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Syria's intervention in the Lebanese civil war, 1976: a domestic conflict explanation

  • Fred H. Lawson (a1)

Syria's intervention in the Lebanese civil war in the late spring of 1976 has usually been explained in either structural or perceptual terms. Neither kind of account does a very good job of explaining the character and timing of this military operation. But relating the intervention to changes in Syria's domestic political situation accounts for it much more satisfactorily. Specifically, Syria's ruling social coalition found itself confronted with a substantial threat to its political position in the country from small farmers, craftspeople, and workers in the north-central provinces during the first months of 1976. In response to this threat, each member of the ruling coalition adopted a program that would insure its own dominance, but only at the expense of its domestic political allies. Under these circumstances, these social forces moved into Lebanon in an attempt to secure the capital, manufactured goods, and port facilities that would enable them to suppress their domestic political opponents while maintaining their own alliance. Domestic political struggles thus provide a more plausible explanation for Syria's intervention than either of the other two arguments can.

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1. Dawisha, A. I., “Syria's Intervention in Lebanon, 1975–1976,” Jerusalem Journal of International Relations 3 (WinterSpring 1978), pp. 245–63; Deeb, Marius, The Lebanese Civil War (New York: Praeger, 1980), p. 134; Rabinovich, Itamar, “The Limits of Military Power: Syria's Role,” in Haley, P. E. and Snider, L. W., eds., Lebanon in Crisis (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1979); Tschirgi, R. D. with George Irani, The United States, Syria, and the Lebanese Crisis, UCLA Center for International and Strategic Affairs Research Note 8 (Los Angeles, 01 1982)

2. Hurewitz, J. C., “Changing Military Perspectives in the Middle East,” in Hammond, P. Y. and Alexander, S. S., eds., Political Dynamics in the Middle East (New York: Elsevier, 1972); Jabber, Paul, Not by War Alone (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 1225.

3. Quandt, William B., Decade of Decisions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), chap. 7.

4. Ibid., chaps. 7 and 8.

5. Waltz, Kenneth N., “The Stability of a Bipolar World,” Daedalus no. 93 (Summer 1964); Blainey, Geoffrey, The Causes of War (New York: Free Press, 1973).

6. Elster, Jon, Ulysses and the Sirens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

7. Deeb, , Lebanese Civil War, p. 133; Rabinovich, , “Limits of Military Power,” p. 58.

8. Kerr, Malcolm H., “Lebanon: The Risks for Syria,” Los Angeles Times, 13 06 1976.

9. Tschirgi, , The United States, p. 8.

10. Kerr, “Lebanon: The Risks for Syria.”

11. Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 147–48.

12. Dawisha, , “Syria's Intervention,” pp. 246–47.

13. Deeb, , Lebanese Civil War, p. 130.

14. Ibid.

15. Dawisha, , “Syria's Intervention,” p. 250.

16. Ibid., p. 135.

17. Ibid., pp. 123 and 129–30; Rabinovich, “Limits of Military Power,” pp. 61–62.

18. Dawisha, , “Syria's Intervention,” pp. 257 and 259–60.

19. What Hanna Batatu has called “Syria's ruling military group” can be conceptualized in a wide variety of overlapping ways. This clique is largely composed of ‘Alawi officers who have close ties to the region around Tartus. Thus, a significant degree of sectarian antagonism is evident in relations between this elite and the country's Sunni Muslim community. Again, Syria's present leadership comes from relatively insular rural areas that have few connections with the country's major cities. Thus, sectarian differences are reinforced by geographical divisions between what Alasdair Drysdale has called “peripheral” regions and those that constitute the “core” of Syrian society. Moreover, those who hold the most influential positions in the regime are related to one another by blood or marriage. All of these factors exacerbate tensions between the regime and its most powerful opponents. But since these attributes are constant features of the country's political terrain, it is hard to explain particular changes in regime policy in such terms alone. See Batatu, , “Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria's Ruling, Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance,” Middle East Journal 35 (Summer 1981); Drysdale, , “Center and Periphery in Syria: A Political Geographical Study” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1977); Picard, Elizabeth, “Clans militaires et pouvoir ba'thiste en Syrie,” Orient 20 (09 1979). For significant correctives to this literature, see Dam, Nikolaos van, “Middle Eastern Political Cliches: ‘Takriti’ and ‘Sunni Rule’ in Iraq; ‘Alawi Rule“ in Syria—A Critical Appraisal,” Orient 21 (01 1980), and Sluglett, Peter and Farouk-Sluglett, Marion, “Some Reflections on the Sunni-Shi'i Question in Iraq,” British Society for Middle East Studies Bulletin 3 (1978).

