Lebanon’s Syrian Occupation – A Persistent Matter That Should Never Be Forgotten

April 26th, 2005. As those last trucks carrying those Syrian soldiers left our land, many Lebanese drew a sigh of relief. Many thought that chapter of their present was finally going down to the history pages of the books in which it was going to be written. They also wished it would stay there, indefinitely.

What those people didn’t think of, however, was that their struggle with those Syrian soldiers and regime that occupied their land for over thirty years would be forgotten a few months after those soldiers physically left their land. Those people never thought that whenever they spoke about a Syrian occupation of the country, they’d be ridiculed by people. “There’s no such thing as a Syrian occupation. They’re a fellow Arab nation,” is many of the things you’d hear being said. As if them Arabs can never do wrong to Lebanon.

Those who say the Syrians never occupied Lebanon refer to the Israeli occupation of the Lebanese South and suggest that as a model of occupation. So let’s dissect the Israeli occupation of the South, based on what a Shiite Southern friend of mine told me on numerous occasions of what went on with the lives of the people.

Once upon a time, there lived a certain part of the Lebanese populace under the tyranny of a Zionist Israeli regime. They were afraid to go out of their houses after 6 pm because of patrol vehicles that the Israeli army would deploy. The vehicles didn’t usually do anything to them but the idea of them hovering there was unnerving and frightening. Many were forced to work for Israeli companies and, eventually, using the products made by those companies as their source for food, water, etc…

Their cars had special license plates that they removed as they got to Lebanese-Israeli checkpoints and replaced with Lebanese ones to avoid any reactions on the Lebanese side. Those license plates were reversed as they came back through the three hour checkpoint to avoid any repercussions on the Israeli-occupied side. Men, upon turning eighteen, were forced into joining the Israeli army, causing their families to get them to flee to Beirut or other non-occupied areas of the land mostly out of fear of how their sons would be seen after the South was liberated and because they didn’t want their sons serving the enemy’s army.

Their biggest fear was not of the Israeli army per se, but the idea of occupation and having those foreigners be your boss on your land. They were afraid, however, of the Lebanese people who joined the Israeli army and, to signal their power, treated the sons and daughters of their country badly. Israel ran the hospitals, school, etc… that existed in the South, simply because there was no Lebanese State down there. In a way, the occupiers were the people’s providers. The Southerners naturally and justifiably hated that.

The main fear of those Southerners after the Israeli withdrawal from their land was how other Lebanese would perceive them: would they be seen as traitors or would they be welcomed with open arms? Would those Lebanese know that it was really out of their hands or would they think that they were happy with the status-quo of the occupation?

Even after withdrawal the Israeli army kept breaching Lebanese sovereignty via their airplanes, army men, etc…  The Israeli withdrawal was not left as is after 2000 but was tarnished by many displays of force by parties on both sides: Hezbollah on the Lebanese side and the Israeli army on the other one, culminating in the 2006 Lebanon war, of which a friend tells her story here.

And as any occupier does, the borders of “their” territory were planted with landmines and other explosive weapons to deter “outsiders” from approaching.

As you can see from the little anecdote I wrote, the info in which are almost verbatim what my Southerner friend told me, the Israeli occupation can be described as follows: it was a psychologically exhausting experience where you had outsiders ruling your land, taking your men and women to enroll in their army and work in their factories. They took over the hospitals, threatened you via their Lebanese proxies and the combination of every aspect of the situation put the Southern Lebanese into a dilemma of whether they would be welcomed or not.

Now let me tell you what I lived through over fifteen years of the Syrian army occupying my hometown, district and every other part of the country except the Lebanese South.

Once upon a time, as the Southern Lebanese populace struggled with their occupation, another part of the population had a struggle of its own. And I was part of that population. We were afraid to speak out against that army. I remember finding their presence around very peculiar, especially that I rarely saw Lebanese army personnel at the time. But I was repeatedly told not to express my opinion regarding the issue by my parents and every family member who had heard my instinctive self speak out. We also couldn’t formulate honest political opinions, first and foremost because politics was rarely discussed in households mostly out of fear and second because those political opinions were mostly against the army present in your land. Syrian workers, present in a substantial majority all around you, held a power that no foreign worker should have. They walked around as if they owned the place, fueled by the protection they got from having a member of their country’s army present almost everywhere.

We were allowed to roam more or less freely  but we had to go many Syrian army checkpoints along the way to our destination. Now how is that normal? I find Lebanese army checkpoints to be out of place today. How about checkpoints made at more frequent intervals by an army that doesn’t belong there? My grandfather’s ambulance was stopped at a Syrian army checkpoint back in 1987 and didn’t let it pass. My grandfather ended up not arriving to the hospital alive. He was 45.

Many of the Lebanese who lived where Syrian influence was god found it better to leave Lebanon to countries where freedom ruled. This immigration is key to understanding the demographic differences many speak about in the country today: the big Christian minority and the dismal Muslim majority. Christian numbers were decreased through the influence of Syrian occupation over the course of its existence until their say in the country’s affairs was rendered minimal, something we’re still paying the price of today.

Whenever a leader emerged as counter-Syrian, he/she was either thrown in jail, exiled or eradicated. The oppression was so high that most newspapers ran formulated news about how peachy things were. TV networks were not allowed to speak up. Elections were rigged up to points where a dismal 10% Christian participation in the 1992 parliamentary elections was considered by the Syrians to give unearned jurisdiction for their appointed parliament. The political scene of Lebanon was stripped down from any politician who dared speak up. Those who went with the status-quo were given power. Those who did not were silenced. One way or another.

