How Bush gave al-Assad the green light to neutralise Aoun and Geagea

The US was reluctant to use military force to end Aoun's rebellion against the Syrian-backed Lebanese government but eventually agreed for him to be sent into exile.

Al-Assad was able to leverage Bush's need for support against Saddam to secure the elimination of his rivals in Lebanon. Aoun was sent into exile to Paris and Geagea was imprisoned.
Eduardo Ramon
Al-Assad was able to leverage Bush's need for support against Saddam to secure the elimination of his rivals in Lebanon. Aoun was sent into exile to Paris and Geagea was imprisoned.

How Bush gave al-Assad the green light to neutralise Aoun and Geagea

Yesterday Al Majalla published the first installment of secret documents that reveal how George HW Bush reached out to Hafez al-Assad amid the Soviet Union collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Al Majalla revealed that the US president was the first initiate contact with al-Assad which eventually led to Aoun's exile and Geagea's imprisonment.

Below we continue the story with excerpts from the documents.

On 4 June 1990, an American envoy arrived in Damascus and presented a letter to al-Assad, comprising two key points: one pertaining to Iran and the other concerning Lebanon.

The second part stated: “In order to achieve a successful implementation of the Taif Accords, it is essential that Aoun steps down. All support for Aoun must be ceased. We believe that Syria has the capability, if it chooses, to take measures to prevent supplies from reaching Aoun."

Regarding Geagea, the Syrian envoy conveyed to an American envoy: "Syria will not provide support to any individual or faction that does not uphold Lebanon's unity and legitimacy. Despite the distinctions between Geagea as a militia leader and Aoun as a rebellious officer, we maintain the view that both of them oppose the Taif Accords and legitimacy."

Then, the American envoy expressed: "We believe that Aoun is the primary obstacle and must step down, but the situation with Geagea is different. Based on the information we received from Hrawi's envoys, we learned that Geagea is willing to align himself with legitimacy."

"We also believe that if Syria demonstrates some confidence in Geagea, it could significantly contribute to resolving the situation in East Beirut".

We believe that Aoun is the primary obstacle and must step down, but the situation with Geagea is different. We learned that Geagea is willing to align himself with legitimacy.

American envoy to Khaddam

Khaddam: Geagea is a master of political manoeuvring

Khaddam responded: "According to my information, Geagea is a master of political manoeuvring. 

Khaddam asserts that Geagea continued to politically manoeuvre amid the pressure of the overall situation in the country and the Arab inclination to support legitimacy.

He was trying to secure the greatest possible gains. To this end, he dispatched the following message to President Hrawi, through his son-in-law Fares Bouez, to be delivered to Khaddam and al-Assad on 6 July:

"In adherence to the Lebanese National Accord Document and in consonance with the principle of extending the authority of the Lebanese state over the Greater Beirut area, as a precursor to its expansion over the entire Lebanese territory and the reclamation of its institutions, as well as facilitating the comprehensive national reconciliation project, and fostering the relationships outlined in the Taif Agreement between Lebanon and Syria within the framework of each party's sovereignty and independence, the Lebanese Forces hereby declare our commitment to the following: 

  • The Lebanese National Accord Document in its entirety, including all its sections and provisions.

  • Adherence to legitimacy and all affiliated institutions.

  • Facilitation of the comprehensive national reconciliation project.

  • Promotion of the establishment of relations between Lebanon and Syria, as stipulated in the Lebanese National Accord Document.

  • Facilitation of the implementation of the Greater Beirut project.

As a first transitional step towards establishing state authority over all Lebanese territories, the Lebanese Forces pledge to withdraw all their forces and all their heavy, medium, and light weapons, and their military equipment from that area and convert their barracks and centres into civilian and political centres.

This will be done while taking into consideration the situation of the Central Kataeb House, the leadership of the Lebanese Forces, its annexes, and their protection, and their access routes temporarily until a comprehensive solution is reached for the militias on all Lebanese territories.

All of this is done in conjunction with:

  • The entry of lawful forces into the regions where Aoun is present in Greater Beirut.

