Is the US Decision to Withdraw from Syria in 2019 a Mistake like its Decision to Withdraw from Lebanon in 1983? – By Prof. Robert Rabil

Professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. 

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Robin Wright, an astute journalist and analyst, wrote an article in the New Yorker on “The 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing and the Current U.S. Retreat from Syria.” She makes the case that the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon following the horrific 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks resonates, hauntingly, as U.S. Special Forces pull out of Syria. She asserts that: “Once again, the United States is hastily retreating—abandoning a mission, stranding allies, creating a vacuum for adversaries to quickly fill, enabling Islamic extremists, weakening American credibility globally, and leaving the Middle East, the world’s most volatile corner, even more unstable.”

This argument, grounded in a belief in American exceptionalism as well as its ability to fix or improve bleak situations, makes sense to many. Many Americans believe that that the U.S. should not retreat from the Middle East in the face of failed American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this noble attitude does not fully examine the background against which the U.S. retreated from Beirut, Iraq, Damascus and Kabul.

As someone who lived the Lebanese civil war as a volunteer in the Red Cross and observed closely the preparation and execution of the invasion and occupation of Iraq I consider that Washington’s retreats as being born out of both its universal values and naivety that clashed with its foreign policy missions.

In 1982, Washington led the international community in creating a Multinational force (along with French and Italian troops) to supervise and safeguard the PLO’s withdrawal from Beirut following Israel’s invasion and siege of the capital. The withdrawal began in late August and ended in early September. On September 14, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, along with a number of his lieutenants, was assassinated in his East Beirut Phalange headquarters. I vividly remember the pall of gloom that descended on Lebanon, especially among Christians, following his assassination. On September 16, the IDF infiltrated a Phalange-led intelligence unit under Elie Hobeika into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila to “ferret out” PLO fighters who remained in the camps. What followed was a horrific massacre of mostly old people and children. Although previous massacres did not elicit the world’s outcry, the magnitude of the Sabra and Shatila massacre was not only met with an international outcry, but also damaged the reputations of the Phalange and the IDF.

The Israeli public, in contrast to the Arabs, held the largest demonstration in Israel’s history in Tel Aviv and called for the IDF to withdraw from Lebanon. It was only a matter of time before Israel was pressured to withdraw from Lebanon. The murder of Gemayel and Israel’s gradual withdrawal changed Lebanon’s civil war dynamics. The new president Amin Gemayel, brother of Bashir, did not command the full loyalty of the Christian Lebanese Forces, whose leadership had begun to fragment; Antagonistic forces rushed to fill the vacuum left by Israel’s withdrawal. Led by Walid Jumblat, the Druzes, supported by leftists and pan-Arab forces, defeated the Lebanese forces in the Shouf mountains; and the government of Amin Gemayel tried and failed to control West Beirut, which witnessed a mass mobilization of leftists, Shi’a Islamist groups and the Shi’a Amal party.

In the meantime, President Reagan, moved by the sorrowful and distressing flurry of unfolding events, decided to change the mission of the MNF. On October 28, he signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 64, “calling for the United States to work toward the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, help rebuild the Lebanese Army, and contribute to an expanded MNF if necessary.” But his well-intentioned and ambitious new mission was not timely reinforced by a bigger and stronger American force just as internecine fighting and regional meddling in Lebanon reached a new peak.

Even at an early age I shared my father’s concerns for the U.S. Marines. The question that troubled me most was why the U.S. Marines located their headquarters next to the airport in Beirut’s most volatile area. In hindsight, other horrific events should have underscored the fleeting objectives of Reagan’s new MNF mission. A new tool of terror, traced to Ayatollah Khomeini’s effort to reinterpret Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala in 680, justified suicide bombings based on fighting oppression and injustice. Before the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in October 1983, the Israeli military headquarters in Tyre and the American Embassy in Beirut were bombed respectively. Robert Baer, a shrewd CIA operative, contemplated that the United States failed to notice the warning signs of the 1983 bombing.

President Reagan had two choices: be fully involved militarily in a country in the midst of a brutal civil war or get out. Reagan grasped the danger of the treacherous politics of Lebanon and chose to get out. Since then, the U.S. should have grasped the fact that any mission in the Middle East has to be buttressed by significant American power not only to affect the context in which American troops are involved but also to dictate the outcome of American involvement. In other words, half-hearted measures in the Middle East do not work!

So, indeed, “the ghosts of Lebanon are in Syria today,” as Ryan Crocker observed. But herein lies the main question: how deep is the U.S. commitment to to its mission in Syria? The hard truth is the U.S. has neither a well-defined mission nor one that it is able to implement within a reasonable time span. The U.S. set itself up for tragedy. It also set the Kurds up for tragedy.         

In this respect, President Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria—like Reagan’s decision thirty-five years—is about saving American lives!                                

Comments (6)

Eugene said:

Will they ever learn? They haven’t yet, why should anyone think that they will? If anything, the stated purpose has been spread to just about every country that doesn’t adhere to the U.S. position. The biggest arms dealer, thrives on conflicts that produce increased sales of those arms, whether or not those arms work as advertised. Intervening in other countries affairs on the false pretense that it is based on humanitarian reasons, has run its course. Repeating over and over again, that which only leaves the other country in ruins, proves failure is the only sure outcome.

