettled—which is difficult to imagine—they would be internal refugees in their own country since most of them are not from this part of Syria. It is not at all clear whether Erdogan envisions resettling them in villages abandoned by the Kurds, if he would build new refugee camps for them, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would accept them into the safe zone or target them as potential adversaries, or how would they be able to support themselves in this so-called safe zone. The current military campaign is a guarantee that rather than becoming “safe,” this zone would be another arena for a new stage of extreme violence of the Syrian civil war. In fact, a new humanitarian crisis is already unfolding now with waves of new refugees fleeing the region.
Like the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Turkey plans to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria as a means to accomplish other ambitious goals. If successful, it would grant Ankara territorial access into Syria and enable it to play an active role in shaping the new Middle East that is emerging now out of the ashes of the Syrian civil war. With the United States practically out of Syria, this new Middle East is being shaped now by Russia and Iran, and Turkey would like a hand in the game.
Turkey might risk its long-term relationship with the United States, which had been strained even before the October invasion of northern Syria, but at the same time it has gained a partnership with Russia that currently plays to its benefit. The one assured winner of this partnership is Assad, whose regime has benefited tremendously from Turkey’s invasion of his own country.
Paradoxically, it might be this invasion that would mark the final solidification of the Assad regime over Syria. However, as with Israel in 1982, Turkey might find out that it overplayed its hand. While the Syrian Kurds may no longer pose a security threat to Turkey, Ankara might have to work with a regime in Damascus that it abhors, accept a Syrian state supported by Russia and Iran, and cope with unrealized dreams of the revival of its Ottoman grandeur.
Invading states in the post-World War II international system favor the use of local militias to take on a large portion of the operational grunt work. Israel relied on the SLA to conduct much of the post-invasion counterinsurgency campaign in southern Lebanon, paying its soldiers handsomely and providing access to resources back in Israel.
The IDF developed an exceptionally close relationship with the SLA, so when the IDF withdrew in May 2000, the SLA quickly disintegrated, and Israel faced a humanitarian crisis of its own making as thousands of former SLA soldiers and their families fled Lebanon and crossed the border into Israel.
This is a potent lesson for Turkey. Ankara is currently enlisting the support of several Sunni Arab militias in its military campaign against the Kurds, which it has been financially supporting and training. Some media reports even suggest that these Syrian militias constitute the bulk of the ground assault against the Kurds.
Another lesson the Israel case offers here is that turning Sunni militias into de facto arms of the Turkish army could come with a high price for Turkey. These Sunni Arab militias are driven by sheer ethnic hatred of the Kurds and by financial incentives provided by Turkey—but not by Turkish strategic interests.
When Turkey withdraws from this self-proclaimed safe zone, it could precipitate another humanitarian disaster as those Sunni militias might face a hostile local population and potentially a hostile regime in Damascus. They might also flee back to Turkey fearing retribution in Syria. These scenarios occurred during the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and they should serve as a historical lesson for Turkey today.
One thing is sure—the use of these militias by Turkey is another indication of the cunning intentions of this invasion. It capitalizes on ethnic and confessional tensions in order to ensure Ankara’s suppression of Syrian Kurds and to bolster Turkish nationalism, which sees any expression of Kurdish autonomy as a threat to Turkey’s security and national identity.
Seen through the lens of the Israeli-Lebanese case, it is worth asking how long the alliance between these Arab militias and Turkey can last? Would their joint animosity toward Kurdish political aspirations be sufficient to sustain this alliance, or could it lead to a backlash against Turkey if these Arab Sunni militias reach a deal with the Assad regime or with other forces fighting in Syria? Could Turkey be the one to abandon them if a more beneficial alliance to achieve its strategic goals becomes available? And finally, at what point would Turkish soldiers be required to be more involved with “boots on the ground” to safeguard the security belt that is being carved out now in northern Syria, and would Turkey be willing to pay this price?
There is also a global dimension to the operation in northern Syria—and it may not work in Ankara’s favor. That’s because Turkey may not enjoy the same level of international support that Israel benefited from between 1982 and 2000. The 18 years of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon tested U.S.-Israeli relations and demonstrated their durability and resilience.
Despite the open critique of the Reagan admiration toward the 1982 invasion and continued U.S. calls for restoring Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence, successive U.S. administrations gave Israel full support during these long years of occupation. At the end, the decision to withdraw from the security belt in southern Lebanon in 2000 was not a result of international but of domestic pressure within Israeli society as citizens got tired of a purposeless occupation.
Turkey, on the other hand, lacks international support for its actions, and it currently relies on cooperation with Russia to achieve its goals. Unlike U.S.-Israeli relations, today’s Turkish-Russian cooperation is primarily tactical. It could shift if Moscow decides that it risks its strategic interests in Syria. And Turkey is unlikely to be able to maintain its occupation if cooperation with Russia goes wrong.
Security belts tend to take on a life of their own after they are established. Israel should have withdrawn from Lebanon after it became clear that Operation Peace for Galilee had outlived its intended purpose, but, despite the Israeli parliament voting to withdraw from Lebanon in 1985, it took a further 15 years for the last Israeli soldier to leave.
The government in Ankara might also be gearing up to stay in northern Syria for the long term. For that reason, it should view the Israeli case as a model for what it can expect from a prolonged occupation: severely constricted military, economic, and diplomatic resources and wide-scale armed resistance that could fuel sectarian tensions on both sides of the border.
The Turkish government may not have considered the long-term implications of its own invasion of Syria, but if history teaches us anything, just as Israel’s invasion of Lebanon had important, long-lasting consequences for Israel and the Middle East at large, Turkey’s recent military operation is likely to alter the regional balance of power for the foreseeable future. The word “peace” in the operation’s title doesn’t hide that fact.