On 28th June 1978 Syrian gunmen kidnapped and then killed thirty Lebanese Christians from four villages in the Bekaa Valley, the Lebanese Front claimed that this act was part of a Syrian goal to weaken the Christian community by forcing the Christians out the Bekaa. Fighting broke out and Syria rushed forces to Beirut and on July 1st 1978 unleashed a devastating artillery attack across Christian East Beirut, particularly the Phalangist stronghold of Ashrafieh, in preparation for taking over the area, and for a hundred days the Syrians pounded Ashrafieh. On 4th July Camille Chamoun called again for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Beirut insisting that only the Lebanese Army should be responsible for security in the capital. Syria stated its conditions for a ceasefire which included further deployment of Syrian troops in the region, restrictions on the Lebanese Front, and that Lebanon cease all criticism of the Syrian media and of Syrian government policies.
On July 6th, President Sarkis announced his resignation saying that the Syrians had been carrying out operations behind his back entirely without his approval and that the Syrian conditions for a ceasefire were without logic and not acceptable. The Israelis accused the Syrians of trying to annihilate the Christian population of Lebanon and said they would not allow this to happen. Shortly afterwards, the fighting in Beirut eased. Under pressure from the Americans, Sarkis withdrew his resignation on 15th July.
The right-wing forces, consequently, prepared for a new onslaught and possible close physical combat by escorting the civilians out of the contested areas of East Beirut. No compromise had been forthcoming since the battle had ended. The Lebanese-right adamantly refused to turn over its areas to Syrian troops or to cooperate with a Syrian takeover in the capital. In fact, the Lebanese Forces called on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and concentrate its efforts against its enemies holding the Golan Heights, which was Syrian territory. In the strongest words yet to come from the Lebanese Front, it accused Syria of trying to steal a piece of Lebanon while Israel was trying to steal a piece of Syria.
By mid- July 1978 East Beirut was ablaze once more, the mass devastation in the embattled eastern part of the capital had testified to the strength, ferocity, and effectiveness of Syria’s long-range weapons. Still, however, all attempts to take the Ayn al-Rumanah district failed, although battles continued in the suburb of al-Hadath. In that battle, the pine trees that overlooked the town were set aflame by artillery fire and explosions were heard as far away as the western edge of the capital. After four days of indiscriminate heavy shelling, al-Hadath continued to hold out, its defenders having repulsed both infantry and mechanized assaults, but at a high cost in lives on both sides. Thus, as July drew to a close, the Syrians broke off hostilities and the Lebanese Army took up positions in the hillside suburb of al-Hadath.
The military encounters in and around the capital had eased off by early August, but both parties to the hostilities were preparing for a major showdown. The Syrian-sponsored ADF was prepared, at all costs it seemed, to end the power of both the Phalangists and the NLP. The rightists, on the other hand, were determined to stop Syria from making Lebanon its new province or colony. The PLO and its leftist allies stood on the sidelines, preparing to gain from the collapse of either Syrian or rightist strength.
As Beirut was still recovering from earlier combat, heavy fighting began north of the capital. The fighting, in the vicinity of al-Batroun, enabled the Syrians to gain their first victory over the Lebanese Forces by taking Koura. Once Koura had been captured, the Syrians renewed their campaign in the capital by infiltrating the Shiyah district.
Shells smashed into Ayn al-Rumanah, sending civilians scurrying for cover, but the shelling was answered in kind. This time, the Syrians were close enough to be hit by rightist batteries, which could reach deep into the Shiyah district and pinpoint Syrian field pieces. The Syrians and the Lebanese Forces swapped both artillery and rocket fire, pounding each other in a crescendo of death and destruction.
