Gemayel sends message of 'reassurance' to al-Assad

With an eye on the Lebanese presidency, the Phalange commander and sworn enemy of Syria sends secret messages of ‘reassurance’ to al-Assad. Meanwhile, Damascus refuses to host PLO fighters.

Al Majalla

Gemayel sends message of 'reassurance' to al-Assad

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for a second time after the attempted assassination of its ambassador in London. Following a three-pronged attack, Israel’s forces reached the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in a matter of days before laying siege to the city. Palestinian fighters had built a strong base there, operating autonomously, like a state-within-a-state.

Al Majalla has obtained access to what has become known as the Khaddam Files, which shed light on this turbulent period in Lebanon. Abdul Halim Khaddam was Syrian's foreign minister at the time.

Later, he became Syria's vice president and served under Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashar until he became disillusioned with the Syrian regime, abandoned his post and fled to France in 2005, taking with him secret documents detailing regional events during his time in office.

Al Majalla is relaying the events in a five-part series.

In Parts 1 and 2, we examined the mediation efforts by US envoy Philip Habib to facilitate Arafat’s exit from Lebanon, which the Israelis were demanding. As the talks dragged on, Israeli bombing was exhausting the resistance, both in number and weaponry, while Lebanese leaders squabbled over whether to oust or keep the Palestinians. For his part, Arafat had been determined to stay in Lebanon, his fighters having been kicked out of Jordan 12 years earlier. However, given the circumstances, he reluctantly entertained the notion of withdrawing.

In Part III, we uncover the contents of a missive from Bachir Gemayel to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. This was significant because Gemayel was elected Lebanese president months later—a sworn adversary of Syria.

History of adversity

Gemayel was a leader of Lebanon’s Christian community. His father, Pierre, founded the Kataeb (or Phalange) Party, which had 40,000 members and an armed wing that would later become the Lebanese Forces. Bashir was its commander.

From 1975-6, Gemayel’s men invaded heavily fortified Palestinian camps in Lebanon, killing hundreds. In 1978, he led his fighters in the Hundred Days’ War against the better-equipped Syrian soldiers in East Beirut. Despite Syrian shelling, they held their ground until an Arab-brokered ceasefire. Gemayel felt he’d won. He saw the Syrians as invaders and suspected that their ultimate aim was to annex Lebanon. This made him a sworn enemy of Damascus.

Leader of the Lebanese Forces militia and former President of the Lebanese Republic, Bachir Gemayel.

Yet by June 1982, Gemayel had his eye on the Lebanese presidency, so he sent notes in which he sought to allay Syrian suspicions that he was an Israeli stooge. To this end, he sent a Phalange delegation, including George Saadeh, Karim Pakradouni, and Joseph Abu Khalil, to the Syrian capital “to provide reassurance to al-Assad, to articulate a clear stance against the Israeli occupation, and to actively engage in resistance against it”.

On 12 July 1982, he also spoke to Gen. Sami al-Khatib, the Lebanese Armed Forces’ liaison officer to the Syrian military’s “deterrent force” stationed in Beirut, who became LAF commander and, later, Lebanese interior minister.

Signalling to Syria

Through al-Khatib, he conveyed a message to Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam.

“Sheikh Bashir Gemayel has charged me with establishing a secure communication line with you,” it read. “He firmly believes in the necessity of Syria’s ongoing brotherly relationship with Lebanon, a bond based on our shared geography, history, mutual interests, and deep-rooted connections between our peoples.”

Through al-Khatib, Gemayel sought a meeting with Syria’s leaders, “emphasising the need for cooperative solutions and united stances at this crucial juncture”, adding that he would seek safe passage to and from Damascus for any face-to-face.

Al-Khatib said: “I strongly advocate for the swift organisation of this meeting, perceiving a sincere and clear desire for it, free from any hidden agendas. The group fully understands the complex nature of the unfolding events and is committed to maintaining your esteemed and generous friendship, which is crucial for both parties.”

Finally, he added that the situation “remains grim, marked by devastation and degradation... I have been confined to my residence for the past week since Israeli forces are just metres from my command post, conducting intensive searches both inside and out. I have chosen to maintain my dignity by staying at home.”

Presidency unfulfilled

Gemayel was elected president on 23 August, having been the only candidate. In the days after his election, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defence Minister Ariel Sharon pressed him to sign a peace treaty with Tel Aviv, but he refused.

The Phalange leader never took office, however, because he was killed by a bomb while addressing his supporters for the last time. The bomber was identified as a Syrian who was angry that Gemayel had “sold the country to Israel”.

Bachir Gemayel was killed in a bomb attack during a meeting at the Phalange Party office in the Christian quarter of Ashrafiyeh, Achrafieh, in Beirut, on 14 September 1983.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued between Arafat and the Israelis, facilitated by Philip Habib and Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan, aiming to manage the departure of Palestinian fighters from Beirut. An agreement was ultimately reached in early August.

The pathway to Gemayel’s election had been smoothed by Philip Habib, the US envoy who had earlier outlined a blueprint for Arafat’s eviction from Lebanon. All the while, Khaddam was in Damascus receiving reports from al-Khatib as well as Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kanaan, head of the Syrian intelligence service in Lebanon.

On 1 July, Khaddam received a letter from al-Khatib noting “some improvement” in the situation because “there are signs that the resistance is contemplating a withdrawal from Beirut and Lebanon” and was “awaiting the approval of its leaders”. Al-Khatib hoped it would come in time to “prevent the invasion or destruction of Beirut”.

The LAF general told Khaddam that the focus was now on the terms of the Palestinians’ departure, saying they should leave with their heavy arms “to prevent potential complications from their retention, whether by factions within the national movement, confiscation by the army, or leakage to other groups”.

Ironing out issues

Al-Khatib outlined other sticking points, including “the symbolic military presence of the Palestinian leadership in Lebanon”, adding that Habib “consistently rejects it under Israeli pressure”, adding that “we are striving to merge these conflicting positions into a compromise formula that may be acceptable”.

The entry and subsequent deployment of the Lebanese army into Beirut “continues to be a significant point of contention”, al-Khatib explained. The Palestinians wanted reassurances and safeguards from any future Phalange attacks.

Yasser Arafat in the Al-Fakhani area in West Beirut on July 30, 1982.

Al-Khatib highlighted several other issues being discussed, including “the need to call upon multinational forces”, which he felt would be made “after the Palestinian forces and their weapons have been evacuated”.

He also highlighted “the challenge of disarming Beirut” and the continued presence of Syrian “deterrence” forces in Lebanon, noting that Habib would facilitate that discussion between Lebanese and Syrian leaders.

The rest of the memo included updates on the military situation (largely “static”), the illness of Lebanon’s President Sarkis, and the return of Christian Phalange militias to their villages, which had “ignited bloody clashes with their traditional adversaries”.

He added that he was still refusing to meet Israel’s Gen. Ben Hanan, that his car and driver were still detained, and that his house was “under constant surveillance”.

Furthermore, Khaddam discussed the progress of the negotiations regarding Arafat’s departure from Beirut with al-Assad. The Syrian president suggested, “We issue a statement affirming our reluctance to accept the (Palestinian) fighters, as this serves as a bargaining chip in the hands of the Palestinian negotiator”.

This was actioned on 9 July. It read: “Under normal circumstances, Syria is a homeland for Palestinians and Arabs at large. However, given the current circumstances, there is no possibility for the relocation of Palestinian fighters from Beirut to Syria. Their rightful place is where they currently await the restoration of their legitimate rights.”

Tomorrow: Part 4 Al Majalla publishes secret messages between the PLO Chairman and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the days leading up to Arafat's exit.

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