  • A similar withdrawal of all other armed forces and organisations in Greater Beirut, except for the Dahiyeh and the camps, must occur in a phased matter.

  • Adequate measures must be implemented to prevent the influx or dispersal of weaponry or armed elements from these two specific areas or any other areas into the rest of Greater Beirut areas.

To facilitate the reconstruction of the Lebanese army and bolster the state's authority, the Lebanese Forces commit to surrendering all heavy, medium, and light weapons acquired during the recent conflicts to the Lebanese army under the leadership of General Emile Lahoud and the Internal Security Forces, along with all equipment belonging to the Lebanese state.

This transfer will occur promptly upon the formation of a joint committee composed of representatives from the Lebanese army and the Lebanese Forces to determine the specifics of this clause."

As a first step, the LF pledges to withdraw all their forces and weapons from the Greater Beirut area and convert their barracks and centres into civilian and political centres.

Geagea to Hrawi

Baker urges restraint of Syrian army

On 24 June 1990, President al-Assad met with the US ambassador in Damascus, who delivered a message from the US secretary of state, James Baker. The message contained the personal thoughts and ideas of President Bush, and it was specifically addressed to President al-Assad, as indicated in the official records:

"Dear Mr. President, I would like to assure you that our objectives are to restore the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, secure its territorial integrity, withdraw all foreign forces, and disarm the militias."

"The ongoing shelling of Lebanese ports, and the temporary collapse of the unstable ceasefire on 3 June raise the spectre of another widespread round of fighting."

"It is now more important than ever for all parties, including the Syrian forces, to exercise the utmost restraint, thereby enabling the parties to avoid any meaningless disasters that may occur in the future. We do not believe that military force can resolve the problems that Lebanon is facing."

"The events of the past 14 years have clearly shown that this is not feasible. I am pleased to hear that you share this assessment with me."

"I must inform you, Mr. President, that we had reservations about the approach presented by General Michel Aoun to address the issue of illegal ports and the violence that resulted from it. We conveyed our concerns to him."

"However, despite that, from our perspective, General Aoun was indeed articulating a significant range of opinions in Lebanon, much like Dr. Hoss does on his part."

"He is the leader of the Lebanese Armed Forces, so his cooperation and that of his allies will be essential if a dialogue among the Lebanese is initiated under the auspices of the League of Arab States at any time in the near future."

"Mr. President, in declaring our position, we want you to know that the United States acknowledges that the Syrian government has vital interests in its relationship with Lebanon. However, we believe that these interests would be best secured within the context of a comprehensive political settlement among the Lebanese, and natural Lebanese-Syrian relations."

"We have also informed your government of our serious concerns regarding the role played by the Syrian army in the destructive shelling, and we will continue to express our concerns. Sincerely, James Baker."

It is now more important than ever for all parties, including the Syrian forces, to exercise the utmost restraint to avoid any meaningless disasters that may occur in the future. We do not believe that military force can resolve Lebanon's problems.

Baker to al-Assad

Al-Assad to Baker: Syria doesn't seek to undermine the Lebanese state

Al-Assad commented: "Regarding the unconditional lifting of sieges: it was Aoun who refused to lift these sieges in the first place, and he remains steadfast in his refusal to end them."

"The decision to end sieges is not a point of contention and is not ours to make; it lies with the Lebanese themselves. Once they reach an agreement to end the sieges, they will be lifted."

"The national forces cannot permit ships carrying arms and ammunition to reach the east parts, knowing that these supplies may be directed against them."

"Doesn't the continuous influx of weapons and ammunition encourage Michel Aoun to persist in his shelling, especially when those inciting him are not driven by concern for his well-being or that of the Lebanese people, but rather their own interests, at the expense of Lebanese lives?"

He added: "Syria does not seek to undermine the Lebanese state; instead, Syrians and Lebanese are united as one people. If we were to raise a slogan of who stands with Syria and who stands against it, the minority would be inconsequential."