Syrian shelling was merciless and it was reported that just about every building in east Beirut was hit, causalities were in the thousands and on the 27th all US embassy personnel and their dependants were evacuated from Lebanon causing much alarm in east Beirut. At a press conference Etienne Sakr head of the Guardians of the Cedars explained the situation:
“At last, the Syrian game in Lebanon is revealed. And when we retired to the Lebanese mountain in November 1976, to protest the entrance of Arab troops to Lebanon, we were aware of our action, and events have established that our anticipations were correct…The Lebanese at first welcomed the wolf coming disguised as a sheep, believing that the war was ended and peace will return to their ailing Lebanon… But the wolf quickly shed his disguise and, showing his fangs, they set out to devour the Lebanese people… He started with submitting them to all kinds of intimidations and terrorism… like kidnapping, precautionary arrests, physical abuse and liquidation… And instead of confining the Palestinians to their encampments, as they promised, they tried everything to bring the Lebanese to their knees… And there was the explosion… the war was resumed… but this time with greater ferocity, greater rancor and greater destruction.” (8th of August, 1978)
President Sarkis implored Pierre Gemayel to help halt the mini-war between Syria and Lebanon. Gemayel retorted that he would lend his aid to a cease-fire effort only if Sarkis would pressure Syria to end its misconduct in the capital and have the ADF act as an impartial peacekeeping force rather than a conqueror. Gemayel punctuated his point by saying that the Lebanese were not waiting for anyone to conquer and rule them.
Syria’s response to Gemayel’s statement came swiftly, with new mechanized reinforcements lumbering into the city, tearing up the asphalt streets along their way. Heavy action pierced the entire expanse of Syrian-dominated West Beirut. Artillery fire and incendiary weapons ignited fires that burned through the night in the Christian areas of Ayn al-Rumanah and al-Hadath. The morning breezes sprinkled ash and cinders about the capital–its “Lebanese snow,” as a foreign correspondent commented sadly, according to Le Monde.
An Israeli buildup on the border slowed the fighting in the capital; some Syrian troops were hastily transferred to the South. Moreover, of even greater significance for Lebanon’s future was the overwhelming catastrophe that struck the Shi’ite community and its military forces. Imam Musa al-Sadr, their spiritual leader, had left for Tripoli, Libya, on August 25, 1978, to attend a celebration of the Libyan revolution, which had ousted that nation’s corrupt and tyrannical monarchy. Sadr had been a pro-Libyan Moslem fundamentalist. For his loyalty to the Libyan revolution and its leader, Mu’ammar Qaddafi had poured millions of dollars into Sadr’s coffers in order to put an end to the “Christian” Lebanese State. Consequently, the Shi’ite leader’s attendance at the festive occasion was paramount.
Soon after Sadr’s arrival in Libya, he was reported missing, and Lebanese of all factions were anxious and concerned about his whereabouts and safety. In investigating the circumstances of his disappearance, the Shi’ites of South Lebanon claimed that he had traveled to Tripoli to extract his community from the Moslem-leftist alliance. As reported by the Libyan Press Agency, Jana, Sadr informed Qaddafi that the war against the Maronites was unjustified. Palestinian conduct in Lebanon was disgraceful and that the Shiites were being abused by the Palestinains. The Shi’ite alliance with the PLO brought devastating Israeli reprisal raids against the Shi’ite villages causing his people to flee north, and no Moslem state was expected to emerge in Lebanon. According to Sadr’s entourage, Qaddafi accused the Imam of spending “Libyan money” to finance a Shi’ite revolution in Iran. Since then, the Shi’ites of Lebanon have held the Libyan leader responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of their religious leader.
Meanwhile, Syria and the Lebanese Forces remained locked in combat near the Karantina Bridge leading north towards Jounieh. Pierre Gemayel pressed President Sarkis to ask for UN intervention to end the confrontation, and to do so quickly before the president’s credibility with the Lebanese right had disappeared.
The savage warfare had approximated the intensity of the battles for Beirut a few years ago. Saturation fire from Syrian gunners had reduced part of the Christian enclave to a vast wasteland. Ambulances and helicopters ferried wounded Syrian soldiers out of the battle zone in an ever-increasing line of traffic. At night the city was devoid of light, due to the failure of electrical power sources. The dusk and dawn were obscured by cumbersome black clouds of smoke that rose from the city, darkening the sky and casting the desolate capital in an awesome and eerie light. To the terrified observers, it seemed as if the sun would never shine again. The cosmopolitan world of Beirut appeared to be coming to an abrupt end.
