“ASyrian military communiqué said two Syrian soldiers were killed and 10 wounded by the American bombing.”
So reported that hawk’s hawk of the polite establishment, Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times – where he still has a regular column – on December 5, 1983.
Well, here we go again: Just this Monday, two U.S. helicopters reportedly fired on a Syrian Army checkpoint in northeastern Syria, killing one and wounding at least two soldiers. Syrian state media and US military spokesmen disagreed – no rarity there – on even the incident’s broad strokes.
Pentagon officials said a joint patrol of US troops and the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on a “routine” anti-ISIS security mission encountered a pro-Syrian regime checkpoint. Then, according to Colonel Myles B. Caggins III, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (the ongoing US mission in Syria), “After receiving safe passage from the pro-regime forces, the patrol came under small arms fire from individuals in the vicinity of the checkpoint…Coalition troops returned fire in self-defense.” However, he disputed the accounts of an air attack, emphasizing that “Coalition troops returned fire in self-defense. The Coalition did not conduct an airstrike. No Coalition casualties occurred.”
History offers clear caution: beware of foreign meddlers peddling their myths – they’ll augur only catastrophe. If we want what’s best for Lebanon, it’s time to tell the truth about it; about ourselves.
The no less credible Syrian state media and Britain-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that a helicopter attack did come after Syrian soldiers prevented a US convoy from passing through. The Observatory added that before the strike, an argument broke out between the Syrian and American troops. The truth likely lies somewhere between what logic dictates are two mutually exclusive positions.
Yet most mainstream media reported on these decidedly profound events absent almost any relevant context. In other words, why were US soldiers still patrolling Syria; why were Assad’s troops in such close proximity; and where do the ever-embattled Kurds of the SDF fit in?
Consider some confusing highlights: Northeastern Syria is mostly controlled by the U.S-backed SDF, but the Syrian army is deployed in certain locations per recent agreements with the local Kurds. Assad-allied Russian troops are stationed at an airport nearby. Last year, NATO-allied Turkish troops invadedthe region – ostensibly to root out cross-border-raiding rebels affiliated with the Kurdish-core of SDF fighters.
In reality, Ankara opportunistically sought to carve out its own Syrian sphere of influence and snuff-out its own long-rebellious Kurdish-minority’s autonomy-aspirations. The Turks even threatened US troops fleeing from their invasion. Meanwhile, the Assad regime – aided by invited Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hezbollah forces – have all but won the nine-year-old civil war. Syrian government troops – with Russian air-support – are as we speak mopping up the largely Islamist Sunni rebels in their last Idlib stronghold. America’s paltry 500-soldier Syria-based vanguard of the world’s most powerful military couldn’t – and can’t – do much about any of it.
One of the last times that the US attacked and killed Syrian troops with some regularity amidst such a muddled mess, occurred back in the early 1980s during Lebanon’s Civil War. It didn’t end well. Yet at Washington’s behest, the US military is again taking sides in another, civil war in bordering-Syria. The US scantly understood either. Thirty-seven years ago, the entire chain from a marine ground commander to the joint chiefs and up to Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger opposed continuing a disturbingly similar operation across Syria’s western border.
Yet, it seems that once more, too few American troops have been given too large and ludicrous a Levantine portfolio. They’ve again morphed into just another militia with no discernible mission. And now US forces are killing Syrians inside Syria with no end game in sight – or even articulated. But, in a bit of historically-repetitive farce, when President Trump hinted at closing up shop last year, he was lambasted with Lebanon analogies. See, many interventionists clamored, America need stay the course in the current non-mission, because “cutting-and-running” from its ludicrous Lebanese precursor was precisely what necessitated the present deployment. How’s that for circuitous reasoning?
Well, it’s the sort now-deceased Defense Secretary Weinberger would take umbrage with. Nearly four decades ago, he described the Lebanon-version of such logic as: the “We can’t leave because we’re there” argument. When the Beirut blowback of 241 marine bodies flew home, he couldn’t forgive himself. Nearly 20 years later, he admitted that he “took it very personally and still feel responsible in not having been persuasive enough to overcome” the same arguments now being drummed up in Syria.
Only today it’s less clear American troops there have any advocate at all in Pentagon chief Mark Esper – who’s rarely played rabbi for anyone besides the corporate defense industry from whence he sprung. Pity our soldiers in Syria, and the suffering people they kill and maim by their very pointless presence.
Then, as now, much of the madness rested on myths about Lebanon and its Syrian-linkage.
So, what better time to roll-out my last five related targets for delusion-deflation:
#6: Iran (and Syria) were/are Hezbollah’s Real Puppet Masters
Iran was involved in the 1983 Beirut bombing, and Syria offered an assist, but Hezbollah was neither fully foreign, nor formed out of thin air. Absent U.S.-facilitated Israeli aggression, there’d likely never have been a Party of God. Don’t take my word for it: in 2006, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak admitted, “When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.” Sequence, like grievances, matter.
Though views of Hezbollah have always been mixed – exceptionally positive among Shia, mixed with Christians, invariably negative with Sunnis – recent polls suggest only 10 percent of Lebanese see the group’s alleged Iranian master as the greatest threat to their country (exceeded by Israel: 49 percent, and Syria:11 percent). That’s partly because Hezbollah’s membership has always been near-exclusively Lebanese. So have the vast majority of its concerns, priorities, and operations.