On 26 July, al-Assad received Elias Hrawi, and after a general discussion about the situation in Lebanon, said: "The Lebanese President talked about how the continuation of this situation and the absence of practical measures to end Aoun's role would lead to the collapse of legitimacy and the Taif Accords."

The Kuwait Invasion and the Lebanese Coup

On 2 August 1990, Iraqi forces stormed Kuwait, causing a major upheaval in the region, which changed political and diplomatic priorities.

This new situation weakened Michel Aoun, who had been receiving support from Saddam and sympathy from some Arab countries due to Iraqi pressure.

On 19 August, al-Assad received Hrawi, who had a lot to report.

"Talks with Aoun have not yielded results. He is pressing forward with his actions and is complicating the situation even more. Ending Aoun's role is necessary for reforms to be completed."

"Aoun's relentlessness is a major problem, and it is unclear when the Gulf events will conclude, especially since the Americans themselves are taking their time."

He spoke of Lebanon's military preparations, which involved the readiness of the army to deploy 8,000 soldiers, and Syria's offer to support with artillery, ammunition, and weapons.

He said: "Our hope is to get rid of Aoun, and I am convinced that a show of force alone will lead to a collapse."

Talks with Aoun have not yielded results. Ending Aoun's role is necessary for reforms to be completed. Our hope is to get rid of Aoun, and I am convinced that a show of force alone will lead to a collapse.

Hrawi to al-Assad

Al-Assad to Hrawi: Does Geagea's threat also require a military solution?

Al-Assad asked Hrawi: "Won't there be a problem after Aoun? What about the other players, such as the Lebanese Forces? Does this threat require a military solution?"

Hrawi suggested that Syria "solve the problems" with Berri and Jumblatt, and "my son-in-law, Fares Bweis says he could handle Geagea's."

Al-Assad replied: "We are with you in mind and spirit. I am not opposed to your wishes. I believe that the French position is not positive, and it is necessary to contact them to clarify their true position. They are still supporting Aoun."

"We are just as concerned as you are about finding a quick solution. The situation in the region is dangerous, so our sense of urgency is no less than it was in the past. Lebanon is still a very sensitive issue for us, but the bizarre overlap of interests between regional countries is a problem."

"Then there is the problem of Iraq. There are question marks surrounding this problem. Syria's position has not changed regarding any of the problems. Now, other countries are talking about Iraq the way we used to talk."

"There are some countries that hope that other problems will not affect their political or military arrangements (such as the United States regarding the issue of Iraq and Kuwait)."

"You know, we were serious about this; we did send forces, and we did not withdraw them so as not to create the impression that our forces left. There are many reasons for us to end this quickly. We have an interest in upholding the Taif Accords."

"But we need to know the global climate and your opinion, because some world powers are now afraid that their strategy could be disturbed, (regarding the removal of Saddam from Kuwait.) However, he promised a decisive decision in light of regional and international developments."

US envoy to Damascus: We want Aoun to step down

On 7 October, Khaddam received the US Ambassador Djerejian for a long period of time, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Djerejian said: "I have a message... During the meeting between AlSharaa and Mr. Baker, Sharaa suggested the possibility of using military force against General Aoun, and, of course, Baker reminded Mr. Sharaa that the issue of Lebanon was discussed in general with President al-Assad and that the issue of a military solution was not raised."

According to the meeting's minutes, Djerejian said: "Baker expressed concerns that any military action taken by Syria against Aoun might be misunderstood and exploited by Saddam. In response, Al-Sharaa assured Baker that there were no differences between the United States and Syria on this matter."

"And as you told me, Mr. Vice President, Syria now does not intend to divert attention from what is happening in the Gulf at the present time. Al-Sharaa also told Mr. Baker during our contacts that the military solution may come through Hrawi or the Lebanese Forces."

Sharaa asserted to Baker that Syria would take into account the US perspectives. On the basis of these results, on the same day, the Minister of Foreign Affairs met with the Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. (John) Kelly..., and told him that (President) Hrawi or the army commander would carry out any military action if he got Syria's support in this action, i.e., if he was to carry out a military action, he would like Syria's support in carrying out this action."

