Ridding the world of terrorism must include ending the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which turned a free democracy into a brutal dictatorship and a haven for terrorists.
July 15, 2003
by General Michel Aoun
Lebanon was the first victim of modern terrorism. Its recent history presents the West with a stark lesson about the consequences of falling prey to terrorists. At the end of the 1960s, Lebanon, a multicultural society, began to absorb the shocks of the conflict between East and West. In the early 1980s it found itself at the frontlines of a worldwide confrontation with Islamic fundamentalists.
As a democracy with a free-market economy surrounded by autocratic regimes with directed economies, Lebanon was an oasis of freedom in the midst of the human desert around it. Its people enjoyed freedom in all its dimensions, including the freedom of creed, freedom of speech, the right to differ, political freedom, and economic liberty. In their daily lives and in their intellectual and cultural discourse, the Lebanese people lived and practiced tolerance and moderation. Lebanon became a model for all Arab intellectuals and a shelter for the persecuted among them—it was in fact commonly known then as the Switzerland of the East.
These universal values, cherished in Lebanon, presented a threat to the ideological theocracies and dictatorships that dominated the region. Hence, Lebanon became a target for these regimes, which sought to kill its pioneering role in the region. Regional and international powers remained silent when the Syrian regime moved in to Lebanon in 1976. Initially claiming to be protecting the Palestinian Revolution against the Lebanese, Syria allied itself with the Palestinian terrorists until it was able to undermine the stability of Lebanese society and destroy the country’s security institutions. At that point, Syria changed direction and claimed to be protecting Lebanon from the Palestinians, and it legitimized its incursion into the country under the banner of the joint Arab Deterrence Force (ADF) in 1976.
Between 1976 and 1982, the ADF was ostensibly under the authority of the Lebanese president, but the Syrian contingent of the ADF—which was the largest—operated independently of both the president and the other contingents. The Syrians shelled residential areas and carried out massacres. They imposed censorship on the press and shut down some of the media. They assassinated politicians, clergymen, reporters, and diplomats. They bombed embassies and chased out virtually all diplomatic missions from Beirut. They kidnapped people, both individuals and groups, and liquidated them. They incited massacres in some areas of the country, and they executed military prisoners. Many Lebanese nationals remain incarcerated in Syrian jails even today.
In the midst of this violence and oppression, the other Arab contingents of the ADF left Lebanon, and the Syrian regime achieved an exclusive, solid grip over most of the country. The Syrian regime transformed the nation into a refuge and breeding-ground for all types of international terrorist groups operating in areas under its control. In this environment, a massive industry of drug cultivation, processing, and distribution prospered, and the Lebanese coast became peppered with illicit harbors controlled by various militias that used them as a launching pad for terrorist activities against Israel and other illegal actions.
In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and evicted the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Beirut. The Lebanese government abolished the mandate of the ADF and asked Syria to withdraw its forces. The Syrian regime ignored the Lebanese request, in violation of the United Nations (UN) Charter, and instead of withdrawing, it rearmed the Palestinian organizations and its allied militias and political parties in Lebanon. This returned Lebanon to the situation that had preceded the Israeli invasion: military clashes, kidnappings, and killings. The embassies of the United States and France were then bombed, twice each, by Syrian-protected and -supported terrorists. Then the French and American contingents of the Multi-National Force (MNF) were attacked. The MNF withdrew in the aftermath of these attacks, leaving Lebanon to confront its fate alone. Syria then forced Lebanon to abrogate the May 1983 Accord that Lebanon had negotiated with Israel. Israel pulled back to the border zone, and Syria resumed destabilizing and disintegrating Lebanon. This period climaxed with the Syrian invasion of the last free bastion in Lebanon on October 13, 1990, and the resulting eviction of the constitutional government. Syria had thus completed its takeover of Lebanon.
Since 1990, the Syrian regime has undertaken the systematic destruction of the entire infrastructure of Lebanese society. Throughout all political and administrative institutions of the state, Syria has installed officials who take their orders directly from Syrian intelligence officers. Syria has broken up each political party into numerous sub-entities and imposed on them a single ideology. Syria has enforced a policy of self-censorship on the media. For example, the MTV television station was shut down because it did not always abide by the unconstitutional directives of the authorities and their ban on covering certain political figures. The authorities have converted Lebanese courts into an instrument of revenge against their opponents; the justice system has become selective, presumptive, and defamatory, as accusations precede investigations and verdicts are issued based on political decisions. Arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture of detainees have become ordinary in the life of Lebanese citizens. Judicial files are routinely fabricated and used to blackmail targeted individuals.