The Lebanese Forces fought back ferociously and even though the Syrians managed to break through into Ashrafieh, a Lebanese Forces counter attack ejected them with the Syrians taking heavy losses. Large street battles also took place around the Rizk tower where the Syrians had been dug in. The main rightist supply routes were severed by Syrian forces; missiles, tanks, and heavy artillery pounded the rightist defense line.
Syrian Army trucks, filled to capacity with dead and dying soldiers, joined the train of ambulances taking the Syrians out of the capital. Syria had committed most of its forces in the northern half of Lebanon into battle, and reinforcements continued to pour into Lebanon, tapping Syria’s reserves. The Syrians, however, held the bridges in the north against savage rightist counterattacks. If the rightists could not breach the defenses near the Karantina Bridge to gain aid from northern Lebanon, then they would eventually be doomed to defeat. Syrian strategy would win in the long run. The rightists hoped to hold out in a war of attrition to convince the Syrians that they could not take over the Christian section of Beirut without devastating casualties. The UN Security Council called for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, and President Sarkis appealed to President Assad to end the flaming hell he had created in Beirut.
By the end of the first week of October, Syria had halted its offensive but maintained its seige. It had proven too costly for the Syrian regime. Syrian hospitals were filled to capacity with the dying and the wounded. Not since the last Arab-Israeli war had Syria seen its forces return home so badly mauled.
The unilateral cease-fire held with only some residual fighting near the Karantina and Beirut River regions. Scattered shelling and sniper fire continued, but these exchanges were only limited and isolated instances. Radio Free Lebanon, a rightist station, called the battle a victory for the Lebanese Forces. Meanwhile, President Sarkis left for Saudi Arabia to discuss the fighting.
While the Lebanese head of state was outside the country, Syrian forces sent rocket fire cascading down on the rightist-held positions, forcing Bashir Gemayel to appeal to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to help end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. The heavy action kept the rightist troops at bay at the strategic Beirut River bridges, thus continuing their isolation from their strongholds in the North. The Syrians, meanwhile, were resupplying their forces and ferrying al-Saiqa units into the area.
It has been said that in pitting his meagre force of a few thousand fighters against three divisions of the Syrian Army, Gemayel was taking a calculated gamble that Israel would come to his rescue. Gemayel’s brinkmanship was vindicated. The Israelis threatened to go to war to preserve the Maronite community. To emphasize the point, Israeli jets overflew Syrian positions and the Israelis massed troops in the Golan Heights. The threat worked. On the 9th October 1978 Syrian forces began to pull back.
In the Syrian capital, Presidents Sarkis and Assad agreed on a tentative settlement designed to stabilize the cease-fire. Syria had agreed, for the first time, to turn over some of its peacekeeping duties in the Christian sector to the Lebanese Army and withdraw its forces to more remote areas. The Syrian move was a tacit admission that the Lebanese-right had been fighting a largely defensive war in support of Lebanese sovereignty.
The Extinction of the Tigers
On Monday, July 7, 1980, the Phalangists launched a surprise attack against Chamoun’s National Liberal Party Militia, the Tigers. The attack was aimed against their barracks, ports, and offices in a villa next door to Safra Marine in Kesrouen with the aim of assimiliting the Tigers into the LF under one command. Bashir had originally planned the attack for 4:00 am but because of the events at Ehden the attack was put back to 10:00 am so as to spare Dany Chamoun who by then would have left his offices for an appointment in the mountains.
Contrary to most accounts found in the popular books regarding Lebanon there was no battle or massacre at Safra Marine. Dany had moved out of East Beirut and taken over a villa that used to border Safra Marine immediatly to its south. Dany kept a boat at Safra Marine and would walk through the grounds of the villa and across Safra Marine to get to his boat. As a result it was thought by some that he resided at Safra. Some weeks before the operation a couple of LF agents had successfully applied for jobs at Safra so as to asses the situation.