Of course, Baker assured President al-Assad, who assured the Lebanese leadership during his meeting with Hrawi, that Syria is committed to the legitimate Lebanese government.

He told the Lebanese to think carefully before resorting to violence, warning that any action in which Syria is involved could divert attention away from the Gulf and give France and the Vatican an opportunity to oppose the Taif Accords. Therefore, President al-Assad advised the Lebanese to discuss the matter among themselves so that France and the Vatican do not take advantage of the situation.

Baker said: "In this regard, we told Kelly, when he asked about a potential military operation, that the United States would not give a green light to such an operation."

"However, we agreed that Aoun was an obstacle and that the United States would not ask Syria to support him. As the Lebanese asked us, and as Mr. Kelly reiterated to Mr. Sharaa, the United States has reasons to accept military action, as we discussed previously."

Kelly praised the political progress that the Lebanese government had recently made and confirmed that the United States does not support Aoun.

"We, rather, want him to step down."

We agreed that Aoun was an obstacle and that the US had reasons to accept military action (against him). In fact, we want him to step down.

Djerejian to Khaddam

Djerejian added: "The United States has not and will not give (the Lebanese) the green light for any military action, It is their responsibility. I want to tell you the exact words of Mr. Baker: Any attack on Aoun may be misunderstood and exploited by Iraq. (Yet) we do not say that we support Aoun. We do not support him."

Khaddam replied: "In any case, the Lebanese government holds a different impression of the American position. Both (Selim) Hoss and Hrawi have clearly concluded that the American government has no objection, and the matter is within the purview of the Lebanese government, primarily due to the situation in the Gulf."

"However, the major problem we encounter is that Aoun, his group, and other factions in Lebanon persistently propagate that Syria does not wish to bring an end to Aoun's regime and is, in practice, against the Taif Accords. This is despite us issuing numerous statements every day to express our support for the Taif Accords and its legitimacy in Lebanon."

"We have exhaustively attempted to persuade the Lebanese people that we stand with the legitimacy. Nevertheless, there remains significant confusion surrounding Syria's position."

Hrawi to al-Assad: We will end the rebellion and want support from Syrian forces

In view of the development of the situation in Lebanon and the Gulf crisis, the possibility of military action was raised, at the insistence of the Lebanese government.

Several meetings took place between Syrian and Lebanese military officers. All preparations were taken to implement this action.

Damascus sent a message to Beirut, stating that the Syrian participation in the military operation requires a Lebanese request "so that the work is within the framework of legitimacy and to avoid any future campaigns, especially since we entered Lebanon in 1976 at the request of President Suleiman Frangieh and the Lebanese Front."

On 9 October 1990, Fares Bouez, President Hrawi's envoy and son-in-law, handed Khaddam two letters for President al-Assad and Khaddam himself, together with minutes of the Lebanese government's meeting and its decision to take military action.

This is the text of Hrawi's message to al-Assad: "To His Excellency President, General Hafez al-Assad, may God protect him, My greetings to you."

"In light of our previous discussions concerning the overall situation in Lebanon and its challenges, particularly the anomaly of the former commander of the army rebelling against the legitimate authority; and with reference to the recent Syrian-Lebanese summit, which included on the Lebanese side both the Speaker of Parliament, Hussein Al-Husseini, and the Prime Minister, Selim Al-Hoss, and discussed the former commander of the army's continued rebellion and his negative positions, and the measures and procedures that should be taken to stop the Lebanese bloodshed and eliminate the rebellion, which would allow the legitimate authority to complete the process of salvation, reconciliation, and peace."

"I am delighted to inform you, Your Excellency, that on the 9th of this month, the Council of Ministers thoroughly deliberated on these issues and reached a unanimous decision to reaffirm their previous decisions. As a result, they have entrusted the Lebanese army with the responsibility of ending the rebellion led by the former commander of the army."

Syrian soldiers demonstrate 13 October 1990 their joy in front of the Baabda presidential palace in Beirut, taking over Christian areas, formerly controlled by troops loyal to General Michel Aoun.

