In this eighth episode of the memoirs of Abdel-Halim Khaddam, published by Asharq Al-Awsat, the late Syrian vice-president narrates the decisive moments of the military intervention in Lebanon in 1976, the parallel contacts that took place between Syria and the Arab countries to form an Arab deterrent force, in addition to the role of the Syrian forces.
He says: “In light of the insistence of the Palestinian leadership and the allied Lebanese parties on continuing the fighting and the refusal to lift the siege on Zahle and the Christian villages in the north of Lebanon, and in the face of all the damage inflicted on the Lebanese people… the Syrian military intervention became urgent to stop this dirty war, so our forces crossed the Lebanese borders on June 1, 1976, on the day Alexei Kosygin, Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, arrived in Damascus.”
Khaddam devotes a large part of his account to the conflict with the head of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar), in the diplomatic corridors, especially during a meeting that coincided with the entry of the Syrian forces into Lebanon.
“On June 1, 1976, the Coordination Office of the Non-Aligned Movement convened in the city of Algiers, in the presence of Arafat, who gave a theatrical speech and talked about an American-French-Israeli plot against the Palestinian revolution and the national forces in Lebanon, and that he feared it would be implemented by Arab hands”, in reference to Syria.”
Khaddam added that he responded to Arafat loudly so that everyone could hear him, saying: “You lied, Yasser, as is your habit, and did wrong to Syria and the Palestinian cause… You are tearing Lebanon apart, tearing the Palestinians apart, and serving Israel.”
Arafat replied, saying: “You entered Lebanon and hit us.” Khaddam answered: “We will strike everyone who tries to divide, and we will hold accountable everyone who sheds blood. Lebanon is not Palestine. You will pay a dear price for your conspiracy against Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.”
The late Syrian vice-president recounts: “During the discussions to amend the Lebanese constitution to elect a new president, it was agreed that President Sleiman Franjieh would submit his resignation, so that the new president, Elias Sarkis, would exercise his powers, work to end the war and achieve reconciliation. Despite the election, tension remained and the shooting continued. The national movement campaign escalated under the leadership of Kamal Jumblatt, and the Palestinian leadership continued to play with fire to prevent a serious cessation of fighting and the start of a national dialogue to end the crisis, according to the constitutional document.”
In May 1976, Khaddam received Karim Pakradouni, who conveyed a message from President Sarkis, saying: “[Sarkis] believes that his first contact should be with Syria to explain his perception. He is confident that the first step they should take is political dialogue with the conflicting parties. This must take place in two stages: The first is to ask the parties to end the fighting, while the second is to have a round-table meeting.”
Despite the efforts made to calm the situation in preparation for the presidential transition from Franjieh to Sarkis, the political atmosphere witnessed further tension after an alliance was forged between Raymond Edde, Kamal Jumblatt, and Saeb Salam, in addition to the forces of the national and progressive parties, and the efforts made by Arafat to continue the fighting.
Khaddam says: “The military pressure of the Palestinian forces and their Lebanese allies intensified in Mount Lebanon and Beirut, and some Christian forces were attacked in the south. The siege also intensified around Zahle and Christian villages in Akkar, including Qobayat and Andaqt. Lebanon was threatened by the widening of the circle of sectarian massacres, which provided the best opportunities for Israel to intervene and find an ally in the Lebanese arena.
The late Syrian official said that with the escalation of the fighting, Jumblatt made proposals, including: “A serious ceasefire without the withdrawal of fighters from their positions, engaging into round table negotiations without preconditions, the gradual withdrawal of the Syrian army, and defining the agenda of the dialogue: political reform, amendment of some articles of the constitution and the political system… and the re-arrangement of institutions in a national, non-sectarian order.”
According to Khaddam, it was clear that Jumblatt had a vision to build a new regime in Lebanon that would free the people from the sectarian system, and that would constitute a guarantee for some segments of Lebanese society, and end the Maronite domination of the country’s leadership.
“On June 2, 1976, the Palestinian coalition, along with some Lebanese forces, called for a general strike to protest the entry of the Syrian forces into Lebanon. The Palestinian militias and their allied forces (the Communist Party, the Communist Action Organization, the Syrian Nationalist Party, Al-Mourabitoun, and other organizations imposed by Arafat from Fatah) forced shop owners to close their stores under death threats.
“It is evident that the strike only took place in areas controlled by the Palestinian forces and their allies. As for the other regions, they were in a different situation, as the entry of the Syrian forces, which was carried out at the request of President Franjieh, lifted the siege on the threatened Christian areas and dispelled their fears.
“On June 3, the Lebanese National Movement held a meeting headed by Jumblatt, and issued a statement declaring the sweeping success of the general strike that included all Lebanese regions in rejection of the Syrian military occupation and of every foreign intervention… In parallel, the commander of the Arab Lebanon Army, Lieutenant Ahmed Al-Khatib, a Lebanese Army dissident, made an appeal to confront the Syrian army.
“Despite this media propaganda, the militias of the Palestinian factions and their allies from the Lebanese parties were fleeing our forces. As usual, Arafat started shouting and crying out. He called for a meeting of the Arab League, which was scheduled for June 9.
Khaddam continues: “On the morning of June 9, I headed to Cairo, and was met at the airport by Mamoun Al-Atassi, our embassy’s Chargé d'Affairs. As the plane landed, he came up to me and informed me that a meeting took place the day before, on June 8, and a delegation was formed (to go to Damascus), headed by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Mubarak bin Hamad Al Khalifa, head of the session, and the foreign ministers of Algeria (Bouteflika) and Libya (Ali Triki) and Secretary-General of the Arab League (Mahmoud Riad). I asked the pilots to prepare an immediate departure plan for Damascus to meet with President Assad, and I asked Atassi to contact Damascus, to inform him that he would not receive the delegation before my arrival.
“Atassi had informed me of the text of the ministerial meeting’s decision, which included several items, including, “requesting all parties to stop the fighting immediately” and “establishing symbolic Arab security forces, under the supervision of the League’s Secretary-General, to maintain security and stability in Lebanon… to replace the Syrian forces, while the Arab security mission ends at the request of the elected President of the Lebanese Republic…
“I immediately returned to Damascus. The director of Damascus airport kept the plane of the Arab ministers in the air until after my arrival, so I called Assad and told him about the latest developments. Assad refused to discuss any issue [with the Arab ministers] before the holding of a new Arab League meeting, in which I would present Syria’s stance.
“We agreed to hold a meeting the next day, that is, on June 10. Indeed, I went to the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, entered the hall, where the atmosphere was tense…
“I said in the session: “Oh Yasser, I came from Damascus with two handkerchiefs to wipe my tears because of the massacres that took place against you, which you were talking about with our brothers in the previous sessions... Yasser, your place is not here, but at the Rihani Theater (in Beirut) because you are an actor.” He interrupted me, saying: “I represent the Palestinian people.” I replied: “You are on a stage, and you are the enemy of the Palestinian people. Yasser, I advise you… your methods will destroy the Palestinian cause.”
“Then I turned to the ministers (...) and requested that the decision be taken without my presence to be reconsidered, so that any reference to the Syrian forces be deleted, emphasizing that the work of these forces comes within the framework of Lebanese sovereignty. After discussion, the council responded to my request.”