October 26th, 2019, 8:45 pm


Joseph Hak said:

Two main underpinnings of US involvement in the Middle East were total ignored in your article!
1 – US invasion of Iraq was based on Lies concocted by Israeli’s MOSSAD and the CIA. I’m sure you remember the photos showing Weapons of Mas Destruction in IRAQ!
Americans didn’t know the photos were done in Nevada Desert! Result of invasion one million Iraqis and thousands of US troops were murdered by the conniving MOSSAD and CIA. Did anyone care, obviously not.
2- President Trump himself, on record, has said “ISIS was created by Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. He also said millions of dollars were spent on training ISIS Terrorists to topple Syria’s President. Please review TV Interviews with the former Prime Minister of Qatar Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. He says clearly that the the partnership ob US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Turkey and Jordan had two “War Rooms”, one in Amman Jordan and the other in Turkey training, arming, directing and supporting ISIS Terrorists to infiltrate Syrian towns and villages murder innocent people under the cover of the Islamist State! He also said that the Partners started fighting among themselves “they prey fled and we started to fight among ourselves”!
I had visiting Syria several times during my work with Alberta’s Government and personally. Here are some of the features of Syria’s unmatched facts: The Safest Country in the Middle East. Free Healthcare, Free Education from KG to PhD graduation to all Syrians. Secular Socio-Political-Economic System. Unlike all other Middle East countries, Syria was the only one true Secular Nations! No religious conflicts, not ethnic conflicts among more than 20 different cultural groups, mostly came to Syria as Refugees! If you don’t believe me, please ask the Armenians, Kurds, Sarkisians and Arab Refugees welcomed by Syrians and living most comfortable, equal and most peaceful living!
At the behest of the well funded ISRAEL Lobby, the US Trained ISIS and sent them to Syria with most advanced weapons, through Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to wreak havoc in every corner of Syrian Land. The whole operation of Regime Change and Replacing it by a Muslim Brotherhood Government failed miserably! Know why? Because the Syrians love their land. Some may not agree with he government but all Syrians love Syria. That’s why Syria is victorious and the US and Partners are defeated! Naturally, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supported the Syrian Army. But ISIS Terrorists were support by Israel, Turkey, USA and several gulf states with Money, Weapons, Armaments, Bombing inside Syria and world-wide Propaganda Apparatus including TV, News Papers, Electronic Disinformation and Hollywood Style, Chemical Weapons Attacks! Let alone the thousands of White Helmets who returned to their original base when they were defeated, to ISRAEL!
Please understand that I say the above because I believe the American People have and continue to give the world more than any other nation in Healthcare, Advanced Electronics,Education, Food, Protection and welcome many people from all over the world and I admire and cherish that! However, Americans must know that they’re lead the wrong path into believing Israel is the only legitimate and democratic state and we must help them! You know this is not true. You know they kill Palestinians constantly, destroy people’s home’s and build illegal settlements for Jewish people who come from corners of life. They refuse to give the Palestinians their own country as decreed more than 100 times by the United Nations.
President Trump is right! Pull troops out of a quagmire bound to swallow American Soldiers fighting a war not for the protection of USA, rather for the protection of a THEOCRACY called ISRAEL! The Syrians will soon cleanse their country off by getting rid of the last ISIS Terrorists and, you’ve heard it here first Syria will become Grand Syria with 10 years!
My suggestion is, for the sake of Truth and Conscience witness by our Lord, you must write the facts as they are not as dictated by the illegitimate Media, Armaments and financial support!
God Bless You. Joseph Hak, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T5X 4Z8. 780-720-8095

October 27th, 2019, 3:36 am


Joseph Hak said:

I spent one hour preparing and submitting a Comment! I pushed Submit and I don’t find it! What happened?
Joseph Hak

October 27th, 2019, 3:38 am


habib said:

Another omission is why exactly Reagan sent American troops to Lebanon; to protect one faction of the Lebanese civil war, namely the Phalangists, which were, hardly coincidentally, allied with Israel.

Admitted to by the Americans themselves:

October 30th, 2019, 2:27 pm


Ghufran said:

Wars by proxy is what many super powers are doing today because they are cheaper and do not inflame public opinion. Americans did not turn against the Iraq war until they started feeling the human and monetary cost of that war. Expect more of that in the future. Abandoning old fashioned wars does not mean stopping special operations and so called surgical strikes. Armies get rusty if they do not practice and there no better place to practice than the Middle East. The defense establishments in western countries and most developed countries need an enemy and if they can not find one they will create one !!

November 2nd, 2019, 9:11 pm


Walt Jeffers said:

I saw Mr. Landis on PBS last night, 12/24. I fully expected the predictable as clockwork,”we must destroy Assad, he is dictator, etc.” and what I saw was nuanced opposing view from Mr.Landis. I was astounded since the mainstream media has been almost uniform in their position against Assad. PBS, NPR and the major networks are identical.

Thank you sir for your breath of fresh air.

December 25th, 2019, 9:11 am


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