Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Will Syria Have to Withdraw from Lebanon?

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Will Syria Have to Withdraw from Lebanon?

Article excerpt

Although Syria's intervention into Lebanon in 1976 was counter to the norms of international law, Syria's late President, Hafiz al-Asad, was able to construct a foundation of international legitimacy for the occupation of Lebanese territory by Syrian forces. Despite growing pressure within Lebanon for the withdrawal of Syrian forces, Syria's current leader, Bashar al-Asad, may be able to parlay this foundation of international legitimacy to extend the occupation for some time to come.

Today, there are approximately 25,000 Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon. These forces rolled into Lebanon in 1976 and they have remained on Lebanese soil for over twenty-five years. During that time, Syrian forces have played a key role in defining Lebanon's domestic political order and in shaping the regional security balance. In the last year, there have been growing calls for Damascus to remove these troops. In May 2000, Israeli forces pulled out of southern Lebanon, removing one of the key justifications for the Syrian presence. In August of 2001, over 200 Lebanese Christians were arrested in Beirut while protesting the continued Syrian military presence. Syrian President Bashar [Bashshar] al-Asad is now facing what may soon prove to be the most important foreign policy question of his young regime: will Syria have to withdraw from Lebanon?

The answer may be no. Despite the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the growing Lebanese unrest, Syria may be able to maintain - and indeed justify under international law - its presence in Lebanon for years to come. The credit for this circumstance belongs to Syria's former President, Hafiz al-Asad. The late Syrian President spent nearly twenty-five years creating a fait accompli in Lebanon that he knew would be difficult to undo. He was able to use elements of international law to construct a foundation of legitimacy for an otherwise illegal intervention in a neighboring state. In the coming months and years, President Bashar may be able to capitalize on this cloak of political and legal legitimacy if he wishes to sustain the Syrian presence in Lebanon. With a bit of political skill, Bashar should be able to draw on his father's legacy to extend "cover" to a Syrian presence in Lebanon for some time to come. This article examines in detail how Hafiz al-Asad was able to secure international acceptance of Syria's intervention in Lebanon and suggests the potential ramifications of this legacy for both the Lebanese people and the new Syrian leader.


The story of Syria's military intervention in Lebanon begins with the end of colonial rule in the Levant. When the French granted independence to Lebanon in 1946, they left a confessional system of government in place. Under this system, representation in the government is allotted on the basis of sectarian association. Specifically, this meant that Lebanon's president was to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister was to be a Sunni Muslim, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (speaker of parliament) was to be a Shi'i Muslim. In addition, seats in the executive and legislative branches were to be distributed at a ratio of six Christians to five Muslims commensurate to these groups' respective representations in the population.1

Unfortunately, there was a fundamental flaw with confessionalism in Lebanon. This flaw lay in the fact that the allotment of political representation was based upon a census taken in 1932 and Lebanon's constitution contained no mechanism to adjust the system in light of future demographic shifts. Not unsurprisingly, political tensions flared during the next 40 years as the relative representation of the various sects in Lebanon's population changed. The delicate political balance was further taxed by an influx of Palestinians following the 1948 and 1967 wars and the Black September conflict in Jordan in 1970.

Tensions between Lebanon's sectarian groups came to a head in the spring of 1975. …

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