The modifications to the 1926 and 1943 power sharing formula that ended Lebanon’s civil war in 1989 as part of the Taif Agreement had largely been negotiated by Lebanese elites in 1976, under a Syrian-sponsored peace agreement known as the Constitutional Document. Facing defeat by the PLO-LNM alliance, the Christian leadership invited Syrian military intervention to save themselves and the pre-eminent position that the National Pact guaranteed them. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad fell out with his Soviet backers as US, Israeli and Syrian interests in Lebanon momentarily converged.
US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw a Cold War opportunity in Lebanon’s collapse. He sought to bring Syria into the Western sphere of influence as the peace process between Egypt and Israel took shape, and at a time when both Israel and Syria wanted to reduce the PLO’s influence in Lebanon. The US brokered an informal agreement by which Syria would militarily intervene in Lebanon to prevent a Christian collapse by reigning in the PLO, without provoking an Israeli military response.
Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim elites agreed that some of the Maronite president’s executive prerogatives would be devolved to the cabinet and parliamentary seats would be allocated equally between Christians and Muslims, ending the existing 6:5 Christian-Muslim ratio. Lebanese Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt rejected the agreement as it provided no opening for him to attain high office, as did leftist, secular and Arab nationalist figures who advocated de-confessionalisation and the establishment of majority rule.
Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was internationally legitimised, Kissinger’s détente with Assad came to nothing and the war continued. But the US had set a precedent by accepting a Syrian solution to the Lebanon conflict, while Assad had furthered Syria’s claim to Lebanon, which he sought to control along with the PLO in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The next US ‘initiative’ to end the war was the 17 May 1983 Agreement, a US brokered Lebanese-Israeli accord which President Amin Gemayel felt forced to negotiate in efforts to restore Lebanon’s sovereignty and consolidate his government. Israel and Syria would both withdraw to certain positions in Lebanon, and the Lebanese government would normalise relations with Israel.
The previous year, with the support of Lebanese Forces militia leader Bachir Gemayel, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon set in motion plans to militarily remove the PLO from Beirut by invading Lebanon. Israel routed Syrian forces en route to the capital, which its army subsequently besieged. In August 1982 the PLO was evacuated from Beirut by sea, an operation which was overseen by a multinational peacekeeping force that included US and French contingents. But the alignment between Gemayel and Sharon came unstuck when the former was assassinated the following month. The Soviet Union rearmed Syria, which in turn rearmed Lebanese Druze fighters. A partial Israeli withdrawal exacerbated a Christian-Druze conflict in Lebanon’s Chouf region, which forced the US to reconsider its position in Lebanon. The US then abandoned the 17 May Agreement altogether after pro-Iranian Shia militants devastated American and French military barracks outside Beirut in twin suicide bomb attacks.
In 1984 national dialogue conferences were held in Geneva and Lausanne in efforts to restore peace, and the following year Syria attempted to negotiate a Tripartite Agreement between Christian, Druze and Shia militias, which excluded Gemayel’s dysfunctional government. This approach, which was a reversal of the 17 May Agreement, illustrated Assad’s restored confidence in Lebanon, but the accord also lacked either internal or external consensus.