On the day of the attack LF fighters hidden in a civilian truck were let into Safra Marine by their agents and deployed around Dany’s villa. Tracy Chamoun who was inside the villa saw the deployment and opened fire. After a very brief gun-fight it was explained that no harm was going to come to the residents of the villa and that they were free to leave. Some one hour later, after some negotiation, the villa was vacated. The only injury at Safra was a wounded Sri Lankan worker hit by a stray bullet.
Heavy fighting did however break out around Tabarja Beach and at Rabiyeh Marine which were both popular resorts with the Tigers and it was here where there were civilian casualities. At Rabiyeh Marine where some Tiger militiamen had fallen back, a few captured Tigers were thrown to their deaths from the upper floor balconies of the complex.
The Tiger barracks at Amchit were captured after holding out for most of the day. The ‘Day of Long Knives’ as it became to be called claimed around 200 lives around half of which were civilians who had been caught during indiscriminate shooting. After the operation Bashir Gemayel emerged as the dominant Maronite military leader and by the end of October 1980 the main bulk of the Tiger militia was totally absorbed into the Lebanese Forces and lost their separate command and identity, the only exception being a small unit in Zahle. Bashir Gemayel then announced that all of the individual militias of the various parties of the Lebanese Front would disband and their troops combine as one fighting force under his command in the Lebanese Forces. Thus the various militias such as the Tanzim and other that had taken an active part in the war ceased to exist. The Guardians of the Cedars however managed to maitain their identity under the new structure.
The Battle of Zahle
Zahle, the capital of Bekaa Province in eastern Lebanon, had a population of some 150,000 which was primarily Greek Catholic, and it was in the heart of the Syrian occupied zone of Lebanon and lay on the vital Beirut-Damascus highway. Throughout the war Zahle suffered many sieges and attacks by leftist and Palestinian forces but its people always managed to hold out, fighting alongside the small contingent of Lebanese Front militia that were based there.
The location of Zahle made it of such importance that the Syrians felt they had to control the city and needed a reason to station their troops there. In December 1980, the Palestinian forces around Zahle were incited by the Syrians to shell the city and on the 19th heavy fighting broke out between the Syrians and the small Lebanese Forces contingent after the Syrians sent a patrol down the Zahle Boulevard, the patrol was attacked and five Syrian soldiers and one Syrian Major were killed. Although the Syrian command acknowledged sending the patrol into Zahle and the resulting deaths as accidental, Syria demanded the surrender of the persons involved in the incident to its command. A forty-eight-hour ultimatum was served to the Zahle leadership and also to the Phalangist and NLP commanders of the district. When a unanimously negative reply was returned, Syrian forces besieged the city with troops and tanks under artillery cover. The incident at Zahle enabled the Syrians to take advantage of the prevailing instability in the rightist coalition and the weakness of the Beirut government. In day-long battles, the Syrian forces were repulsed time and again as both General Said Taiyan and Syria’s Defense Minister, Major-General Mustafa Tlas, were rushed to the scene to study the unexpectedly strong resistance. At the same time, Bashir Gemayel put his forces on full alert; however, he held the doors open for a negotiated settlement. During the fighting two Syrian helicopters were also hit as they tried to bring in reinforcements. The Lebanese Forces command rushed Guardians of the Cedars troops from Beirut in support of the local forces in Zahle.
A ceasefire was quickly imposed on December 26 1980 and fighting soon died down but blood had been drawn.
Not wanting Zahle to be cut off from Mount Lebanon and to reduce its vulnerability to siege, the Lebanese Forces began constructing a road linking Baskinta to Zahle so as to avoid passing through Syrian held territory. The Syrians were against the contsruction of the road and responded by again surrounding Zahle with 2600 troops. The people of Zahle started take up arms and prepaired for the inevitable Syrian assualt. On April 2nd 1981 Syria began bombarding the city. At the start of the battle the Syrian commander announced that his troops had moved to evict the Lebanese Forces from Zahle as it was vital for Syrian security to prevent the construction of the road between Mount Lebanon and Zahle.
