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Councilman John Akouri, former Washington, DC Press Secretary & Capitol Hill Advisor, is President & CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Three Decades Later, Looking Back at a TIME Magazine Article: The Christians Under Siege - October 23, 1978

Monday, Oct. 23, 1978
A ceasefire, but both sides are prepared for further war
A shaky ceasefire, as cease-fires always seem to be, took hold in Lebanon last week, but East Beirut was a smouldering ruin. In that battered section of the city, once home to 600,000 Maronite Christians, rescue workers picked through the rubble in search of the dead and dying. Glassy-eyed survivors crept cautiously out of basement shelters, scurrying back to safety when Syrian snipers cut loose with automatic weapons. A number of would-be refugees, seeking to join the exodus that has emptied East Beirut of more than two-thirds of its residents, were mowed down by Syrian machine guns as they tried to cross the bridges leading to Christian strongholds outside the city. Five other people were wounded as they attempted to cross the "green line" separating Muslim and Christian sections of Beirut. In effect, East Beirut was under siege: the 30,000-man Syrian peace-keeping force kept 3,500 Christian militiamen and 150,000 civilians bottled up within easy range of the heavy artillery that had pounded the city in the worst week of fighting since the end of the civil war in 1976.
Even as intermittent bursts of cannon fire marred the uneasy calm, both the Christians and their enemies prepared for a new outbreak of fighting. From Damascus, convoys of Syrian trucks transported 8,600 heavily armed Palestine Liberation Army commandos to fortified positions in Beirut. The P.L. A. commandos will be the backbone of a new Syrian-controlled antimilitia alliance comprising leftist Lebanese Muslims, Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and an army commanded by pro-Syrian Christian for mer President Suleiman Franjieh. The Arab League mandate under which the Syrian peace-keeping force has occupied Lebanon since 1976 will be reviewed on Oct. 28. If the league orders Damascus to withdraw its troops, the new force could still press the offensive against the Christian militias with Syrian arms and ammunition.
Israel, too, was building up its Christian allies: the "Tigers" commanded by former President Camille Chamoun and the Phalangist fighters under Pierre Gemayel. By night, Israeli ships brought in arms, medical supplies and food to Jounieh, twelve miles north of Beirut. About 150 Israeli advisers — distinguishable from their Christian clients because they do not wear the pearl-handled revolvers and outsize crosses favored by the swaggering militiamen — were providing counsel and logistical support. Christian officers of the Lebanese armed forces turned over to the militiamen an arsenal of U.S. weapons that had been destined for the country's moribund, ineffective army. Contemplating the grim fact that more than two dozen armed factions are now operating in Lebanon, Militia Leader Chamoun asked pointedly: "What is Lebanon — a sovereign state or a whorehouse?"
"Neither the Christians nor their foes are backing away from the prospect of more slaughter. 'As long as the Syrians are in Lebanon, there is no peace,' warned (Former President Camille) Chamoun last week. Equally adamant was Syrian President Hafez Assad, who insisted that his troops had opened fire on the Christians..."
The massive weapons stockpiling lent a new urgency, and a growing sense of futility, to President Elias Sarkis' search for an end to the bloodshed. Since 1973, when clashes between Palestinian guerrillas and the Christian-dominated Lebanese army presaged a bloody civil war, at least 37,000 — and perhaps as many as 100,000 — people have been killed. Moreover, a new attack on its Christian friends could provoke Israel into massive retaliatory raids, threatening the peace talks with Egypt that began last week.
Neither the Christians nor their foes are backing away from the prospect of more slaughter. "As long as the Syrians are in Lebanon, there is no peace," warned Chamoun last week. Equally adamant was Syrian President Hafez Assad, who insisted that his troops had opened fire on the Christians in order to "establish the authority of the Sarkis government." But when the Lebanese President proposed that a buffer force of Lebanese soldiers be deployed between the Christians and Syrians, Assad had a brusque reply: "There is no Lebanese army, and what there is represents the Christians." After Sarkis completed a hasty tour of six Arab capitals, Assad laconically submitted to an essentially meaningless compromise, under which part of the Syrian forces besieging East Beirut would be withdrawn. Lebanese troops would be allowed to help patrol the bridges linking Beirut to the Christian areas in the north — their first active role in the recent fighting.