20. A good indication of Beirut's growing importance as a center of Syrian commerce during the mid 1970s can be found in Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), 11 July 1975, p. 26; Kanovsky, E., Economic Development of Syria (Tel Aviv: University Publishing Projects, 1977), p. 144.

21. Petran, Tabitha, Syria (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 212.

22. Drysdale, , “Center and Periphery,” p. 171.

23. Arab Report and Record (ARR), 16–31 January 1976 and 15–29 February 1976.

24. Keilany, Ziad, “Land Reform in Syria,” Middle Eastern Studies 16 (10 1980), p. 212.

25. Petran, , Syria, p. 207; Vatikiotis, P. J., “The Politics of the Fertile Crescent,” in Hammond and Alexander, Political Dynamics, p. 226.

26. Republic, Syrian Arab, Statistical Abstract 1965 (Damascus: Government Press, 1966), p. 240; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cotton in Syria, FAS-M-280 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1978), p. 22.

27. Republic, Syrian Arab, Statistical Abstract 1965, p. 114.

28. See Lawson, Fred H., “Social Bases for the Hamah Revolt,” MERIP Reports 110 (1112 1982), and Rural Revolts and Provincial Society in Egypt, 1820–1824,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13 (05 1981).

29. Dusen, Michael H. Van, “Political Integration and Regionalism in Syria,” Middle East Journal 26 (Spring 1972), p. 126 note 6; Bar-Siman-Tov, Yaacov, Linkage Politics in the Middle East: Syria between Domestic and External Conflict, 1961–1970 (Boulder: Westview, 1983), pp. 129 and 158; Petran, , Syria, pp. 208–9.

30. Dusen, Van, “Political Integration,” p. 131; Kelidar, A. R., “Religion and State in Syria,” Asian Affairs 61 (1974), pp. 1619; ARR, 15–28 February 1973; Dawisha, Adeed, Syria and the Lebanese Crisis (New York: St. Martin's, 1980), pp. 5960.

31. ARR, 1–14 February 1976; New York Times, 11 March 1976, p. A10; ARR, 15–29 February 1976.

32. Abd-Allah, Umar F., The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan, 1983), p. 109. Whether or not one accepts a precise date for the start of the Ikhwan's announced jihad against Syria's rulers, it is vital to recognize that this opposition takes shape prior to the drive into Lebanon. Thus, we must revise a great deal of conventional wisdom regarding this movement's activities, according to which Ikhwani resistance to the regime arose only in response to Syria's intervention in the Lebanese war. For a useful discussion of a parallel conceptual issue, see Mason, Tim W., ‘The Workers' Opposition in Nazi Germany,” History Workshop 11 (Spring 1981).

33. For summaries of Syria's recent political history, see Rabinovich, Itamar, Syria under the Ba'th 1963–66 (New York: Halsted, 1972), and Dam, Nikolaos van, The Struggle for Power in Syria (New York: St. Martin's, 1979).

34. Dam, Nikolaos van, “Sectarian and Regional Factionalism in the Syrian Political Elite,” Middle East Journal 32 (Spring 1978), p. 210.

35. Drysdale, Alasdair, “The Syrian Political Elite, 1966–1976: A Spatial and Social Analysis,” Middle Eastern Studies 17 (01 1981), pp. 7 and 11.

36. Ibid., p. 12; van Dam, “Sectarian and Regional Factionalism,” p. 207.

37. Dusen, Van, “Political Integration,” pp. 129–30; Petran, , Syria, pp. 156–57.

38. Longuenesse, Elisabeth, “The Class Nature of the State in Syria,” MERIP Reports 77 (05 1979), pp. 911.

39. Hansen, Bent, “Economic Development of Syria,” in Cooper, C. A. and Alexander, S. S., eds., Economic Development and Population Growth in the Middle East (New York: Elsevier, 1972), pp. 351–52; Longuenesse, , “Class Nature,” pp. 45; Dawisha, , Syria and the Lebanese Crisis, p. 43.

40. Petran, , Syria, pp. 8283 and 156–57.

41. Dawisha, , Syria and the Lebanese Crisis, p. 43; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cotton in Syria, p. 27.

