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‘Should We Destroy the World for Beirut?’

‘Should We Destroy the World for Beirut?’

Monday, 29 August, 2022 - 07:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

When Israeli forces invaded Beirut in June 1982, Vladimir Putin was still a young officer in the KGB empire that was run by Yuri Andropov. In the fall of that same year Andropov would be named master of the Kremlin.

Also in 1982, Volodymyr Zelensky was still a boy of four, playing in a Russian-speaking region in southeastern Ukraine.

I don’t want to make comparisons between Israel’s Peace for Galilee Operation in 1982 and the “special military operation” Russia has been waging for six months now against Ukraine.

I don’t want to compare between Beirut and Kyiv in spite of claims that Putin’s plan called for surrounding the Ukrainian capital to force Zelensky to flee or surrender.

I will in no way compare between Zelensky’s appearances, dressed in his now trademark khaki t-shirt, from Kyiv with Arafat’s appearances, dressed in his keffiyeh and flashing a victory sign, from Beirut.

Putin, Zelensky and Arafat belong to different times. If Arafat was forced to quit Beirut to his exile in Tunisia on July 30, it is too soon to predict the future of Zelensky, a man transformed by war into a star and symbol in spite of his field losses.

In truth, I take pause at the four tumultuous decades that separate the developments in Beirut and Kyiv. The world has changed dramatically during that time, as did Russia’s position in it.

When Israeli forces surrounded Beirut, Arafat convened his close circle. He informed them of a secret decision: the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) will fight for six months before making any decision based on field developments and international balances of power.

Arafat asked Fatah central committee member Hani al-Hassan to launch a pointless political operation, meaning holding negotiations for the sake of negotiations in execution of the order to fight.

Arafat’s decision to fight for six months in Beirut will hit a setback in July when he was visited by Soviet Ambassador Alexander Soldatov.

Arafat was not expecting the Soviet Union to issue a warning similar to the one made by Nikolai Bulganin in wake of the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt. He was instead hoping for a supportive stance.

Arafat was surprised when Soldatov ordered him to “leave Beirut”, replying: “How do I leave?” “On the back of American destroyers” was the response. “I, Yasser Arafat, am to leave on the back of American destroyers?” was the incredulous response. “Leave with your cadres,” said Soldatov. “It is important that you preserve them,” he urged.

“If I leave here, I will no longer be heeded. I am not a state,” Arafat said, to which Soldatov replied: “Then you will be caught in the network”, meaning the way the Israeli army used to transport prisoners.

Hassan, who was present at the meeting, observed as Arafat gradually grew angrier.

Arafat told Soldatov: “A leader with two bullets in his gun cannot be taken captive.” The Palestinian leader’s tone was final and the ambassador understood that the meeting was over.

Soldatov then visited Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Dr. George Habash, who dreamed that Beirut would become like Stalingrad in terms of changing the balance of power.

Habash asked his guest “when will you intervene?” to which Soldatov replied: “What madness is this? Should we destroy the world for Beirut?” “Get out,” he ordered. Habash was shocked.

The ambassador suggested that the Palestinians quit under the Red Cross flag. Habash was very disappointed when he would later recount the encounter with Hassan.

Another official to also meet the same disappointment was then Secretary General of the Lebanese Communist Party George Hawi. He had visited the Soviet embassy as bombs struck. He tried to persuade Soldatov to have Moscow send a destroyer to the Mediterranean.

When he realized the impossibility of his request, he suggested to the envoy that Moscow dispatch a ship to evacuate the wounded.

Hawi left the meeting empty-handed and the exit of the Palestinian resistance was now inevitable.

Arafat may have left Beirut flashing a victory sign, but he knew that the PLO had lost its last foothold on the Arab-Israeli contact line. In faraway Tunisia, he watched the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Madrid conference and the collapse of the Soviet Union and decided to take the Oslo path.

His insistence to quit by sea will only strain the already tense relations he had with President Hafez al-Assad.

Four decades ago, Assad also took a decision that would still be felt today. He agreed to welcome a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It arrived in al-Zabadani and later headed to Jinta in the Lebanese Bekaa region. It set up a training camp that will witness the birth of the Lebanese Hezbollah with the blessing of Khomeini, who had met with Lebanese youths. He encouraged them to fight and forge ahead along that path.

Let us leave the past for now, even if it is a wise teacher. Four decades separate the Ukrainian summer from the Lebanese summer. There is also a vast difference between Soldatov’s tone and Putin’s. Moscow has changed and as has the world.

After six months of fighting, the security, gas and bread of the “global village” are now captive to the Ukrainian war. It appears Putin is incapable of deciding the battle in his favor. Intense western aid has deprived him of declaring victory.

Zelensky is also unlikely to defeat the Russian arsenal, but he is in no way ready to surrender. A defeat on the field is less painful than raising the white flag.

What if Putin were to conclude that dealing the critical blow is impossible without surrounding Kyiv itself? NATO will not intervene to stop him. The West will suffice with pumping more weapons in Ukraine.

If Zelensky were to despair enough to ask “when will you intervene?” the reply will be: “Should we destroy the world for Kyiv?”

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