On the first day of battle the Syrians tried to seize the high ground above the city but were repelled with the loss of three armoured vehicles and the death of over twenty soldiers and so the next day the Syrians retaliated with an artillery barrage on east Beirut which inflicted heavy civilian casualties. For days the Syrians launched assualt after assault and the city but were unable to breach the defences of Zahle due to the stiff resistance put up by the people of Zahle themselves as well as the small number of troops stationed there. Syrian forces in the capital were redeployed to Zahle to bolster artillery fire, which was rapidly turning central Zahle into ruins. The population of Zahle refused to surrender and so it was decided by the Syrians that they would force it to submission through siege. Ghassan Tueni, Lebanon’s delegate to the United Nations, called for UNIFIL forces to take over the Zahle region. As the situation grew critical, Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Hassan al-Khalid, joined with Pope John Paul II in expressing concern over the intensive fighting. Both men reasserted the obvious fact that the conflict in Lebanon was not religious in nature.
At the start of 1981 Syria had launched its “Program of National Reconciliation,” which was designed to install Sulayman Franjieh as president. Bashir Gemayel found the proposition unpalatable, but he was impotent to oppose it politically. Therefore, to strengthen his position he desperately needed a victory in Zahle. Bashir Gemayel needed to reinforce Zahle and managed to infiltrate another 100 Lebanese Forces militiamen into the city to support the forces already there and to attack Syrian positions and to shell the Syrian headquarters in the adjacent town of Shtawrah.
By the last week of April, two ineffectual cease-fires had collapsed and Syrian Mig jets had strafed the outskirts of the beleaguered town. This was, apparently, an attempt to show the Phalangists that Syria still had an open option–air power. The Zahle defenders could either surrender or face annihilation by air attack. The air raid was followed by a land-based missile attack, using Soviet-made Grad rockets. The attacks drove the Lebanese Forces from the outlying city buildings, giving the Syrians their first, tentative, victory.
The town sagged under heavy fire as its defenders began to run low on food, medical supplies, and ammunition. An attempt to break out and reach the suburbs of Beirut was abruptly terminated by Syrian special forces in their distinctive tiger-patterned uniforms. Supply lines were set up from Ouyoun El Simman and Baskinta. The weather conditions were terrible with heavy snow covering the mountain peaks over which many of the supplies were brought in on foot.They were aided by tactical air power. The siege of Zahle was beginning to resemble a new version of the campaign for Tal Zaatar.
At the end of April, the Syrians had entered into direct negotiations with the Zahle leadership and had reached a tentative accord. The agreement called for a pullback by the Syrians, the safe removal of the right-wing militiamen, and the assignment of the Lebanese police to secure the town. The Phalangists considered the agreement a victory, for it ended Syrian attempts to infiltrate the city.
However, Syria would not accept a plan that insulted its prerogatives and disputed its power and authority in Lebanon. President Assad ordered artillery fire and helicopter assaults against the Phalangist fortifications. The choppers flew Syrian special forces into battle for Mt. Sannin, in the hills above Zahle, which overlooked and guarded the Bekaa Valley. The Syrian troops, rappelling downward from the choppers, ran into a group of militiamen on patrol and a fire-fight ensued. The Lebanese Front ordered its negotiating team in Zahle to cut off all talks with the Syrians. Pulling out at this point, was seen as a defeat for Syria. The Syrian Air Force went into action, strafing Gharfat al-Fransawiye, a mountain stronghold of the militia, about eight miles west of Zahle. The second air attack came on the twenty-sixth day of the conflict.
