Syria and Lebanon, more than just neighbours

By Sami Moubayed, CGNews,

When the French occupied Syria in 1920, they famously dissected the country, giving four major parts to the newly created state of Lebanon. The French left Syria 26 years later, and Syrian lawmakers claimed that the division was null and void, asking President Shukri al-Quwatli to officially request the area be restored to Syria.

Support TwoCircles

Quwatli angrily said, “Shame on you for asking that! What’s the difference anyhow between Syria and Lebanon? Are they not the same nation? These borders – created by the occupiers – mean nothing to us, and we do not recognise them. I won’t ask for a single inch back from the Lebanese. Having Syrian territory with Lebanon is just like having Syrian territory with Syria. And if the Lebanese need more land, all they need to do is ask, and they will get it!”

This story speaks volumes about how the Syrians regard their tiny neighbour, with whom they nevertheless have been at visible odds since the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005. Syria can, and will, accept an independent Lebanon, but not one that hosts a hostile regime. History provides the reason behind this insistence.

Twelve years after Quwatli’s statement, Syria decided to write off its parliamentary system for the sake of union with Egypt in 1958. In his justification, Syrian Foreign Minister Salah al-Din al-Bitar reminded his government that when independence from the French was being discussed in 1936, the Syrian negotiating team had not raised the issue of the annexed districts to Lebanon “because we believed that one day, at a certain point in history, we would be re-united with all of Lebanon. What is the use of taking back four districts when one day all of Lebanon will be restored to the mother nation, Syria?” That argument, he claimed, justified merging Syria into Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt.

Neither Bitar nor Quwatli wanted to occupy Lebanon, but they believed that the borders of the modern Lebanese Republic were artificial since they were imposed, during their lifetime, on the residents of Greater Syria. Syrians had not been consulted on this appropriation of land in 1920; it was the brainchild of the infamous French general, Henri Gouraud.

There are Syrians who still remember a time when the residents of Beirut would describe themselves as “Syrian.” Until well into the 20th century, the residents of Tripoli in today’s north Lebanon would refer to themselves as residents of “Trablus al-Sham” – Syrian Tripoli – and, prior to 1918, degrees from the American University of Beirut even said “Granted in Beirut, Syria.”

The late President Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000, never set foot in Lebanon, making only a quick trip to the sleepy town of Shtaura on the Syrian-Lebanese highway to meet with then President Suleiman Franjiyah in the early days of the Lebanese Civil War. Assad instead brought Lebanese leaders to Damascus, partly to maintain his paramount position of authority over Lebanon but mainly for security reasons.

This led many Lebanese to complain: “The President of Syria, who has troops in our country, never even visits, because he does not recognise its sovereignty.” This also explains why there was so much media attention surrounding President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Beirut on March 3, 2002 – it was the first of its kind by a Syrian leader in nearly 30 years.

Long before the Ba’athists came to power, the argument in Damascus has always been that, although we accepted an independent Lebanon, we will never tolerate or accept an anti-Syrian regime in Beirut. It’s just too close, too dangerous, and too interconnected with Syrian affairs. As a matter of fact, deep down, every Syrian administration since the republic was founded in 1932 has regarded Lebanon, albeit quietly, as a historical part of Syria.

A closer look at Syrian-Lebanese relations shows that when Bechara El Khoury became Lebanon’s president in 1943, he had the full backing of the nationalist government in Damascus. So interrelated were the Khoury and Quwatli administrations that when a military officer toppled Quwatli in 1949, Lebanon refused to recognise him. As a result, Husni al-Za’im, the new master of Damascus, began toying with the idea of “occupying Lebanon and returning it to its due place in Syria.” He even funded and trained a paramilitary group to invade and annex Lebanon, prompting the Syrians to eventually force him to resign in 1952.

But Syrians also forced Bechara El Khoury’s successor, Kamil Shamoun, to resign in the late 1950s, this time supplying the Lebanese with arms, funds, and logistics to bring down what Damascus described as an anti-Syrian and anti-Arab nationalist government in Beirut.

What the West fails to understand is that, from the Syrian perspective, it was not the least bit awkward or embarrassing to do any of this in Lebanon. From the Syrian perspective, the intruders were meddling in Syria.


* Sami Moubayed, PhD is a Syrian political analyst and author. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at