Through all these means, the Syrian regime has all but eliminated Lebanon from the international political map. It has halted all bilateral negotiations between Israel and Lebanon. It has rendered the prospect of peace between Lebanon and Israel contingent upon the languishing negotiations between Syria and Israel.
In addition to these sad political and security realities, the Lebanese people face an even worse economic situation. The middle class has all but vanished, and the ranks of the poor have swelled. Illiteracy has soared, after being nearly eliminated in the past. A third of the Lebanese people have been forced to emigrate because of the government’s economic policies, which even twenty years of war could not accomplish. Lebanese society has become, thanks to the Syrian occupation, fully owned and ruled by a mafia class responsible for most of the corruption in the country.
Meanwhile, although Syria demands the application of UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to the recovery of its own occupied territories, it refuses to implement Resolution 520, which requires its withdrawal from Lebanon.
Syria claims to be sponsoring reconciliation between various Lebanese groups, when in fact it prevents them from meeting, and deliberately sows discord between them in order to secure the perpetual need for its presence. For instance, Syria has created restricted zones inside Lebanon where security forces are not allowed to enter. These areas, primarily the Palestinian camps, have become shelters for terrorists and the henchmen of organized crime. Radical Islamic organizations thrive there, and sectarian hate-crimes against Christians and others opposed to this lawlessness continue to take place. On July 31, 2002, for example, an employee at the Teachers Mutual Insurance Fund in Beirut killed eight of his fellow employees and injured another six. He admitted to the judge that his attack was religiously motivated. On November 25, 2002, an American missionary was assassinated in Sidon. The crime was attributed to a religious motive having to do with her missionary work. On December 30, 2002, in one of the Lebanese Army barracks, an enlisted soldier opened fire on five of his fellow soldiers in their sleep, killing one and injuring four. A subsequent investigation revealed that he was attending religious courses at a madrassa inside one of the camps, where he allegedly learned that the killing of Christians and Jews would set him on the road to paradise.
It is undeniable that terrorists come from countries ruled by autocratic regimes with no respect for human rights or basic freedoms. Autocrats, whether theocrats or dictators, accept no responsibility for the misery of their people. Instead, they artfully shift responsibility to political opponents whose liquidation then becomes justified, or to external enemies to whom the peoples’ hostility is deflected. Thus, these regimes not only harbor terrorists, they use terrorism as a key instrument of their foreign policy, as blackmail. Terrorism is inseparable from these regimes, which are the factories of terrorism. The eradication of terrorism must by necessity include their ouster.
Only democratic regimes with free economies and respect for human rights and basic freedoms can provide individuals the opportunity for positive self-fulfillment, free from hatred and violence. Free economies cannot thrive under repressive political systems, nor under justice systems subservient to rulers instead of the rule of law. Democracy cannot survive in the same environment as schools that call for the annihilation of others. It is no longer sufficient to denounce the crime and arrest and punish the criminal. We must close the schools that are teaching the criminals.
In spite of all the repression by the occupying Syrian regime and its collaborators in the Lebanese ruling apparatus, and in spite of the international community’s neglect of the cause of Lebanon and its repeated admonitions to the Lebanese to submit to the rule of the Syrian occupiers, the Lebanese people have built a peaceful resistance movement which enjoys the support of the majority of the Lebanese people. At the core of this Free Patriotic Movement are university students and civil and professional organizations, and it includes members from all communities in all regions of Lebanon. Whereas the Lebanese government has willingly submitted to the yoke of the Syrian occupation, the Lebanese people have not yet given up hope, and they have rejected this dictatorship in all of its forms. The Lebanese people remain highly able to play a pioneering role in promoting freedom and democracy in the Middle East. They possess the required experience and culture, and they cherish the right values and principles.
Lebanon’s experiment with democracy started in 1926, when the constitution of the first Lebanese Republic was promulgated. That constitution was secular in letter and spirit, and was inspired by that of the Third French Republic. The Lebanese immersed themselves in constitutional governance under the French Mandate until they gained their independence in 1943. After World War II and the end of the French Mandate, the Lebanese practiced democracy as a sovereign nation, adding to their written, secular constitution an unwritten National Pact of power-sharing between the country’s constituent communities. Today, by contrast, it is the only country in the world that remains under occupation.
The return of genuine democracy to Lebanon would pay homage to the memory of the fallen Americans who gave their lives in defense of freedom and democracy there. Those Americans came to Lebanon to work for peace, and a resumption of the quest for peace in Lebanon would be the most fitting tribute to their memory.
General Michel Aoun was Lebanese Prime Minister from 1988 to 1990. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on March 7, 2003, at a Hudson Institute conference on the future of Lebanon.
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