In mid-February 1986, a delegation of Lebanese Islamic leaders arrived in Damascus and met with Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, requesting the intervention of Syrian forces to impose security in Beirut, after the eruption of clashes.
President Hafez al-Assad decided to dispatch a military unit to impose order across the Lebanese capital, including Hezbollah’s Fathallah Barracks.
In this episode of the memoirs of the late Syrian vice president published by Asharq Al-Awsat, Khaddam narrates the dialogue that took place in March 1987 between him and the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Hassan Akhtari, who was seeking a mediation for Hezbollah.
“In 1986 and early 1987, the security situation collapsed in Beirut. Gangs and militias carried out looting, robbery and murder, while clashes erupted between different armed groups.
“In mid-February 1986, an Islamic delegation arrived in Damascus, including leaders of various sects, who described the dire conditions of Beirut residents, and requested the intervention of Syria through a security force. I discussed the issue with President al-Assad, who decided to send a military unit to Beirut, in response to the request of the Islamic leaders, and gave his instructions to the army command to carry out the mission. Based on a security plan, the Syrian forces closed down militia headquarters and confiscated weapons they found there.
“During that operation, Syrian soldiers headed to a Hezbollah base in Beirut, known as the Fathallah barracks, and asked party members to evacuate the premises and hand over their weapons. A dispute erupted and the Syrians were surprised by heavy gunfire, which led to the killing of some soldiers. The forces responded, killing 22 people and taking over the barracks.”
Khaddam recounts that on March 3, 1987, he received the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, Hassan Akhtari, who requested the meeting to discuss some matters.
“According to the minutes of the meeting, the first topic that we tackled was the developments in Beirut, the Fathallah barracks in particular, and the successive events that took place in West Beirut,” he says.
The Iranian ambassador conveyed Iran’s view on the execution of the Syrian security plan, saying: “Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan (then-Syrian intelligence official in Lebanon) stated that the Syrian forces would enter the southern suburbs, and then he went back on his claim. The brothers in Tehran want to know the extent of the dimensions of the security plan, and whether it will include the southern suburbs?”
He continued: “There is another point: the confiscation of weapons from Muslim homes in West Beirut. I remember that in my meeting with President Hafez al-Assad, while presenting my credentials, I spoke about this issue, and he said: This topic is not on our table. We will not take their weapons, but rather we will give them arms to fight and resist. Now, you take weapons from people’s homes. I don’t know how that happens.”
The diplomat went on saying: “We really want Hezbollah to be an effective and strong element in confronting Israel. We want it to be a strong supporter in the hands of Syria to face Israel. But now we see a ruthless propaganda campaign that wants to disturb the relations between Syria and the party. The enemies are working on that to suggest that there are contradictions between us… Officials in Iran have all described the West Beirut incident as an irresponsible act, and that the Syrian leadership was Hezbollah’s support system, because it realizes that the party is the arm to fight Israel.”
“Such events can arise the people’s emotions to an extent that makes it difficult for us, for you and for Hezbollah to control,” the ambassador emphasized.
Khaddam says that after hearing Akhtari’s briefing, he mentioned two points that reflect Damascus’ stance.
“The first point: Syria has been keen on the strong and fraternal relations with Iran, and has always been working to strengthen them. I confirm this keenness, despite some irresponsible statements by Tehran…
“A series of statements have been issued in Iran, some of which referred to the existing fraternal relations between the two countries, while others forgot about Syria to only focus on an incident that took place in Lebanon. We express our regret at the release of such statements… The importance of the relations between Syria and Iran and their common struggle are much greater than an incident occurring here or there.
“For us, if a citizen utters one word against Iran, we put him in prison, and if a group of people criticize Tehran, we deal with them severely. This is how we understand the concern for relations between the two countries. The responsibility for Lebanese affairs rests with Syria, because Lebanon has special relations with us. We are one people. In addition, what is happening in Lebanon is directly reflected on Syria’s security and policy in the region… This strategy is supposed to be supported by our friends in the Iranian Republic, because it is consistent with its anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist policies.”
Khaddam continued, saying: “Nevertheless, and despite all these statements, Syria will remain loyal to its relations with Iran, although we are saddened by such reactions, which should have been preceded by seeking clarification from Syria about what happened. If you had asked us about the events and we provided you with the facts… we would have avoided giving our enemies the opportunity to take advantage of the situation…”
The Syrian vice-president moves to touch on his country’s position towards Hezbollah.
“When Hezbollah was established, we considered it a friendly party and we provided it with assistance and support. We absorbed all the bad operations that some of its members had carried out against friends of Syria in Lebanon and against Syrian soldiers. We refrained from issuing public reactions; on the contrary, we were acting on the basis of friendly relations with this organization which confronts Israel.
“But you remember that we have warned several times against infiltrations from three sides: Yasser Arafat, the Iraq group, and the second Lebanese intelligence office. We were warning of the dangers of such penetrations because we feared that they would push Hezbollah to commit actions that would harm its role in Lebanon and its relations with Syria. Unfortunately, these warnings were not given the necessary importance from the party’s leadership…”
The Iranian ambassador, trying to clarify the infiltration of Hezbollah, said: “I do not deny that. Arafat can influence some elements. However, if we look at this party and its stated goals, it cannot agree with Arafat.” Khaddam replied: “I distinguished between Hezbollah as a leadership and some elements.”
Responding to Iranian concerns about the Shiite community in Lebanon and Syria’s intervention in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s stronghold, Khaddam said: “For the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon, they are part of the Islamic component and the Lebanese nation that we are keen on... Of course, Syria cannot take any action that would disturb the internal balance. What we are doing is for the benefit of the oppressed and affected people in Lebanon. The issue of the Southern Suburbs is not subject to discussion. In addition, we know very well the interests of Muslims, whether they were Shiites, Druze, or Sunnis.”
The Syrian vice president went on to say: “Officials in Iran know Syria’s stances towards the Islamic Republic, and we hope that our friends will realize the importance of Syria’s success in ending the Lebanese crisis. I assure you that Damascus does not intend to strike Hezbollah, but it cannot accept its refusal to abide by the security plan.”
The ambassador thanked Khaddam for receiving him and left.