There’s no denying the group’s partly Iranian origins (or Syrian facilitation) and its Palestinian-freedom orientation – but for many Lebanese, the former isn’t necessarily disqualifying, and the latter widely endearing. In fact, Hezbollah’s image was greatly bolstered by its strong showing and moral – if not strictly tactical – victory in the 2006 Israeli War. Remarkably, two years later, Secretary General Nasrallah – the epitome of Shiadom – was rated as by far the most popular world leader among – vastly Sunni (86-89 percent) – regional Arabs.
That popularity has since waned after Hezbollah decisively committed itself to a lengthy and costly defense of the Syrian regime in the post-2011 civil war. The group’s loyalty to President Assad and his vaguely-Shia Alawite minority alienated many regional Sunnis. Hezbollah fighters have paid dearly – with more than 1500 killed in Syria – though their ranks, arsenal and combat-experience also swelled.
Nevertheless, while Assad is a Russian and Iranian ally, Hezbollah’s interventions was motivated by more than blind-proxy loyalty. Proof of that danger manifested in the significant portion of ISIS spill-over of attacks inside Lebanon that mostly targeted the Shia community, and Hezbollah specifically. Then there’s the US regime change regional track record in Iraq, Libya, and (almost) Syria – which illustrated the frightful severity of Hezbollah’s local transnational dilemma. The group’s war aims converged with – not simply crafted by – Tehran and Moscow. And lest we forget: they won.
The Iran-Hezbollah connection has long been more complex and less unidirectional than Washington’s “experts” loudly insist. In fact, especially after the IRGC first left Lebanon in 1998, Hezbollah has had significant autonomy – making most day-to-day decisions without consulting Tehran or Damascus. The same nuance applies to Hezbollah’s Syrian links. While Damascus may certainly have been the senior partner in the 1980s, these days it’s less clear who leads and needs who.
In 2002, when Syria hoped to get off Washington’s state-sponsors of terror list, Syria’s military intelligence chief reportedly hinted that President Assad was willing to discuss imposing restrictions on the Hezbollah’s military and political activities. A Syrian foreign ministry official said this back channel was necessary because it would be impossible for Assad publicly oppose Hezbollah. “He can’t do it,” the official said, since Hassan Nasrallah was enormously popular in Syria. What’s more, when things looked grim for Assad early in the civil war, Hezbollah came to his aid – on a massive and costly scale – before the more widely-reported Russian and Iranian contingents.
It also bears mentioning that the US and the supposedly ironclad axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah aren’t always on opposing sides in key regional battles. All four powers opposed and fought ISIS on one level or another these past six years. Each of them also abhors Al Qaeda – though, paradoxically it’s the US that tacitly bolstered the group’s Syrian-branch during the civil war. For example, few Americans now remember that after the 9/11 attacks, Assad’s intelligence apparatus was initially quite supportive and cooperated with the CIA’s war on Osama’s old outfit.
By the way, when soothing Syria suited Washington’s interests, President George H.W. Bush abandoned the very prime minister who, as a general, back in 1983, led the U.S.-coordinated defense of East Beirut – during which, Druze militiamen came within seven miles of the ambassador’s residence. The price of Damascus’s support for the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War was a freer hand in Lebanon. Thus, in an epic volte face, Washington turned a blind eye when Assad’s army spoiled the former general’s “War of Liberation,” encircling his compound, and forcing him into 15-years of exile. That man’s name was Michel Aoun – the current president of Lebanon, turned ally of Hezbollah.
#7: On Tehran’s and Damascus’s Behalf, Hezbollah Hijacked and Runs the Lebanese State
In 2017, Imad Harb of the Arab Center in Washington, DC, pronounced that “Hezbollah has been in control of the Lebanese state for quite a while and now it’s a supposed victory in Syria on the side of the Syrian regime.”
That’s certainly one way to look at it. Yet, from another – more Levantine-grounded – point of view, Hezbollah (sometime-partnered with Amal) legitimately represents the interests of marginalized Lebanese Shia: now constituting the country’s largest single community. As a young lieutenant in Baghdad (2006-07), I immediately recognized, and was drawn to, the Shia community’s fatalistic victim-culture. It nostalgically recalled my maternal Irish Catholic upbringing: with its own cavalcade of “terroristic” hunger-striking martyrs in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – 10 of whom willfully perished just a year before Hezbollah coalesced. Fitting, then, that the two groups would eventually collaborate in later years.
Then and still, Lebanon’s Shia volunteers were beset by twin enemies: government neglect and Israeli invasion-cum-oppression (1982-2000). Their suffering and struggle were real. Few Shia families in South Lebanon or Beirut’s “Belt of Misery” urban environs weren’t touched – their leaders included. Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah’s is a classically Lebanese story. Born the son of a grocer in East Beirut, his, own son, Hadi, was just eighteen when killed fighting Israeli soldiers in 1998.
Still, more than a decade ago, Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism “expert” at the establishment-interventionist Brookings Institution asserted that Hezbollah was “the most powerful single political movement in Lebanon.” Incidentally, that year, Brookings’ top-tier donors included: