The carnage in Syria that has been going on for several years now is not the first time that the country has faced attacks on its independence by foreign powers. In the 1980s, the nation faced similar existential challenges. And in many cases, Syria’s enemies then were the same ones who now conspire to turn it into a tool for regional interests.
In the early 1980s, things looked very, very grim for Syrian president Hafez al-Asad.
He was faced with a bitter Islamist insurgency at home by a fanatical Muslim Brotherhood, which specialized in terrorizing and killing ethnic minorities and other people they believed too supportive of Syria’s secular regime.
In neighboring Lebanon, Israel had just launched an invasion in 1982, and was seeking to install a puppet state that would do its bidding.
And yet, Asad was able to overcome both of these challenges, and emerge with control of his regional environment. How he did this we will recount here.
Defeating The Islamist Insurgency.
The Ba’ath Party’s control of Syria had meant that positions of power and influence usually fell into the hands of those who supported the government. In practice, this meant the dispossession of the Sunni elites who had controlled the country for a very long time. Resentments against this simmered, and waited for exploitation by foreign powers like the United States and Israel.
Then as now, arms and money were funneled through intermediaries in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, so that those ultimately responsible could play the game of innocence.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s. the Muslim Brotherhood had evolved into a militant organization capable of carrying out armed attacks in urban centers. The Brotherhood committed terrible massacres against civilians who supported the government, and this in turn invited reprisals. A vicious tit-for-tat war was the result. Its final outcome would not be decided until 1982, when an open Islamist insurrection in the city of Hama was crushed with an iron fist with great loss of life.
Then, as now, the rebels were being funded and aided by foreign powers. And the reasons were substantially the same as now: Syria was an Arab nationalist government, and pursued policies that were in its own interests. It refused to kowtow to Israeli demands for complete supremacy in the region.
But you pay a high price for independence. Because bullying, arrogant powers will always come after you. In those days, it was called the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, it is called the Nusra Front, or ISIS, or a dozen other names. All of them are Western tools, and the goal is still the same: to destroy Syria, and to turn it into a flunky regime so that it can be opened up to Israeli, Saudi, and Turkish commercial interests.
Mastering The Lebanon War.
In Lebanon it was much the same dynamic. That unfortunate country had been in the grip of a nasty civil war since the 1970s. Various political and sectarian groups vied for control. The situation was further complicated by the presence of large numbers of Palestinians, displaced by Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank in the 1960s and 1970s.
All of these groups had their own agendas and goals; but overlaid on top of this was the regional struggle between Syria and Israel. Each nation wished to project power in Lebanon. From Damascus’s perspective, Lebanon was historically, culturally, and linguistically an errant part of Syria. Furthermore, its proximity to Syria meant that it must not become a launching pad for Israeli aggression into the Levant.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had several goals. The first goal was to eliminate the PLO as a military force in south Lebanon. The second goal–which would follow from the first–was to solidify its grip on the West Bank and Gaza, which it never intended to give up, despite its treaty promises given in the Camp David Accords with Egypt and the United States. The third goal was to install a flunky regime in Beirut that would act as its regional instrument, and thereby turn Lebanon into a satellite state with no real sovereignty.
And this was something that Asad would not–indeed, could not–permit. He nurtured a long-standing grievance against the United States for ignoring his legitimate security concerns, and resented the unlimited support that it gave for every act of Israeli aggression. He could not match Israel or the United States on the battlefield, but he had his wits, his cunning, and his alliance with Iran. He also had proxies of his own to deploy.
And when his back was up against the wall, he would not hesitate to use all means at his disposal to thwart his enemies’ schemes.
Israel’s massive invasion of Lebanon roused him to action. It was clear in his mind exactly what was going on. He had to do something, and he had to do it fast. Sometimes, when faced with an emergency, you have no choice. So he sent up much of his air force in 1982 to engage the Israeli pilots. Every plane was shot down. His pilots fought bravely, but they were no match for the training and equipment of his adversary.
Israel fought its way to Beirut and tried to install its man, Bashir Jumayyil, as its regent in Lebanon. Asad considered him and his ilk to be nothing more than traitors. And he knew what he had to do.
Things were looking very grim in the wake of the Israeli invasion. Hostile armies were within artillery distance of his capital. He was on terrible terms with Jordan’s King Hussein. Iraq, governed by Saddam Hussein, was hostile and engaged in its own war with his ally Iran.
The United States and the West could not have cared less about him; in fact, they were actively seeking his overthrow. The Soviet Union, nominally an ally, was distant and strangely passive. At home, Asad was faced with the grim prospect of a seething insurgency.
But he was patient. He would deal with his enemies step by step. And here was where his very astute alliance with Iran paid off.
Events now began to take place that were to his advantage. Jumayyil was removed from the scene in a massive explosion. Israeli occupying forces in Lebanon were now subjected to a relentless campaign of irregular warfare: car bombs began to attack their motorized columns; soldiers came under constant sniper fire; and radical groups of all stripes (both secular and religious) were brought to bear against the enemy.
Asad eventually wore down his enemies in Lebanon. Israel was not willing to accept the high level of casualties needed to maintain the country under occupation. The United States eventually lost interest in the conflict. And he had won his war against the Islamists, through brute force, a fact which secured his home front.
He eventually managed to force Lebanon to abrogate its “friendship treaty” that it had signed with Israel under extreme duress. This humiliating “treaty” had essentially turned the country into an Israeli vassal. In May 1991, after defeating the last of his enemies in Lebanon and making Amin Jumayyil abrogate the earlier agreement with Israel, Syria and Lebanon signed a Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination.
It pledged each country to coordinate its policies with the other; most importantly, perhaps, it forced the world to acknowledge Lebanon’s special relationship with Syria, and its firm identity as an Arab nation. In practice, Asad had secured his western flank from encroachment by his enemies. Not only had he outmaneuvered the Israelis in Lebanon, but he had stayed in power in Damascus by being more ruthless and tenacious than the Islamist terrorists could ever hope to be.
He had had his back against the wall, and he had triumphed.