Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Kawkaba and the South Lebanon Imbroglio: A Personal Recollection, 1977-1978

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Kawkaba and the South Lebanon Imbroglio: A Personal Recollection, 1977-1978

Article excerpt

Informed media commentary on the Israeli attack on Lebanon in the spring of 1996 explained to the reader or listener that the Israelis had been in occupation of a strip of South Lebanon since 1978. While Israel's control over the so-called security zone can be said to have been formalized then, Israel has been exercising hegemony over the area since at least 1976. There is no end in sight to the troubles that have resulted therefrom.

I arrived in Beirut on 13 February 1977, having been withdrawn from Algiers on short notice and rushed out to my new post in order to present my credentials before the new US secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, arrived on 17 February on his first trip to the Middle East. We had had no ambassador in Beirut since the assassination of my predecessor, Francis Meloy, the previous spring, and assignment of one had been requested by the Lebanese government as evidence that the situation was returning to normal. At the moment of my arrival, the Syrian army was poised to enter the Palestinian refugee camps (notably those of Sabra and Shatila) to seize heavy weapons, the first step in what was supposed to be a wholesale confiscation of arms from the various militias. Everyone knew there would be a fight when that started, and, not wishing to disrupt the Vance visit, the Americans (and others) prevailed on the Syrians to postpone the operation. The delay was fatal; momentum was lost, and arms, whether heavy or light, were never collected seriously. This meant that the various militias, both Palestinian and Lebanese, continued to have as much or more firepower than the Lebanese army, permitting them to resume fighting at will. (When I paid my farewell call on President Ilyas Sarkis in September 1978, he remarked that there were an estimated 600,000 automatic weapons in private hands in Lebanon, or roughly one per family, something far beyond his government's ability to control.)

I presented my credentials to President Sarkis on 15 February 1977, and Vance came and went. He brought an oral message of support for the independence and territorial integrity of Lebanon, told Sarkis the United States would do what it could to help the government materially and politically, and hoped to do something about the overall Palestine problem as well. These assurances were gratefully received, but they were honored only in part. In particular, when the time came the United States was unwilling to confront Israel or Syria seriously over their respective occupations of Lebanon, and US support for that country's territorial integrity consisted of urging the Lebanese to assert themselves while not doing much to help them do so. The Americans were willing to help, but they were stymied by the inability of the Lebanese themselves to work together in support of national conciliation. It was all very well to urge the United States to do something, but it could not impose domestic peace on Lebanon unless it was willing to commit a substantial US military force to do the job (my estimate was that 50,000 men would have been required), and that was out of the question. If there was to be a political, as opposed to a military solution to the civil war, the first requirement was that the Lebanese themselves be ready to bury the hatchet. The older politicians were perhaps willing to do so, but real power had gone to the militias, and the old politicians no longer controlled the streets. Their sons and the other militia leaders were too intent on protecting their own turf and settling old scores to work together. It is easy to put some of the blame on President Sarkis. He was not an effective leader. A decent and intelligent man, he was a minimalist in the tradition of former President Fu`ad Shihab (1958-64). His modest claim at the end of his six-year term was that if he had not done everything he should have, at least he had not done anything he should not have. He had little in the way of political charm and no enthusiasm for political battle or controversy. …

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