Soon afterward, the Syrian forces began to move against the hilltop emplacements above the city, which had been established and fortified by the Lebanese Forces to protect the main entrance to the city. Bashir Gemayel ordered his entombed militia to fight to the end, pledging every possible effort to reach them with additional supplies and manpower. Meanwhile, Syrian reinforcements poured into the battle, creating traffic congestion along the Beirut-Damascus highway and its arterials. The hills above Zahle became the prime targets for Syrian gunners. The town itself was completely encircled, with Syrian soldiers holding all access points under tight siege. The Lebanese Forces in Zahle had been badly mauled and battered, but their fighting spirit was undiminished. Moreover, the Syrians knew this, for they had committed approximately half their force of twenty-two thousand men to the campaign. The mountain strongholds, which overlooked Zahle, remained in rightist hands, forcing the Syrian command to send additional airborne troops into battle.
As the fighting intensified Gemayel called an urgent meeting with Begin and convinced him that the Syrians intended to follow through on the siege with an all-out attack on the Christian heartland and urged Israel to launch an air strike against the Syrians. On April 28, the Israeli cabinet convened and authorized a limited air strike, but it did so over the strident objections of Israel’s intelligence chiefs, who suspected that the crisis was a Lebanese Forces ploy. Israeli fighter jets carried out the raid and downed two Syrian helicopter troop transports on Mount Sannine, a strategic mountain overlooking Zahle. The brief air battle astronomically raised tensions to a new climax by pitting the Syrians against their archenemy, the Israelis. The Syrians backed off a bit but then resumed an around-the-clock artillery bombardment of the town, pledging to leave it in total devastation, a pile of rubble for the Phalangists to sift through, if it refused to surrender.
Moreover, to counter the Israeli moves, Syria introduced at least nine antiaircraft missiles, SAM-6s, near the Riyaq air base, in the Bekaa Valley. Under the cover of the missiles, the Syrians sent land forces up Mt. Sannin and took it from its defenders in heavy, bloody, close combat. The rightists were exhausted and had run out of ammunition and supplies. Zahle however, held fast, repulsing one attack after another.
As the days went on sharp differences erupted within the Lebanese Forces in Zahle as to how to best defend the city. The forces in Zahle had been unprepared for a big showdown. Fuad Abou Nader and Boutros Khawand were dispatched to settle matters as well as the commander of the LF armored battalion, Joseph Elias who was himself from Zahle and had a tough reputation. However, they failed to reconcile the field commanders.
By the time Samir Geagea arrived the Lebanese Forces command headquarters had been wrecked by Syrian shelling and the officers were in complete disarray. Geagea decided to immediately return to Beirut and left in the middle of the night via Wadi Al Arayesh with about 40 troops who had also decided to return to Beirut fed up with the break down of the command structure. Geagea’s report stated that the city was a total military loss but Bashir refused to abandon Zahle.
The siege of Zahle and heavy fighting continued throughout May and reached its formal end on 30th June when it was agreed that both sides would withdraw their forces. Local Lebanese Forces troops had to disarm and forces from Beirut had to leave. The security of Zahle was handed over to Lebanese government internal security forces. The Syrians would be allowed to maintain check points around Zahle to prevent the Lebanese Forces form returning. Trucks and buses were provided to evacuate the Lebanese Forces fighters and 95 returned to Beirut on the 1st of July 1981. Over the next couple of days the Syrians pulled out of their fortifications about the city. Failure to defeat Zahle was a humiliation for the Syrians and a victory for Bashir Gemayel. Of far greater significance, however, was the exceptionally strong resistance put forth by the right-wing militiamen. They had shown considerable strength and resourcefulness, tenacity, and spirit in blunting the Syrian thrust. For the time being, the Syrians would forgo any attempt to advance against other towns in the predominantly Christian part of northern Lebanon.
The civilian casualties were 223 killed and 765 wounded with very heavy material damage. Many died many because of a lack of medical supplies and also as a result of the water being purposely cut off by the Syrians causing epidemics to break out.
Gemayel persevered in his plot to embroil Israel in a full scale war with Syria. In late 1980, after a series of meetings with Begin, he reportedly obtained a secret Israeli pledge to provide a defensive umbrella against a potential Syrian air attack. This pledge virtually committed Israel to fight Syria at Gemayel’s behest, although Israel admonished the Lebanese Forces not to attack the Syrians.