On July 3, 1982, 20 days into the Israeli siege of West Beirut, then-Prime Minister Saeb Salam and seven other Sunni leaders demanded that Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO, and his 6,000 fighters leave Lebanon to spare the country further destruction.
Arafat agreed but suggested a gradual withdrawal, hoping such a move would open the dialogue with Washington Arafat desperately wanted. Salam and his Sunni allies insisted on immediate departure, and on August 21, as Arafat led his men into exile in Tunisia, the Israelis lifted their siege.
The 1982 Sunni initiative paralleled in its importance the declaration of Lebanese independence in 1943, when the Sunni leadership turned a deaf ear to pan-Arabism and – together with the Maronites – started practicing sovereignty.
Yet the 1982 sovereignty-in-action was to be undermined through a combination of terror attacks, domestic sellouts and regional deals. President-elect Bachir Gemayel was murdered, signaling, to this day, the end of effective Maronite leadership. For their part, the Sunnis were compromised and replaced by pro-Syrian Shia and Druze “de facto forces.”
In 1990, the shattered Lebanese sovereignty was dealt a final blow when both Riyadh and Washington traded Syrian participation in the coalition war against Iraq for complete Syrian domination over Lebanon.
During Damascus’s “rule”, the pro-sovereignty Maronite leadership was further weakened. Dani Chamoun of the National Liberal Party was murdered with his family in their home, the maverick army commander Michel Aoun sent into exile, and the Lebanese Forces boss, Samir Geagea, was imprisoned for his alleged role in the murder of former Prime Minister Rashid Karami. Thus began what came to be known throughout the 1990s the “Christian frustration.”
Damascus remained wary of the Sunni leadership, which was reinvigorated by the emergence of the Saudi-backed billionaire, Rafik Hariri. Syria restricted Hariri’s movement. Throughout his premiership he was not allowed to visit the predominantly Sunni north, and his reputation as a man of economic salvation was tainted by wholesale Syrian corruption and embezzlement, while he was told to focus on the reconstruction process and leave the foreign and domestic security policies to Syria.
Starting 1998, Damascus tried to replicate its own police state in Lebanon. It was a bad call. It marginalized allies such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and further frustrated an already disillusioned Hariri.
To Syria’s misfortune, however, the world changed after 9/11 and by 2004, a new Middle East coalition had ensured that Syria had lost Saudi consent to rule Lebanon.
Jumblatt, arguably Lebanon’s smartest politician, and Hariri, legendary for his quick mastery of Lebanese politics, saw an opportunity to push for a Syrian withdrawal. They instantly forged a common cause with the still “frustrated” Christians.
The rest, as they say, is history. On February 14, 2005, Hariri was killed and a momentarily shell-shocked Syria withdrew its army from Lebanon in April 2005, ending 29 years of occupation.
For the third time, following the 1943 independence and the Palestinian withdrawal of 1982, harmony between the Sunnis and the Maronites produced immediate results. Lebanon practiced sovereignty and achieved independence. By doing so, it commanded the world’s attention and support.
But also like in 1982, opponents of Lebanon’s sovereignty employed a similar combination of tactics to ensure that the next five years would be blighted by assassinations, conflict and civil unrest that at one point took Lebanon to the brink of civil war.
Earlier, in the beginning of 2006, Damascus hit the jackpot when exiled Maronite leader Michel Aoun agreed to join the ranks of the opposition March 8 coalition, thus dealing the Independence ‘05 movement an early blow by abandoning the traditional Christian pro-sovereignty line.
Even without Aoun, the majority of the Sunnis, Druze and the remaining Maronites – armed with international support for their cause – persisted in their push for a genuinely independent Lebanon.
Running out of options, on May 7, 2008, Syria unleashed its local proxies, who swept onto the streets of Beirut. It was now or never for the regime in Damascus. A few months earlier an exceptionally pro-Lebanon French president had left office, while a pro-Lebanese US administration only had a matter of months in office.
Regional dynamics were also at play. Saudi Arabia had grown wary of a strongly assertive Iraqi cabinet, led by a Shia who Riyadh believed to be close to its archenemy Tehran. Like in 1990, Riyadh went to Damascus for a trade over Iraq in a deal that included Lebanon.
Jumblatt caved, and shortly after, the new Sunni leader, Saad Hariri, despite his best efforts, knew the game was up. Even Geagea and his Christian followers, who until this point had stood defiant against Damascus, accepted that the June 2009 election victory was nothing more than a memory.
A new era of indirect Syrian rule in Lebanon has started again, given the havoc Aoun has wreaked, and the traditional pro-Lebanese sovereignty line has been compromised like never before.
Will the future give the Lebanese a fourth chance to practice sovereignty? No one can tell. But history will certainly remember that the Lebanese, the regionally-dependent leaders and their blind followers missed yet another golden opportunity for self rule, a chance that might not come again in our lifetime.