42. MEED, 30 April 1976; Keilany, , “Land Reform,” p. 212.

43. MEED, 30 April 1976 and 7 May 1976; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cotton in Syria, p. 6.

44. Carr, David W., “Capital Flows and Development in Syria,” Middle East Journal 34 (Autumn 1980), p. 460.

45. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cotton in Syria, p. 27.

46. Petran, , Syria, p. 211; MEED, 19 March 1976; Wall Street Journal, 2 March 1981.

47. Vatikiotis, , “Politics of the Fertile Crescent,” p. 226.

48. Longuenesse, Elisabeth, “L'industrialisation et sa signification sociale,” in Raymond, A., ed., La Syrie d'aujourd'hui (Paris: CNRS, 1980), p. 338.

49. Ibid., p. 336; Michel Chatelus, “La croissance economique: mutations des structures et dynamisme du déséquilibre,” in Raymond, Syrie d'aujourd'hui, p. 233.

50. Rabinovich, Itamar, “Syria,” in Legum, C., ed., Middle East Contemporary Survey 1976–77 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978), p. 609; ARR, 16–30 April 1976; Christian Science Monitor, 26 May 1976, p. 9; MEED, 26 March 1976, p. 35.

51. MEED, 19 March 1976.

52. Carr, , “Capital Flows,” p. 459.

53. MEED, 25 August 1975 and 19 March 1976; ARR, 1–15 September 1976.

54. Rabinovich, , “Syria,” p. [606; Los Angeles Times, 7 April 1980, p. 1.

55. ARR, 16–30 June 1976; Carr, , “Capital Flows,” pp. 460–62.

56. Ibid. During the first quarter of 1976, there were persistent reports that the level of concessionary aid monies coming into Syria from Arab oil-producing countries was about to be reduced substantially, a move that would have greatly exacerbated the regime's financial difficulties. See Kanovsky, , Economic Development of Syria, pp. 142–43.

57. Fruit production in Syria rose significantly between 1974 and 1975 as fruits like apricots and apples were introduced by middle and large landholders in the southwestern parts of the country for shipment to European markets. ARR, 15–29 February 1976; Arab Economist 141 (06 1981), p. 20.

58. MEED, 23 April 1976.

59. New York Times, 26 December 1975, p. A5 and 4 March 1976, p. A7.

60. Kerr, Malcolm, “Hafiz Asad and the Changing Patterns of Syrian Politics,” International Journal 28 (Autumn 1973), pp. 703 and 706.

61. Donahue, John J., “The New Syrian Constitution and the Religious Opposition,” CEMAM Reports 1 (19721973), pp. 84 and 94.

62. ARR, 16–31 July 1975.

63. ARR, 1–14 August 1975; MEED, 1 August 1975.

64. Abd-Allah, , Islamic Struggle in Syria, p. 78.

65. ARR, 1–14 February 1976, 15–29 February 1976, and 1–14 April 1976.

66. ARR, 1–15 July 1976.

67. ARR, 1–15 July 1976 and 16–30 September 1976; Dam, van, “Middle Eastern Political Cliches,” p. 56 note 36; Rabinovich, , “Syria,” p. 609; Rabinovich, , “Limits of Military Power,” pp. 64–65.

68. ARR, 16–31 August 1976 and 1–15 September 1976.

69. Schanche, Don A., “Syria's Leader Rules by Arms and Conciliation,” Los Angeles Times, 7 04 1980; McManus, Doyle, “Terrorists Try to Shake Syrian Stability,” Los Angeles Times, 9 03 1980.

70. MEED, 30 April 1976 and 19 March 1976; ARR, 15–29 February 1976.

71. Petran, , Syria, p. 251.

72. During the 1960s, Lebanon became a major exporter of manufactured goods to regional markets. Among the items exported by Lebanese companies that had the most dramatic growth rates between 1967 and 1974 were aluminum, soap, clothing, carpets, electrical equipment, medicines, and furniture. Andr6 Chaib calls these years “a consumer-goods-leading period” of Lebanese economic development. During most of this period, the largest markets for these goods were those in the oil-producing countries. Thus, Chaib observes that “Syria's share of these exports fell from around 25 percent to around seven percent” between 1951 and 1973. But light manufactured goods imported from Lebanon continued to enter Syria at a steady rate throughout these years. See Chaib, , “Analysis of Lebanon's Merchandise Exports 1951–1974,” Middle East Journal 34 (Autumn 1980), pp. 442–46.

