It was a turbulent time in the Middle East in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Dramatic politics, shifting alliances and a range of tensions would reshape much of the region over the decade.
Al Majalla can now reveal, in full detail, some of the top-level political and diplomatic dealmaking between Washington and Damascus over Lebanon, just as war loomed to push Iraq out of Kuwait.
There would be a large-scale military invasion which would transform the international balance of the region and the world. One of the most compelling developments came over Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, where a bitter civil war was raging.
Al Majalla can demonstrate exactly how the confluence of these events was discussed at the highest level and how it would help shape the fate of nations.
It came as Iraq emerged from its long conflict with Iran and before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. At the time, Saddam Hussein was backing Lebanese army commander, Michel Aoun, against Syria’s ally, President Elias Hrawi.
Saddam also wanted to counter the potential threat posed by the US-backed leader of another faction in Lebanon, the Lebanese Forces controlled by Samir Geagea.
A peace deal, the ‘Rebel General’ and the ‘Doctor’
Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad had just agreed to the Taif Accords – which ended Lebanon’s civil war and set up special relations between his country and Lebanon – in a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and named after where it was signed there in 1989.
Al-Assad was waiting for the opportunity to help eliminate what he saw as a rebellion in Lebanon using his own forces and the regular Lebanese army. He also wanted to prevent any unity between Lebanon’s two Christian factions – that of Aoun, also known as the Rebel General – and that of Geagea, who was also known as Al-Hakim, or the doctor.
In the late1980s, the situation seemed to favour Saddam and his allies. Emerging victorious from his war with Iran, which remained a key ally of al-Assad, he was concerned about losing the Soviet Union's support and the disintegration of states aligned with him in the international arena.
Saddam's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, turned the tables and created a rare opportunity for al-Assad to corner his Ba’athist opponent in Baghdad while simultaneously targeting his primary adversary in Beirut, General Aoun.
Al-Assad exiled Aoun to Paris. He then imprisoned Samir Geagea, the president’s second rival, capitalising on the collapse of the Soviet Union. This would not have been possible without a deal between al-Assad and US President George HW Bush, supported by influential Arab states.
Now, Al Majalla has obtained a series of secret messages exchanged between al-Assad and Bush, along with meeting transcripts and documents, which are published here for the first time.
These documents reveal the gradual evolution of the US position. It aligned with al-Assad's demands to pursue a peaceful approach to removing Aoun from power and helped with his ousting.
That led to a green light from the US for the Lebanese army – backed by Syria – to launch a decisive military operation against Aoun in October 1990. After he and his forces were attacked, including at the Presidential Palace in Baadaa, with hundreds killed, Aoun fled to live in exile in France, his major supporter.
The documents also expose Washington's continued support for Geagea, even as Damascus persisted in taking measures against him, ultimately resulting in Geagea's imprisonment in April 1994.
Aoun's exile and Geagea's imprisonment were seen as two gifts to al-Assad from Bush.
Just as all this was happening, al-Assad joined the Arab International Coalition to oust Saddam's forces from Kuwait. That decision was made during his meeting with President Bush in Geneva in November 1990 and he also helped shape the agreements of the Madrid Peace Conference between the Arabs and Israelis in October 1991.
While some of these messages have been previously published, Al Majalla now reveals the complete texts. They outline the US-Syrian dynamic, which was to be so influential at this crucial time.
Two governments and Lebanon’s War of Liberation
Amid Lebanon's civil war and the presence of Syrian forces on its territory since 1976, President Amin Gemayel appointed Aoun as the commander of the army in 1984.
Aoun clashed with the Lebanese Forces during his tenure. When his term ended in September 1988, Gemayel dismissed the government of Prime Minister Salim Hoss and formed a military government led by Aoun, due to deadlock over electing a new president.
Consequently, Lebanon found itself with two governments, split along religious lines – one for Christians, in East Beirut, and another for Muslims, in West Beirut.
In mid-March, Aoun declared what became known as the War of Liberation to expel Syrian forces from Lebanon. He harshly criticised Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and renewed some coordination with the Lebanese Forces and Geagea.