"In light of the National Accord Document (Taif) and the strong fraternal relations between Syria and Lebanon, the Council of Ministers kindly requests your esteemed authority to instruct the Syrian Arab forces stationed in Lebanon to lend their support to the Lebanese army in accomplishing this important mission."

I am delighted to inform you, Your Excellency, that the Council of Ministers have entrusted the Lebanese army with the responsibility of ending Aoun's rebellion. We kindly request you instruct the Syrian forces in Lebanon to lend their support in accomplishing this important mission.

Hrawi to al-Assad

"Mr. President, I am confident that your swift and positive response to this appeal will demonstrate your unwavering determination to actively contribute to the salvation of Lebanon and to fulfil the aspirations and hopes of the Lebanese people for a prosperous nation, characterised by security, peace, and stability."

"A strong and stable Lebanon will be forever grateful to the support for our brotherly Syria, under your wise leadership, especially in times of great challenges when assistance and aid are required."

"May God protect you, Mr. President, and guide your actions for the betterment of the brotherly Syrian people and for the collective interests of the Arabs and our two nations. Peace be upon you. Your brother, Elias Hrawi."

The minutes of the Lebanese government's meeting, which were handed over to Khaddam, detailed the various stages of what they called Aoun's "rebellion" and how the government responded to each stage:

"It was evident that the former commander of the army's persistent presence in his positions posed a significant obstacle to the successful implementation of essential stages of the reconciliation document."

"To address this pressing issue, the cabinet made the following decisions: First: The cabinet confirmed its previous decision to entrust the Lebanese army with the task of putting an ultimate end to the disobedience and rebellion led by the former commander of the army."

"Additionally, the cabinet formally requested the Syrian leadership to issue orders to its forces stationed in Lebanon, urging them to extend support to the Lebanese army in executing the mission entrusted to it. The primary objective is to reestablish state authority across Lebanese territory."

"Second: The cabinet granted His Excellency the President of the Republic the authorisation to communicate the content of this decision to the Syrian leadership."

The letter was signed by the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers, Hisham Al-Shaar.

The final chapter: Aoun flees to the French Embassy

On 13 October 1990, the Syrian forces stationed in Lebanon, in coordination with the Lebanese army, launched a massive attack on Aoun's stronghold, marked by relentless artillery shelling and aerial intervention.

As a result of the onslaught, Aoun declared his surrender and sought refuge at the French embassy in Beirut. By noon, the entire region fell under the control of Syrian forces, marking the end of the resistance of the man known as the Rebel General.

Subsequently, negotiations ensued between the Lebanese government and the French ambassador, leading to an agreement to deport Aoun to France under specific conditions. One of the conditions was that he "do not return to Lebanon before a designated period."

He later returned after the withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005 and resumed political activities, culminating in a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) welcomes Lebanese Christian politician Michel Aoun before a meeting in Damascus on 9 December 2009.

On 23 November 1990, President Hafez al-Assad met with President Bush in Geneva. By that time, al-Assad had successfully dealt with his Lebanese opponent and his supporters in Iraq, which led the Syrian leader and his advisors to interpret messages from the US president's envoy as a green light to take action against Aoun in Lebanon, with the pretext of supporting the "legitimate" Lebanese army.

This interpretation was influenced by their understanding of the signals conveyed by US Ambassador April Glaspie before the invasion of Kuwait.

During the summit with Bush, al-Assad was encouraged by his victory over Aoun and was besieging Geagea, anticipating his eventual collapse, which came on 21 April 1994.

It was agreed that Syria would join the international coalition to oust Saddam from Kuwait, thus solidifying Damascus's position and gaining it support in the region.

Syria also played a role in the Arab-Israeli peace process that commenced in Madrid in October 1991. As a result of these actions, Syria received financial aid and formed a new bloc known at the "Damascus Declaration," which included the Gulf states, Syria, and Egypt.

This move helped Syria navigate the challenges posed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc and adapt to the emerging new world order led by the US.

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