73. Kanovsky, , Economic Development of Syria, pp. 145–46.

74. Carr, “Capital Flows,” passim.

75. Syria's foreign public debt increased by almost one-third to $661 million in 1975. After 1974, a growing proportion of these funds was being borrowed from private lenders at market rates. See United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Supplement to World Economic Survey 1976 (New York: United Nations, 1978), p. 189; International Monetary Fund, World Debt Tables: External Public Debt of Developing Countries, EC-167/77 (2 September 1977), I: 79, 91, 175, 177, and 238; Klein, Thomas M., “The External Debt Situation of Developing Countries,” Finance and Development 13 (12 1976).

76. ARR, 1–15 May 1976; cf. IMF, World Debt Tables: External Public Debt, I: 79 and 81.

77. IMF, International Financial Statistics 32 (12 1979), pp. 372–73, lines 26g and 60.

78. “Lebanon Benefits from Role as a Center for Trading and Finance in the Middle East,” IMF Survey, 14 April 1975, p. 102; MEED, 16 August 1974, p. 949; Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Economic Review of Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus, 2d quarter 1974, p. 8.

79. Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Economic Review of Lebanon, 3d quarter 1975, p. 12; Nasr, Salim, “The Crisis of Lebanese Capitalism,” MERIP Reports 73 (12 1978); Moore, Clement H., “Le systeme bancaire libanais,” Maghreb/Machrek 99 (0104 1983).

80. Askari, Hossein and Cummings, John, Middle East Economies in the 1970s: A Comparative Approach (New York: Praeger, 1976), pp. 344 and 352–53; MEED, 18 July 1975, p. 8.

81. ARR, 15–29 February 1976.

82. Kanovsky, , Economic Development of Syria, p. 144.

83. See Rabinovich, “Syria.”

84. Dawisha, A. I., “Syria under Asad, 1970–78: The Centres of Power,” Government and Opposition 13 (Summer 1978), pp. 349–53. On this issue, it is useful to compare Roger Owen, The Role of the Army in Middle Eastern Politics: A Critique of Existing Analyses,” Review of Middle East Studies 3 (1978), with Ossowski, Stanislaw, Class Structure in the Social Consciousness (New York: Free Press, 1963).

85. Dam, Van, Struggle for Power in Syria, chap. 5; Batatu, “Some Observations,” pp. 340–43; Drysdale, Alasdair, “The Syrian Armed Forces in National Politics: The Role of the Geographic and Ethnic Periphery,” in Kolkowicz, R. and Korbonski, A., eds., Soldiers, Peasants, and Bureaucrats (London: Allen & Unwin, 1982), pp. 6970; Picard, Elizabeth, “Ouverture feconomique et renforcement militaireen Syrie,” Orienle Moderno 59 (July-December 1979 ); Michaud, Gerard, “The Importance of Bodyguards,” MER1P Reports 110 (1112 1982).

86. ARR, various numbers for June and July 1976.

87. Gourevitch, Peter A., “International Trade, Domestic Coalitions, and Liberty: Comparative Responses to the Crisis of 1873–1896,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 8 (Autumn 1977); Kimber, Richard, “Collective Action and Fallacy of the Liberal Fallacy,” World Politics 33 (01 1981); Bates, Robert H. and Rogerson, William P., “Agriculture in Development: A Coalitional Analysis,” Public Choice 35 (1980).

88. Lancaster, Kelvin, “The Dynamic Inefficiency of Capitalism,” Journal of Political Economy 81 (0910 1973), pp. 10921109; Elster, Jon, “Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory,” Theory and Society 11 (1982).

89. For an effort to use this sort of approach to explain Syrian foreign policy, see Burrowes, Robert and Spector, Bertram, “The Strength and Direction of Relationships between Domestic and External Conflict and Cooperation: Syria, 1961–67,” in Wilkenfeld, Jonathan, ed., Conflict Behavior and Linkage Politics (New York: McKay, 1973), and Burrowes, and DeMaio, Gerald, “Domestic/External Linkages: Syria, 1961–1967,” Comparative Political Studies 7 (01 1975). A more sophisticated attempt in this same direction can be found in Bar-Siman-Tov, Linkage Politics in the Middle East.

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