Whenever someone spoke up, they found security personnel knocking their doors down, taking them inside army trucks and taken to Anjar where the Syrian-Lebanese proxies did their work. Till this day, many Lebanese men and women are still missing after being kidnapped by Syrian forces and unlike the Lebanese-Israeli prisoner situation where all the prisoners have been liberated, no one knows where these prisoners are or if they’re even still alive. Many activists were killed for speaking up.

The only breach of Lebanese sovereignty that people speak about is the Israeli one. When Syrian army members cross the border to kidnap Syrians from inside your borders and take them to Syria, no one thinks of that as a breach of jurisdiction. But when an Israeli warplane crosses the Lebanese atmosphere some ten thousand feet up in the air, we throw fists about how that is a breach of our land. Call me old fashioned but I don’t care about an airplane hovering over my land when you have a foreign army crossing into your land on very frequent basis to do military operations and kidnap members of their country’s opposition, which came to Lebanon’s democratic atmosphere seeking refuge. This Monday, November 14th, the Syrian army entered our land and kidnapped a Lebanese citizen. The government said nothing.

As we speak, the Syrian army is putting landmines on its border with Lebanon, especially in the North, to secure those borders. This is happening without approval from the Lebanese authorities and these landmines are being placed inside the neutral region of the border. Lebanese authorities can’t do anything about it.

While Southerners were worried more about Lebanese proxies for the Israeli occupation forces, the same applied for people who lived under the atrocity of  the Syrian authorities in Lebanon. In North Lebanon, Sleiman Frangieh’s Marada ruled supreme. They complemented the Syrian army’s ruling of the land by making up the rules as they want. Their members carried out personal vendettas against people and made it all seem “legal.” My mother almost had a miscarriage when she was pregnant with me when a Marada member entered my dad’s shop and held the gun to his head. No one could have done anything had he pulled the trigger.

As you can see from that little companion to the first anecdote, the other side of the occupation of Lebanon in the later part of the 20th century (and beginnings of the 21st) was very similar to what the Israelis did in the South. The only difference between story A and story B is what my friend Elia eloquently described in a note she wrote as part of a dysfunctional family.

She comes up to her mom, in tears, more afraid of her reaction than she is of the devil that just tormented her. With her choked up voice, she said she was hurt, really hurt. Her mom was concerned, genuinely protective of that teenage spirit. Once mom knew that someone so close, her own brother, had raped her daughter, her mind went blank. Instantly, her motherly instinct was tearing her insides apart. She crumbled in a way she never thought possible, with her mouth open, and her looks hollowed out.

How can someone so close hurt this way?

Furious anger waves soon came over her crashing. She was shouting, boiling. Hot and cold emotions invaded her being so violently that she barely made sense of them. She wanted to voice out her pain, free her weeping daughter from this misery, find the culprit and strangle him with her bare hands…

But her hands were somewhere else. One was holding the poor creature so tight her shoulder went numb. The other was covering the once opened mouth. She wanted her to stop, stop crying, stop telling, stop hurting. She wanted her to be quiet, quiet about her story, her agony, her fault.

You see, the Lebanese population that was under the Syrian occupation is that little girl, the helpless person whose struggle is rarely understood and often ridiculed. After all, how can those Arabs who speak Arabic and eat tabboule hurt a people similarly to those Zionists who speak Hebrew and eat sabich. But what people don’t get is that those Arabs with whom many like to identify as brethren in a cause that knows no identity have done as much. They have killed, tortured, imprisoned, assassinated, terrorized, controlled the way of life and worked at the economic decimation of the region they were occupying – All of Lebanon, minus the South.

For many, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon is not seen as an occupation because many of our politicians (many of which are still active today) were accomplices to their agendas. After all, the president was assigned by an order from Damascus, executed via Anjar, and relayed to the parliament. Parliament members had imaginary ballots cast for them in order for them to hail a previously known victory a few minutes after the polls close.

For many also, the Hariri dynasty is to be blamed for our economic woes. What is not known, however, is that our economic woes start with the political instability that was residual from our civil war and kept floating by the Syrian regime who tore at our every foundation as a nation, taking whatever income the country generated and using it to make their country one of the few on Earth with no debt to any foreign entity.

There are some who said – to my face that is – that “Christians deserved what the Syrians did to them for their betrayals. We need to ally ourselves with the Assad regime like Michel Aoun is suggesting, against the sunni extremists of the region” This post is to that person and everyone who thinks like him. This is to tell him that the Syrians were the one who forced Aoun to stay in France for over fifteen years. But yet again, our working memory as a nation is shorter than that of a fish. How can you ask for an alliance with a leader who’d kill a thirteen year old and send his mutilated body to his parents? How can you hope for the protection of a president who turned one of his country’s major cities, Homs, into a near dead zone and is still wreaking havoc to it? How can you ask to be under the moral auspices of someone whose morality does not stop him from killing over 3500 of his people just because they opposed him? How can you ask for the protection of a ruler whose regime was thrown out of the Arab League by countries whose legacy of political dormancy is their tell-tale?

You see, I’m not saying we suffered more than the Southerners. That is not the point I’m trying to make – not even close. I’m hoping that somehow those who think we had it easy know that it wasn’t the case. They need to know that the Lebanese who suffered under the Syrian rule were as badly hurt as those who suffered under Israeli occupation. There are no superlatives to be used. It is a matter of equality in suffering.

Here’s hoping for a day where, upon writing the history of Lebanon in hope of reaching a state of national conscience, we can look in an objective eye at what everyone suffered and say: we’ve been to hell and back – all of us as a nation, that is. It is only then that we can attempt to consider a solution to our political system. What’s the solution to our political system? Federalism. But that’s for another post altogether.