Sarkis still hopes to persuade the Arab League to order a reduction in the number of Syrian troops in his country. But he received scant encouragement during his visits to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab nations. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Fahd, for example, promised P.L.O. Leader Arafat that the Saudis — who also bankroll the Christian militias — would "absolutely" continue their support of the opponent Palestinians.
While the search for a settlement foundered, Lebanon's beleaguered Christians held tight to the remnants of a shattered past. Indeed, Christianity has long been fractured within this complex country: in addition to the dominant Maronites — a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that preserves its own unique liturgy — there are Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenians and Chaldeans, among others. Since Lebanon became independent from France in 1943, the Maronites, who then made up 30% of the population, have been the major force in politics and the economy. Under the "national covenant," an unwritten agreement with the force of constitutional law, the Lebanese presidency is reserved for a Maronite, while the less powerful posts of Prime Minister and president of the Chamber of Deputies are set aside for, respectively, a Sunni and a Shi'ite Muslim. The precarious balance between religious groups fell apart in 1970, when 15,000 well-armed Palestinian guerrillas were driven out of Jordan by King Hussein's "Black September" offensive. Joining 75,000 Palestinians already in the country, they turned southern Lebanon into a staging area for raids on Israel.
The Maronites feared that the well-armed Palestinians would not only create a P.L.O.-run state within a state inside Lebanon but also turn the country into another confrontation power. In 1975, as clashes between Christians and Palestinians escalated into full-scale civil war, the Maronite militia turned to Israel for arms and training. A certain elitism — and a mutual hatred of Syrians — has nurtured the longstanding bond between the Israelis and the Europe-oriented Maronites, who regard themselves as a bastion of Western civilization in the Arab world. As a Christian militia officer explained last week, "We feel, like the Israelis, that we are on the spot be cause we are better. We let the Syrians into our country because Syria was too poor to feed them." Nevertheless, the Christians cheered when Syrian troops moved into Lebanon in 1976, thereby preventing radical Muslims and Palestinians from wiping out the hard-pressed Christian armies.
Affection very quickly turned to estrangement after the Syrian peace keepers ordered the Maronites to lay down their arms, while making no similar demands on the Palestinians. Chamoun and Gemayel began laying the groundwork for partitioning Lebanon and creating a pro-Israeli Maronite state along Syria's border. When Gemayel's Phalangists murdered the son of Assad's friend Franjieh and more than 35 other pro-Syrian Christians in June, Syria became convinced that the plot was already in motion. Assad was further alarmed when the Camp David talks foreshadowed a separate Israeli-Egyptian peace, thereby tipping the military balance between Israel and "rejectionist" Arab states even further in Israel's favor.
At that point, Assad began a methodical campaign of attrition against the Christians. So far, the campaign has had mixed results. About 300,000 Maronites have become refugees; their schools, businesses and other institutions have been destroyed. The vast majority of wealthy Christians have fled the country, leaving behind only the fighters and those too poor to buy a ticket to safety.
But the remaining Maronites are far from giving up. "Morale in the Christian areas is extremely high," reports TIME Correspondent Dean Brelis from Beirut. "In shell-shocked East Beirut, some bakers have fired up their ovens, repair crews are at work fixing broken water lines and restoring electricity. People who intend to stay on are stocking their shelters with Israeli canned goods. The Christians' ability to bounce back from adversity is remarkable. Throughout the civil war, their sections of Beirut were free from garbage and crime, in marked contrast to the areas under Palestinian control. Once more the Maronites are demonstrating their competence and courage. When a group of Christians trying to escape from East Beirut came under Syrian machine-gun fire, their leader shouted, 'Let's keep going! It's better to be shot standing up than getting it in the back on the ground!' That kind of pluck would, of course, be put to better use in a peaceful Lebanon. But as a Christian militiaman grimly forecast last week, 'We are prepared to fight for the next 40 years.' "

JOHN AKOURI ONLINE NEWSROOM 'We will confront this mortal danger to all humanity. We will not tire, or rest, until the war on terror is won.' -- PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH Add to end of above"line without paranthesis when wanting to loop sound (( loop="-1">